As we lurch into the slow-motion hysteria of the summer election season, movies aren't serving up the pure escapist crack we depend on them for. Instead, almost every movie stars a tormented Gen-X or Baby Boomer white guy, who's trying to atone for using his power to make the world a worse place. Welcome to the summer of guilt.
Past year's big summer movies usually starred Luke Skywalker archetypes, straight out of Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey." The young hero discovers that he (or occasionally she) has a super-heroic destiny and amazing powers. And over the course of figuring out how to wield those powers and fulfill that destiny, the young hero has to confront some father figure (like daddy Anakin) who has crapped all over his world. Part of the hero's task is to redeem the fallen father figure. "Daddy, you bastard — it's all good," that sort of thing.
In the first two Spider-Man movies, Peter Parker has some guilt of his own, over his uncle's death, but the major destructive force is a mentor gone bad: Norman Osborn or Otto Octavius. In the first Transformers, Shia LaBoeuf is almost comically innocent, and his major human antagonist is Jon Turturro, a wacky authority figure who keeps throwing his weight around and making an already delicate cars-turned-giant-robots situation worse. You rarely see the guy who personally shoulders more than his fair share of the weight of history as a summer movie's hero... until this summer, when he's starring in every movie.
The first big summer movie of the season, Iron Man, set the tone with its story of a rich white dickhead who discovers his weapons have fallen into the hands of an evil strongman in Afghanistan, and are being used to oppress the locals. I've already written about the brave choice director Jon Favreau made to graft Tony Stark's weapons-maker guilt into Iron Man's origin. (In the comics, Tony doesn't feel bad about creating super-weapons until years later.) Tony Stark's wounded heart becomes a giant metaphor for the the mistakes America has made in arming the wrong people in various third-world hotspots.
Downey Jr. is cocky enough to distract from the fact that he keeps obsessing about "the people I put in harm's way." The "cut scenes" in the Sega video game are a million times more histrionic and may show the Tony angst that got left out of the movie's final cut. Downey Jr. voices lines like, "Countless lives! Ruined by my inventions! I have to destroy them!" (And yet Tony fails to get rid of his dreadful inventions, since the first few minutes of July's Incredible Hulk show crates of Stark Industries weapons being hauled around.)
Marvel's other big summer movie, The Incredible Hulk, is an even more explicit take on the Oppenheimer-esque "I created a monster" angst. Unlike Iron Man, the Hulk has no origin without the guilty white guy — the heart of the Hulk's story is that reckless scientist Bruce Banner unleashed terrible forces through his experiments. (In the comics, the guilt aspect is even stronger: Banner is testing a new super-weapon called the Gamma Bomb when he creates the Hulk. In the movie, by contrast, Banner is just experimenting with "the body's ability to heal itself.") But in any case, the Hulk still represents our collective angst at the destructive power we've created, and his early rampage kills a couple of scientists and puts Banner's girlfriend Betty in a coma. Pretty much every version of the movie's trailer until now features star Edward Norton agonizing that the military wants to use the Hulk as a weapon.
Like Stark's weapons, the Hulk's rage is always in danger of falling into the wrong hands — and is intrinsically destructive and awful, even in the right hands. The other thing Downey Jr. and Norton have in common: a kind of entitled petulance directed at all the people around them who want to misuse their terrible discoveries, even as they beat themselves up for having created them in the first place.
But what about the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight? Surely that's a clear-cut case of a good guy facing off against a monster, in the shape of Heath Ledger's Joker? Sure. Except that the movie is going to pick up on a strand from the comics, and make it explicit that Batman actually created the Joker. Partly it's just the fact that Batman put on a Die Fledermaus costume and started staging a massive crime opera — so he's created the need for a sociopathic Pagliacci to complete the scene. But also, Batman has done too good a job of driving the regular, non-costumed crimelords out of business. The movie's first big trailer starts with Ledger himself telling Batman, "You've changed things forever. There's no going back." Bruce has left a vacuum that can only be filled by an opponent as (sorry) batshit as he is. Here's what Alfred, his trusty butler tells Bruce:
You crossed the line first, sir. You hammered them. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn't fully understand. Some men aren't looking for anything logical. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.
The trailers are full of angsty scenes of Bruce staring at his hands, or his helmet cradled in his lap, with a "what have I done?" look on his face.
The other big superhero movie of the summer is Hancock, starring Will Smith, and at first glance it appears to be perfect counter-programming. The movie's whole point is that Hancock, the drunken negligent superhero, doesn't give a fuck, right? That's his whole thing, leaving a trail of destruction and tearing shit up with his teflon semen, and not caring what anybody thinks. Except that, the more footage from Hancock I see, the more it looks like another white liberal fantasy.
Jason Bateman plays a public relations exec who decides to take Hancock under his wing and rehabilitate his tarnished image, as a pet project after Hancock saves his life. Yes, it's a movie about a white guy who rehabilitates an unruly black guy. Bateman tells Smith: "You have a calling. You're a hero, Hancock. You're gonna be miserable the rest of your life until you accept that." The movie's trailer makes much of the scene where Hancock stands up at a podium, looking suitably crestfallen, and says: "You deserve better from me. I will be better." Bateman's plan to rehabilitate Hancock involves having him go to jail, and giving him a spiffy new outfit. (Which is pretty spiffy, I'll admit.)
There is some genuine counter-programming coming from smaller action movies this summer: Wanted seems to be delivering the unapologetic young-guy-gets-power-aw-yeah storyline, complete with the older mentor (Morgan Freeman playing his umpteenth magical helper guy) and the requisite murky dead father. Death Race has the standard hardass who was accused of a crime he didn't commit, forced to take part in a brutal prison race. Brendan Fraser is doing his usual goggle-eyed naif in danger routine in a new Mummy movie, plus Journey To The Center Of The Earth 3-D.
Meanwhile, television is serving up a full load of guilt-ridden white guys. The Lost fourth season finale took us full circle to the end of the end of the third season finale — with Jack, bearded and drugged out of his mind. Jack blames himself for getting most of the survivors of the island plane crash killed, but also for being so determined to leave the island. He keeps repeating that he's made a terrible mistake and "We have to go back!" And cult favorite Battlestar Galactica is chock full of white guys who have made awful mistakes, from Saul "wife-killer" Tigh to Lee Adama, who keeps making a variation of his "We're a gang, doing terrible things to survive" speech. BSG has asked, over and over again, how the last tatters of a civilization can survive after a holocaust. And the answer, finally, seems to be: by handing out a lot of blanket pardons for war crimes, errors of judgment and atrocities.
So what does it mean for our politics that our pre-election summer entertainment is full of hand-wringing white guys? Given that every semi-realistic movie about the Iraq War has flopped (like Valley of Elah or Stop Loss), maybe we can only deal with such a collossal historical mistake through the lens of fantasy. Or maybe this is Hollywood's way of trying to purge the guilt of global climate change and the global economy's corrosive effect on vulnerable people around the world. More concretely, maybe a diet of flawed-white-guy movies is what just what Americans need to convince them to give a flawed African American guy a chance for a change. Or maybe expiating our white guilt over the summer will make whites feel better about ourselves, just in time to elect McCain.
Either way, by next summer Americans will be pretty sick of the white guy confronting the error of his ways. And luckily, the 2009 summer movie season is looking guilt-free for now. Star Trek, Transformers 2, Wolverine and the A-Team all seem, at first blush, to have more traditional cocky and/or wrongfully accused heroes.