I’ve just returned from watching the new film Chronicle, a superhero found footage movie from director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis. Despite my dislike of the majority of the found footage movies that I’ve seen (the Paranormal Activity films are particularly annoying to me), Chronicle turned out to be a solid entry into the superhero genre. It’s clear that Landis knows his stuff when it comes to superheroes (here’s him discussing the Death of Superman, a character that he claims everyone is bored with by now) and has chosen to tell a story about the consequences of such powers falling into the wrong hands – namely immature high school kids. Near the end however, the story takes a bit of a turn and becomes, from my perspective, the Superman reboot movie that we’ve been hoping for.
(Spoilers for Chronicle below.)
In the film, three high school guys discover a hole in the ground outside of a rave and follow it down to what seems to be a crashed alien artifact or life-form. Upon making contact with the object, violent distortions begin to occur in the film and the three kids start bleeding from the nose. It’s after this point that they realize that whatever was down there granted them powers of telekinesis, which they then learn how to adapt into flight, invulnerability and other typical superhero abilities. At first the abilities are used for pranks or as entertainment, and eventually as magic tricks for the school talent show to gain popularity among their class mates. It’s never mentioned that they should use their powers to become superheroes (or super-villains). In fact, the topic is nearly brought up at one point in the film and is almost immediately dismissed. However, this fate awaits them whether they know it or not.
The movie’s protagonist, Andrew, receives the powers at a time in his life when he is a complete outcast. He’s bullied at school, abused by an alcoholic father and called creepy by girls. He buys a video camera in order to document his life and put up a kind of barrier between himself and the people around him, to reduce them to being subjects in his videos rather than people who can hurt him emotionally. When Andrew and his cousin Matthew gain their powers along with the more popular and outgoing Steve, the three begin to bond over their gifts and it seems that Andrew will finally have people to relate to. Of course, this doesn’t last very long, and the pressure of his life coupled with his godlike abilities push him to a state of, well, super-villainy.
An all out battle between Matt and Andrew erupts in the third act with lots of great, realistic shots of midair punching, body slamming, and smashing holes in the Seattle skyline. It’s clear that Matt, who to my mind bears a slight resemblance to current Superman, Henry Cavill, doesn’t want to harm his cousin even though Andrew has declared himself humanity’s “apex predator” and shows no signs of returning to sanity. In the end, Matt makes the decision to kill Andrew in order to save the innocent people of the city before flying off into the night. In the final scene, we see that Matt has arrived with the camera in Tibet, a place Andrew wanted to visit earlier in the movie to find peace, and wishes his cousin a final farewell before leaving to investigate the origins of the alien vessel that changed their lives.
The reason I decided to see this movie in spite of my initial reservations toward this style of film-making was because the hosts of the slashfilmcast, a movie podcast that almost always matches my own opinions on films, said that Chronicle was the most faithful adaptation of the manga Akira that we’ve ever seen. While this is a perfectly valid point, particularly toward the end when Andrew escapes from a hospital and it’s clear that Landis is drawing parallels between his villain and Akira’s Tetsuo, I couldn’t help but see the next Superman film.
In the upcoming Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder has said that he considers his treatment of Superman to be one of the more grounded projects he’s worked on, almost more akin to a documentary than the live-action video game-style he is known for from previous projects. Since we haven’t seen any footage yet from the film, it isn’t known how far in this direction he has really gone, but one would imagine that a documentary-style take on the last son of Krypton couldn’t be too far off from the home video-style super battles found in Chronicle.
Snyder’s Man of Steel will also be the second Superman film to feature Zod as the main antagonist. Despite the character having an outrageous number of incarnations within the last decade or so, it can be assumed that Snyder’s Zod won’t be far from the main concept of the character being a renegade authority figure from Krypton who finds his way to Earth and uses his new found superpowers to exact is revenge on the House of El and enslave the planet. I’ve personally never been too excited about this character, finding a bad version of Superman to be a bit beneath what I’d like to see the Man of Steel tackle on the big screen (unless maybe we’re talking about that charismatic Frankenstein’s monster, Bizarro). I do, however, think that the relationship between Matt and Andrew in Chronicle provide a new angle on the Zod and Superman rivalry.
While the end of Chronicle did make use of the (arguably overused) superhero movie trope of pitting the good guy against his evil equivalent, the film turned it on its head by adding the new dimension of the two characters being relatives as well as best friends who used their new powers to become closer to each other. It’s clear that the good guy doesn’t want to hurt the bad guy, and even after he takes Andrew down he proclaims his love for him and honors him by bringing his camera to Tibet. In the end, it wasn’t about good guy versus bad guy, it was about friend versus friend, which makes it even more powerful. If we could see a movie where Kal-El and Zod develop their powers together and begin a friendship as a result, only to have that friendship disintegrate by Zod’s flaws getting the better of him, I would be more excited for another Superman and Zod story.
The final parallel I see is that at the end of the film, Matt ventures off into the world to find answers about the alien artifact. This is very similar to what I understand Man of Steel to be about. In Chronicle, Matt is left as the sole inheritor of these amazing powers, and is leaving for his hero’s journey, which you’d expect will result in a transformation from hero to superhero. You’re almost expecting a Chronicle 2 in which Matt returns with a cape and an S on his chest (although that would defeat the purpose of the film entirely, which is to tell a superhero story without all that stuff, but still). If this is the point in Clark Kent’s life at which Warner’ Bros. wants to kick off it’s new series of Superman films, it’s hard to imagine it done better than the way it is executed in this movie.
While I know Chronicle might not be meant to be taken this seriously as a comic book film, I still couldn’t help but see certain parallels to the cape and cowl realm. For lifelong comic fans like me, Chronicle serves as a way of telling these stories without the 1930s trappings that have grown up around the superhero archetypes. It frees those themes from the circus strongman aesthetic and propels the elements of superhero fiction that work into a new era of superhero film, leaving behind the elements that are often unintentionally silly when translated into cinema. One would have to wonder now how the next Superman movie, or how any future superhero movie, will hold up as a result.