When Villains Are More Interesting Than Heroes

I finally saw the movie Chronicle. Although it wasn't perfect, it was still very entertaining. It is another found-footage film, and although it would have probably worked fine (maybe even better) without the gimmick, it managed to use multiple point-of-view cameras to good effect. The story itself was an interesting cinematic take on the superhero genre, more due to the characterization of the villain than any of the "been-there-done-that" plot points.

The villain in this case is actually a troubled teen, Andrew Detmer, with a family life in crisis and bullying at school. Watching his trials and tribulations through the camera lens, sympathy builds as he gets drunk on his new found power and then continues to spiral out of control. Played by Dane DeHaan (who reminds me a lot of a young Leonardo DiCaprio), Andrew's character arc is compelling and heartbreaking. 

Any of the plotholes (and there are a few), can be overlooked or explained away with some forced logic. Why go explore a mysterious hole in the ground in the middle of the night? Because it's there and the guys doing the exploring are heavily intoxicated. As the teens experiment with their telekinetic powers by doing pranks and testing the limits of what they can now do, why not use their magical minds to pull a car out of the water when Andrew forces it off the road? That's a little tougher to explain (although I guess it could be argued that they still weren't strong enough to pull off such a feat), but the scene was so well done and full of dramatic tension, I could forgive the writers for sloppy storytelling.

The other two guys who obtain incredible powers after discovering a mysterious object beneath the earth, popular Steve Montgomery (played very nicely by Michael B. Jordan) who wants to become a politician someday, and Andrew's cousin Matt Garretty (played by Alex Russell), are not nearly as interesting as the disturbed Andrew.

It is often the case that the bad guy is often much more interesting to follow than the do-gooder. Examples abound, from Lucifer in John Milton's Paradise Lost to the Joker in both Tim Burton's Batman and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. When done well, audiences can better relate to the imperfections of the antagonist. It becomes tougher to flesh out a believable hero who avoids temptation, overcomes all the odds in noble fashion, selflessly fights for truth and justice, doing everything that we all wish we ourselves could and should do. The result is often a bland, two-dimensional, unrealistic hero versus a complex, motivated counterpart, whose actions might be despicable, but nevertheless understandable and much more emotionally charged -- the kind of stuff that's fascinating to watch.

Both Steve and Matt have their own great moments, but it is Andrew's story from beginning to tragic end. Steve has a lot of enjoyable moments, but Matt is the one who becomes the film's ultimate main hero.  He too has a strong path of growth as we see him forced to step out of his cool-guy persona and make a commitment with his love interest, video blogger Casey Letter, played wonderfully by Ashley Hinshaw. He then is driven by guilt and necessity to reach out even more and try to save Andrew, even if by that time it's too late.

The final climactic sequence is extremely well-done, and makes me wonder what the big fight in Superman II might have been like if it had been made today. (Maybe we'll find out in Man of Steel.) The epilogue hints at a sequel in which we might learn from where exactly the source of their powers came, drawing attention to the unanswered question of Chronicle that the writers didn't care to touch upon in this first film, instead focusing all their efforts on some splashy superpowered special effects and some nicely developed character moments -- even if the bulk of those moments were spent on the tragic Andrew.


Claire said…
It's true, isn't it? Both Lex Luthers (Hackman and Spacey - Hackman, of course, is the gold standard. his delivery is perfect) are so much more interesting. Brings me back to my man Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber...big sigh...Thanks, Nick!