Monday, March 30, 2015

On 'superhero' movies

I watched "Big Hero 6" (finally) last night.

(Fake geek girl disclaimer yet again: Yes, I know it's loosely based on a comic series, I have never read the comic series, so my impressions are 100% based on the movie).

I will slightly elide spoilers (not giving any names) but I'll have to mention a few plot points here, so be forewarned.

First of all, about these types of movies in general (seeing as the last movie-on-dvd I watched was Guardians of the Galaxy): I think these types of superhero movies are popular and sort of form a modern, non-religious mythology* for us because so many of our lives are, well, kind of boring.

(*Unlike ancient Greece and Rome, where, at least for some, the mythology was their religion)

I suspect many people have a desire to do something Big and Good and Meaningful with their lives. I know a lot of my frustration and sadness comes from the fact that while I chose a career that, in part, allows me in some way to "help people," I kind of have to take it on faith that I'm having some kind of a positive impact because I so rarely SEE the impact I have. So instead, I wind up mired in things like a big stinky ball of self-doubt over the fact that nearly 20% of the students in one class plagiarized their papers, or that the major feed back I hear in a given week is:

"Your exams are TOO HARD."
"Do you have our assignments graded yet?"
"I'm going to have to miss lab, can I have a make-up?"

And oh, how I long for some tangible sense that my life is having a good influence somewhere. (And yes, arguably, handing someone back a paper with a zero and a "this is how you plagiarized and please don't do it next time" might have a good influence on someone, but it still doesn't FEEL like I've done anything all that useful).

And I think that's why I like movies like Big Hero 6. Or Guardians of the Galaxy. Or even, in its own way, Finding Nemo - the other sea creatures (well, some of them) help Marlin to find his son.

And I'm sure I'm not alone in looking at my life some times and feeling that it's all so utterly insignificant and that I wish I could DO something that MATTERED.

And on to Some Random Thoughts:

One of the main premises of this movie is that "the desire for revenge can turn you into a monster." The person who turns out to be the big baddie is driven by a desire for revenge against another character, a character he believes took something from him. As a result of the chain of actions that allowed this individual to try to extract his revenge, Hiro (the central character) winds up losing someone very important to him.

And when Hiro figures out who the big baddie is, and what happened - well, he's enraged. And he wants to crush that baddie, wants him DESTROYED. And at that point, Hiro is working with Baymax, a "health robot" - a funny, squishy character who talks in a calming voice.

An aside: Baymax is funny in part because, being a robot, he is very literal-minded. I tend to like literal-minded characters and find them amusing (despite the fact that my misunderstandings of people often come because I tend to be rather literal-minded about things). He's designed to be "comforting," so he has an inflatable skin (he looks kind of like the Michelin Man or a giant marshmallow) and he speaks in a very mild and calm voice (And props to his voice actor - giving a robot such a personality is a tough task).

Anyway, at this point in the story, Baymax has "learned" (by downloading) how to deal with emotional/psychological pain in humans as well as with physical pain, and as Hiro is ranting about the baddie, Baymax says: "Will terminating [big baddie] improve your emotional state?"

Well, when you put it like THAT, Baymax....

I admit, sitting alone in my living room, I remarked, "Wow. That's HEAVY" when Baymax said that. And the line struck me. Because, you know? That's often what we humans think. Oh, maybe not "terminating" - no normal person would want to kill someone who wronged them, at least not the sort of wrongs that happen in the average boring life of the average boring person like me. But how many times, how many, has someone upstaged us or insulted us or dominated a situation where we were supposed to be the "star" or hurt us in some way, and we wanted them to SUFFER.

And how many times have I thought, "Man, I wish karma was a thing" (never mind that how most Westerners view karma like the gag from King of the Hill: "Where I come from we got this thing called karma. You do something bad, it come back and bite you in the ***!" rather than the actual "cycle-of-lives" thing that is the Buddhist/Hindu belief)

But the long run, wishing ill on your enemies (or those you perceive as such) never really accomplishes much. Oh, if someone's stalking you or threatening you, having them locked up for your own protection is a good thing. Or if a person actually commits a crime, there is a consequence to be paid for that. But that's different from revenge. (A saying, attributed to Confucius or Buddha, depending: "Holding a grudge is like holding a hot coal and waiting for the chance to throw it at your enemy")

And of course, Baymax follows up with "Is this what [beloved dead character] would have wanted?" Okay, Baymax, I got it the first time.

So that's probably the central theme, or what I see as the central theme: desire for revenge can cloud your judgment and make you function less well.

There's also the concept of the "team." (I wonder, has our culture changed to the point where "solo" superheroes like Superman or even Batman are "less possible" in our imagination than they were back in the 30s when they were invented? Well, I guess Spiderman came out of the 60s, so maybe not....)

