As 2016 begins, there appears to be a shift afoot when it comes to how heroes are
portrayed in movies.
The 21st century might have initially put our fates into the
hands of the youthfully innocent trinity of Frodo, Harry Potter and
Spider-Man. But that was before
the events of 9/11 and their aftermath muddied the waters when it came to
distinguishing right from wrong, causing anti-heroes to rise in popularity. No
one epitomized this bad-boy appeal more than Johnny Depp’s scalawag seafarer
Capt. Jack Sparrow of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Comic-book
crusaders also entered the moral gray zone with the appearance of Christian
Bale’s conflicted Batman and Robert Downey Jr.’s waggish Iron Man.
It was hardly a coincidence that the dark-souled “No Country
for Old Men” and Javier Bardem’s coin-tossing mad killer Anton Chigurh ruled
the 2007 Oscars along with Daniel Day-Lewis’ ruthless oilman Daniel Plainview
in “There Will Be Blood” and Tilda
Swinton’s underhanded corporate lawyer Karen Crowder in “Michael Clayton.” Hollywood went overboard for the
But there’s been a change of late when it comes to our
rooting interests. Consider “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Who is in the Dark Side’s corner?
The petulant and patricidal Darth
Vader wannabe Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, a dour drag with an adolescent
penchant for property-destroying tantrums. Meanwhile, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the
first real female action hero in the decades-old intergalactic saga, is
refreshingly charismatic, scrappy and intuitive while proving to be a natural
at handling a lightsaber. If the Force held a prom, she would be a shoo-in for
Then there is “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The baddies definitely
take a backseat to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and Tom Hardy’s Max as the pair
uneasily become not foes but allies, both seeking redemption for their past
mistakes while leading a vehicular uprising. “The Martian,” meanwhile, is populated with nothing but
heroes who rely on their brains instead of brawn. But they also think with
their heart as they risk all to save one of their own, Matt Damon’s stranded
botanist Mark Watney, whose never-say-die mindset, immense fortitude and
ingenious survival skills would do any science geek proud.
And take Disney’s highly successful live-action revival of
“Cinderella,” starring Lily James. Instead of being an embittered rebel who acts
out at those who have wronged her, the put-upon orphan holds fast to her late
mother’s credo: “Have courage and be kind.” This belle of the ball’s superpower
lies in her ability to express empathy, understanding and caring for others,
including Cate Blanchett’s horrid stepmother.
It isn’t just fairy tales that are eschewing the need for
edginess and attitude, however. Look at “Brooklyn,” in which Saoirse Ronan’s smart, good-natured and all-around swell Irish shop girl, Eilis, wins over the New York borough in much the
same the way that TV’s spunky sweetheart Mary Tyler Moore once turned the world
on with a smile.
And compare and contrast David O. Russell’s giddily vicious
con vs. con games in “American Hustle” with his current uplifting tale of a
home-shopping savant housewife made good in “Joy.” And if “The Wolf of Wall
Street” was a party-hearty ode to excess in the form of sex, booze and drugs
bankrolled by ill-gotten gains, the similar “The Big Short” instead celebrates
those financial wizards who had the smarts to cash in on the investment sins of
others as a housing-market collapse loomed, even as they express remorse in
benefitting from a situation that brought misery to many.
Not that vestiges of anti-heroism don’t continue to thrive
on the big screen as well. Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to go against the
warmth-is-the-new-cool grain with the cacophonous carnage of “The Hateful
Eight.” But he is one filmmaker
who can afford to ignore the prevailing cinematic wind by preaching to a
sizable built-in choir of worshipers who revel in his indulgent bloodletting
and F- and N-word spewing.
There is no better test to see whether audiences are still
invested in anti-heroism than the latest round of upcoming superhero
adventures. Arriving Aug. 5 is
“Suicide Squad,” about a creepy gang of twisted supervillains from the D.C.
