“I’m an apex predator.”
This is the chilling reality rarely explored in the superhero genre: if you have superpowers, you’re top of the food chain. Even Batman’s more sombre, existential antics are normally overshadowed by the camp nature of the material. Sure, superhero films are supposed to be lighter affairs, but where is the harm in dreaming a little darker once in a while? Testifying to that old mantra that bad guys get to have the most fun, it’s more often our heroes’ villains that are given space to explore the tricky temptations of power while the good guys spend their time harping on about responsibility and whatnot. Chronicle‘s simple conceit asks its viewer to imagine how such powers might actually shape an individual; and Andrew (Dane DeHaan)’s tragedy is compellingly believable as he journeys towards the (sorry) dark side.
Chronicle not only inverted the genre, it proved that there was potential in smaller, original superhero stories. It would take no less than a madman to describe the post-Spider-Man explosion of cinematic superheroes as anything less than a phenomenon. In fact, so great is their impact upon current film audiences that a film with an impossibly ludicrous plot surrounding an ex-con with the ability to shrink himself to the size of an ant is fast approaching $250million at the box office after less than two weeks. While naysayers continue to stand by with their smug grimaces and “told-you-sos” locked and loaded in anticipation of a stumble, Ant-Man, like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, has proved once again that no source material is too risky for the studio; and as more famous heroes such as the Avengers continue to bust box-office blocks, Marvel has simultaneously found lucrative potential in their (ahem) smaller superhero cousins. While Chronicle did not approach Marvel levels of success it still returned an impressive $126million on a $12million budget.
It should be said that for all their supposed risk-taking, neither Ant-Man nor Guardians is truly subversive; both are subject to the same seemingly unimpeachable Marvel formula, and owe much in terms of marketing to the parent franchise that bolsters them. That is not to say that the genre fails to understand satire and it is not without some more subversive offerings; they just tend to come from smaller, more modest places. Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, James Gunn’s Super, and Josh Trank’s Chronicle form a kind of trilogy of gritty, reflective superhero films that know the line between intelligently turning a lens on a genre and just being a little meta. They are quite separate beasts from the larger studio superhero films that surround them.
While neither wholly original nor entirely plausible – some shots do defy the film’s handheld aesthetic – Josh Trank’s 2012 indie hit Chronicle was, like Kick-Ass and Super in 2010, a shot of adrenaline in the arm for superhero films, illustrating what the genre is capable of accomplishing with a small budget while proving that character is often worth ten times the investment of effects. Chronicle succeeds in putting right one of the biggest issues with superheroes: the fact that, cool as they are, they are never particularly relatable. They are, in fact, often nothing more than pure ideology; pale reflections of social, cultural, and political tensions that surround their creation. Trank’s film asks the pertinent question: spandex aside, what would a teenager actually do if they were suddenly endowed with superpowers?
As we find out, the answer to that question is not particularly pleasant. It is refreshing that Chronicle is not so much about a hero’s rise, but a villain’s fall; or, rather, the circumstances that might shape villainy. Trank’s film constructs a more believable and engrossing journey from troubled child to murderous villain in 90 minutes than George Lucas managed across an entire trilogy of Star Wars prequels. In a miraculous breakout performance, Dane DeHaan stars as Andrew, a troubled teen who misuses his newly acquired powers to fight his demons, most demonstrably an abusive father and various manifestations of social anxiety.
After Andrew uses his powers to boost his popularity at the school talent show, Matt tells him: “[this is] the beginning of your downfall. This is hubris.” The tragedy commences in Andrew’s inability to see just how accurate Matt’s prediction will prove to be. In 1986 Alan Moore proved with Watchmen that the people beneath the masks are at least as important as the masks themselves. So it proves with Andrew. The most tragic element of his inevitable self-destruction is the fact that he is not innately evil; his fate is the product of an unquenchable rage and a power beyond his control. While the other characters are not nearly as fleshed out, this is ultimately Andrew’s (and, by virtue, DeHaan’s) show. His father’s abuse looms over the film with deadly portent, and when it fulfils its fate as the catalyst in Andrew’s unravelling, the audience has no choice but to pity him and his debilitating rage. While the effects are not perfect, the final battle in the streets and skies of downtown Seattle is fine evidence for what might be done with budget effects.
Interestingly, besides Trank and his upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, Matthew Vaughn and James Gunn have both stepped up to the big league from their more modest superhero origins, with Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class and Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy proving to be critical and commercial successes. If Trank manages to inject his forthcoming superhero reboot with the wit and strong sense of character that Chronicle displays, it is sure to follow in the footsteps of those films, and will mark another Hollywood triumph for an indie director. In the meantime, revisit Chronicle for a refreshing take on a now very familiar genre.