Scott McCloud, the writer of the indispensable tome Understanding Comics, refers to superhero stories as “Power Fantasies,” but sometimes I wonder. So many of our superheroes have become cultural institutions – Batman, Superman and Spider-Man among them – that they don’t seem to embody any kind of plausible daydream. We don’t fantasize about being Batman, it seems; we fantasize about the kind of scenarios Batman might get into, and I suspect that diminishes the superhero concept’s power to really capture our imagination. Josh Trank’s new film Chronicle captures the wonder of the superhero power fantasy in a way few films ever have, and that many actual comics seem to have abandoned in an attempt to juxtapose the fantastic with the humdrum. It does so by riffing on Akira, but that’s not so bad.
A newish take on the “found footage” genre, which to date has been relegated primarily to horror world, Chronicle tells the story of three teenagers who blah-de-blah-de-blah and wind up with superpowers. It’s not important, it’s never explained, who cares, let’s move on now, okay. The young leads – Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Red Tails’ Michael B. Jordan – are more concerned with the result, and spend a hefty chunk of Chronicle videotaping themselves goofing about with their newfound telekinetic abilities. The typical “found footage” conceit, wherein the heroes are either documentarians or casual home movie enthusiasts, is abandoned in favor of a more personal approach – we get the impression Dane DeHaan is initially trying to capture the horror of his domestic situation, under his abusive father Michael Kelly – and segues neatly into a kind of skater dude “look at the crazy sh*t I can do” YouTube video motif, before moving on once again to the sort of reckless youthful abandon of frat boys knocking over mailboxes on a drunken bender. But with superpowers.
Where Chronicle gets genuinely clever is by tying the documentarian conceit into the modus operandi of the one kid who inevitably turns supervillainous, not unlike the way that Dexter relies on his "dark passenger." The constant vigil of a non-judgmental Other keeps him at a distance from his supposed peers, and permits him to retreat neatly into psychosis. Screenwriters Trank and Max Landis (son of John) excel at organically turning their protagonists into the archetypal comic book characters we’ve all come to take for granted, heroes and villains alike. Cynics, like myself, will note that while the approach feels fresh the actual content is familiar to even a casual genre audience. It’s Heroes syndrome all over again, and like Heroes I’d be surprised if Chronicle would function over a prolonged period. But as an under-90 minute standalone film, it’s something of a wonder, capturing the awe of the adolescent power fantasy and incorporating just enough familiar plot elements to keep the forward momentum going while the genuinely sympathetic characters carry the bulk of the film.
And seriously, it pretty much just turns into Akira at the end, but that’s surprisingly okay. By eliminating the intrinsically Japanese context and focusing on the character dynamics from Katsuhiro Otomo's manga and anime film, Chronicle has pretty much squelched the proposed "official" remake before it could even begin production, much in the same way that The Incredibles made Tim Story’s Fantastic Four movie seem thoroughly unnecessary, regardless of the latter film’s more prominent legacy (and also largely because of its lack of quality, relative or otherwise).
The marketing campaign for Chronicle, as much as I’ve seen at any rate, seems focused on maintaining an element of mystery, keeping the film’s biggest money shots – and there are surprisingly many for such a low-budget genre offering – out of the public eye. I’m not sure they’re doing the film any favors. Chronicle is for the hardcore superhero fanatics and mainstream audiences alike. It takes something tired and imbues it with a fresh new energy based entirely on the filmmakers’ unique perspective. For what it lacks in narrative originality – and make no mistake, it lacks a lot – it compensates with personality and genuine thrills. Drop what you’re doing and go see this thing right now.