Comics universe including Jared Leto’s Joker, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and
Will Smith’s Deadshot. Marvel is offering up its own anti-hero in the form of
“Deadpool,” starring Ryan Reynolds as an unhinged disfigured mercenary in
pursuit of vengeance (Feb. 12).
But if any comic-book titan can be counted on to cut through
the negativity, it’s Marvel’s most idealistic and gung-ho fighter in “Captain
America: Civil War” (May 6) with Chris Evans reprising the role in his third outing as the World War II soldier
reborn in a modern-day era. This time, he finds himself butting heads with the
least upbeat Avenger, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, as the group splits into
Meanwhile, it’s hard to tell whether “Batman v. Superman:
Dawn of Justice” (March 25) will
tilt towards the Dark Knight’s vigilante style of justice (as personified by
Ben Affleck) or the Man of Steel’s more Boy Scout-like approach to keeping humanity safe (with Henry Cavill once more donning the red
cape). One can only hope that these comic-book superstars at least become the
best of frenemies by movie’s end.
But judging from many of the releases that have staked a claim
on the 2016 calendar, the trend towards positivity looks as if it might
continue for a while. Here are 16
titles with heroic characters that promise a more uplifting outlook.
Family friendly do-gooders
“The Jungle Book” (April 15): Disney’s live-action and CGI version of Rudyard Kipling’s
fantasy adventure, directed by Jon Favreau, follows brave man-cub Mowgli, who was
raised by wolves, as he goes on an eventful journey alongside his animal pals, wise
panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and bouncy bear Baloo (Bill Murray). Warner Bros.’s live-action and motion-capture “Jungle Book:
Origins,” directed by and starring Andy Serkis, will open in fall 2017.
“Zootopia” (March 4): How cute is it that Ginnifer Goodwin speaks for Officer
Judy Hopps, a rabbit cop that has been described as a cross between Pollyanna
and Furiosa as she patrols the titular mammal-inhabited metropolis? In this
animated Disney action comedy, she must convince a scheming con-artist fox (Jason
Bateman) to cooperate with her in order to locate a missing otter. Think “48
Hrs.” but with more fur.
“Finding Dory” (June 17): Let’s see if one of the most lovably cheery animated
sidekicks ever, Ellen DeGeneres’s forgetful regal tang from 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” sinks or swims as the
top fish in a Pixar tale as she searches for her own loved ones.
“The BFG” (July 1): Author Roald Dahl’s big friendly giant
(voiced by Mark Rylance, of “Bridge of Spies”), who helps a young girl ward off
behemoths of the not-so-friendly variety, has the potential to be the new “E.T.
the Extra-Terrestrial,” what with that 1982 film’s director (Steven Spielberg)
and screenwriter (the late Melissa Mathison) as the talent behind of this
23): A Polynesian teen girl (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of a chief who
comes from a long line of navigators, sets sail to an island to find her family
while assisted by demi-god Maui
(Dwayne Johnson). What’s not to
like about a Disney animated
musical with apparent
echoes of “Whale Rider” and “Lilo & Stitch.”
“The Finest Hours” (Jan. 29): The true story of how most of the crew members of two World
War II-era tanker ships that sank during a 1952 storm in the waters off of
Massachusetts were valiantly rescued by the Coast Guard. With Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Eric
“Race” (Feb. 19): The first of several expected projects centered on the athletic feats of Jesse Owens recounts how the African-American track-and-field
star overcame hurdles to win a record-breaking four gold medals at
the 1936 Berlin Olympics during the rise of the Third Reich. With Stephan James
as Owens, Jason Sudeikis and Jeremy Irons.
“Eddie the Eagle” (Feb. 26): Meet the Jamaican bobsled
team of the slopes. Learn how the first British ski jumper to compete in the
Olympics became a beloved underdog during the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta.
With Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken and Taron Egerton as Eddie Edwards.