Anyway, the team - a diverse (in more ways than one) group of engineers. And yet, all has their sort of stereotypical personality trait:

Wasabi: the meticulous rule-follower (I liked Wasabi; of the team he and Honey Lemon are my favorites)
Go-Go: the tomboy tough girl. (Go-Go doesn't have a lot of dialog)
Honey Lemon: the sweet, "feminine" girl. (I liked her, despite her character design being impossibly tall and thin, especially for someone who is going to be a superhero later on - superhero women need a few muscles)
Fred: the comic relief. Or, perhaps, if you're talking about a young adult audience: the "stoner" character. (Not that that's ever implied in the movie, but it's also possible to extrapolate a bit. He's a little like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo)

And Hiro, who is "the smart one and the leader" and who is also younger than the other four. (all of the four team members are college students, and therefore probably in their early 20s; Hiro is 14.)

(Perhaps my two favorite characters reflect my personality a bit. I liked Wasabi because even when they were being chased by the big baddie he still insisted on things like following the rules of the road. And I liked Honey Lemon because, well, I wish I could be more openly affectionate with the people I care about, and I'm also the one who tends to try to drop an encouraging word here and there. Though she also had that slightly crazy side, her fascination with chemical reactions and using chemistry to break stuff...and I liked that too).

Also, this is a "diverse" team in interests:

Wasabi does plasma lasers
Go-Go is into anything that makes stuff faster; at the beginning we see her experimenting with something like mag-lev for bike wheels
Honey Lemon is a chemical engineer. (heh, she almost says "Better living through chemistry" at one point)
Fred is....well, Fred's not an engineer, he's a science enthusiast who works as the school's mascot. But it's cool, it turns out he's taken care of, living-wise.

There's also the issue of ethnicity: Wasabi is African-American. (His nickname comes from the fact that he dropped wasabi on his shirt ONCE (as he points out). Go-Go is Asian - it's never mentioned in the movie but I guess she's supposed to be Korean. Honey Lemon is described as Hispanic, though again that's not really mentioned in the movie. Fred's Caucasian. And Hiro is half-Japanese. (I guess an engineering lab could easily be that diverse. In ecology, it's a lot different: almost entirely European-American, for some reason. ONE of my guesses is that the "diverse" candidates who are good at biosciences get tracked so fast into genetics or medical biology that they would have to have a super big interest in ecology TO BEGIN WITH in order to resist all the scholarship money waved at them and go, "But I really want to study fish." And even then, I suspect the especially canny candidates would take the scholarship money and find a way to study something about fish, just not in ecology.)

(It's never mentioned in the movie how Go-Go and Honey Lemon got their nicknames. I can ALMOST imagine Honey Lemon pushing tea on anyone who is troubled. And I could see Go-Go working as a bike messenger or doing Roller Derby in her off hours)

(And okay, I fess up: I was trying to match the characters each onto a Pony. Honey Lemon would clearly be Fluttershy and Go-Go could be Rainbow Dash. Fred could be Pinkie Pie. But then I get stuck: Wasabi has traits like Twilight Sparkle, but he's also fastidious, and a Rarity would be needed in there, and anyway, Hiro is the leader....and who would be Baymax?)

Also, the backgrounds and design: a lot has been made about the whole San Fransokyo thing. (The idea is that this is an alternate reality where, following the 1906 earthquake, a large number of Japanese immigrants came to San Francisco to rebuild it, so it's an American city with a very heavy Japanese aesthetic). It's an incredibly cool design - futuristic and yet kind of retro at the same kind. And it's gorgeously rendered: I think CGI has made greater strides in creating believable backgrounds than it has in character design. (There's still that uncanny valley thing - though in this movie, the characters are cartoonish enough that it's not an issue). The scenes where Baymax (in his "super suit") is flying around the city with Hiro are incredible and must have been breathtaking on a big screen.

As much as I love and kind of miss traditional animation (and as ugly as some CGI stuff is), I admit I really liked the design of the whole movie. It worked in the way it was done. (But the end credits are done in a more traditional, 2-D, comic-book style, and you know? The movie would have worked in that as well, I think - it wouldn't have been as beautiful and San Fransokyo would not have been as detailed, but it would have still worked. And the end credits were fun to watch.

Two other spoilers, one small, one big:

Small: STAN LEE CAMEO. Heh. (Though I think he has this written into a contract somewhere, so perhaps we have to expect it)

Big: Baymax....well, towards the end, Baymax does a "We are Groot" moment, and I admit I cried and went "NOOOOO!" Baymax is such a likable character and it did seem a little unfair. (But this is a Disney movie, and there is sort of a "save" at the end: remember Baymax is a robot, and therefore his protocols and essentially his "personality" are all on a we get to hear "Hello, Hiro. I am Baymax" again.)

It's also hinted there may be a sequel, though you know: I don't really think there NEEDS to be a sequel. I'd be perfectly happy with this as a one-off.

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