“Sully” (Sept. 9): The sizable target audience for director Clint Eastwood’s “American
Sniper” will likely also embrace his biopic about a less controversial hero,
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. The humble pilot defined grace under pressure
when he safely landed a troubled US Airways aircraft on the Hudson River in
2009 after both engines failed. Pulling off this re-enactment of the “Miracle
on the Hudson” is Captain Phillips himself, Tom Hanks. You can feel the tears
welling even now.
“The Founder” (Nov. 25): What better holiday season gift
could there be than Michael Keaton as Ray Croc, the foresighted
entrepreneur who, in the 1950s,
convinced the McDonald brothers (Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch) to turn their Southern California
hamburger joint into a nationwide fast-food dynasty. The man who would forever
change America’s eating habits when he bought the company in 1961 was known for
his aggressive business practices and intense quality control. The script by
Robert Siegel (“The Wrestler”) has been compared to “The Social Network,” a not
particularly flattering portrait of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. But
director John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Blind Side”) has shown a
knack for bringing out the best in even the pushiest of personality types.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (Feb. 5): This adaptation of the popular mashup novel that pits author Jane Austen’s
characters against flesh-eating fiends re-imagines independent-minded Elizabeth Bennet (“Cinderella” star Lily James) as an early 19th-century ninja who deals with matters of the
heart while battling an undead
invasion spreading across the English countryside.
“Independence Day: Resurgence” (June 24): The aliens whose butts got thoroughly
kicked 20 years ago in one of Hollywood’s most flag-waving sci-fi blockbusters
are back and need to be taught a lesson again. Blowing up buildings of national
importance isn’t what it used to be, but we will see if returning stars Bill
Pullman and Jeff Goldblum can re-generate the rah-rah spirit with input from
Liam Neeson, the current elder statesman of high-impact action, along for the
“The Brothers Grimsby” (March 11): In this spy spoof, a British black-ops
assassin (Mark Strong) joins forces with his gleefully idiotic
football-hooligan brother (Sacha
Baron Cohen) after they are forced
to go on the run. What could be
more touching than reunited siblings fighting bad guys with a dash of silly
(and oh-so-naughty) shenanigans?
“Ghostbusters” (July 15): The original lads step back (save
for cameos) and let the ladies (a
fab foursome consisting of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and “Saturday Night
Live” regulars Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones) get slimed by evil spirits this
time. Director Paul Feig (“Spy,” “Bridemaids”) definitely knows his female
funny business. Exhibit A: Hiring
the bro equivalent of a bombshell, Chris Hemsworth, as the paranormal
extermination crew’s receptionist. Here’s hoping the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man has undergone a sex change,
“Ben-Hur” (Aug. 12): Yes, faith-based films are the rage
now and there are several coming out in 2016, including Renee Zellweger’s “Same
Kind of Different as Me” (April 29). But none attempt as ambitious a feat as remaking the 1959
best-picture Oscar winner starring Charlton Heston as a Jewish prince who is
forced to become a Roman slave. Leave it to Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who executive- produced the 2013
miniseries “The Bible,” to attempt this daunting redo. Jack Huston (“Boardwalk
Empire”) takes over the chariot reins while Morgan Freeman is his trainer for
the big race and Rodrigo Santoro makes an appearance as Jesus.
“The Magnificent Seven” (Sept. 23): The classic 1960
Western, based on Akira
Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese
masterpiece “Seven Samurai,” should be classified as untouchable at this point.
But there is much to be excited about in this remake, which centers on a gang of
gunslingers who are hired to protect a town from a devious gold-mining baron.
Such as the fact Denzel Washington has the Yul Brynner role of Chris, who is in
charge of recruiting the sharpshooters. And that this is the first time that
director Antoine Fuqua, Ethan Hawke and Washington have reunited since 2001’s
“Training Day.” Add a solid cast that also includes Chris Pratt, Vincent
D’Ornofrio and Peter Saarsgard as the villain and a score written by the great
James Horner before his death in June, and it sounds like a new classic in the