Look carefully now.

Chronicle is the best-executed superhero origin story yet depicted on film. While some of that is an incidental result of not being hampered by an entrenched fanbase and their expectations, or the demands of a long-established mythology, most of it comes down to plain execution. Not that Chronicle reinvents the wheel. Josh Trank, who makes a serious mark with this film, wisely puts adherence to the found footage gimmick second behind the heavily character-based storytelling. I doubt Chronicle will be remembered as the “found footage superhero flick” and it really shouldn’t be. Some critics are complaining that there are lapses in the use of the device which erode suspension of disbelief but I disagree that this is the case and I also disagree that it even matters. Either way, Chronicle is more the live-action version of Akira that it renders completely unnecessary than it is Cloverfield with flying people. Almost like Trank and screenwriter Max Landis looked at the premise being bandied about for that project and thought, “hey we can do this better without the baggage” and then they went out and did it. I’ll get to the parallels with Akira later, though.

The plot of the film is nothing unfamiliar. Andrew (Dane DeHaan, looking like the product of an unholy union between Mark Hamill and Leonardo DiCaprio) is a shy and lonely kid with a rough homelife, his mom is dying and his dad’s an abusive drunk, who’s only friend is his charismatic cousin Matt (Alex Russel). At first simply trying to buffer his dad’s behavior with the threat of a record, Andrew begins filming everything that happens. At a rave Matt drags him to, Andrew encounters Steve (Michael B. Jordan) the class president and all around cool guy. He and Matt have found something off in a field and get Andrew to come along and film it. That something is a hole in the ground that emits a strange sound. Down they go into an eerie tunnel only to find a great big glowing crystal. The crystal is neat, plainly inspired by the Kryptonian technology in both Donner and Singer’s goes at Superman, and yet exuding a certain menace and danger what with the weird tentacle growths on the surface… not to mention the violent bursts of otherwordly sound and intense red glowing. The camera and lads are knocked out and we rejoin them some time later with a new camera. They are playing some kind of game that involves throwing balls at each other and at first it seems like some stupid version of chicken. Then something strange happens, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where the ball is thrown and misbehaves. Then it happens again. Then Andrew flat out stops the ball in mid-air when it’s thrown at him and the audience is suddenly in this even though they know it’s about kids developing superheroes. This intimacy informs the next act of the film in which we follow these three as they become close friends, bound together by their secret and the sheer joy of discovery that permeates their experimentation (some of which involves pranking folks) and theorizing about the nature of their abilities. Eventually they realize that they are getting more powerful the more they use their abilities and this knowledge affects them in different ways, beginning the ramping up of a til-then crawling theme: the effects of power.

Matt never stops trying to save his cousin from himself. Doing so involves saving others, even people who may deserve Andrew’s reckless vengeance against his hostile world, and makes Matt a more fully-realized hero than the film versions of most comic book examples.

Chronicle doesn’t beat you over the head with this theme. There’s every other superhero movie for that. Instead, the exploration of it arises out of how these characters deal with what they’ve become and especially with what each other have become. Matt starts to develop a sense of responsibility, creating rules to protect themselves and others from their powers, and becoming the moral center of the group where before he was aloof and smug and just a little pretentious (I kind of liked his random quoting of philosophers but Casey, the vid-blogger student he has a crush on, really puts him in his place on that) to begin with. On the other end there’s Andrew, who is wound so tight and with an identity and grasp of his emotional stability that is so fragile, there’s always a looming threat of his going overboard. When he finally does, it’s tragic. You can’t hate Andrew, he’s our anchor in the film and the character we spend the most time with. Trank and Landis wanted us to understand him, and understand why Matt must oppose him even as he tries to save him… both of them completely in over their heads by the end.

In fact, this arc is such a perfect expression of the classic superhero origin that it’s actually a bit befuddling how well it comes off. There’s no moment where the essential predictability of Andrew’s descent feels contrived or forced. The two boys are connected by their powers and by their filial love, but they essentially become dark images of each other. Even the corruption of Andrew’s appearance, the unhappy result of his desperation and dwindling sense of responsibility, is a reflection of what has happened to him internally and how far he’s gone away from who he was. Matt only becomes the hero by making the choice to oppose the villain. Andrew’s power and deeply internalized sense of alienation lead to an inevitable result: he divorces himself from the rest of humanity and becomes what he calls the “apex predator”.

Andrew’s experiences keep him sympathetic even as he begins to ignore the rules they all agree to and see himself in a very different way. He becomes an echo of his environment, the result of a weakened mind trying to balance itself against overwhelming pressures.

They key to getting these characters to work and to sell their dynamic and the inevitability of their final confrontation is in getting the balance between sympathy, likability, and the deeper mechanics of character evolution as finely tuned as possible. In Chronicle, this shit is so finely tuned that it appears effortless. In fact, in one or two ways Chronicle might err on the side of economy. The Casey character is present throughout the movie but doesn’t really get much to do besides maybe upping the stakes a bit for Matt when he goes out to deal with Andrew. The denouement of the film is as strictly centered on Matt and Andrew as the climax: a simply spectacular sequence of chases, skirmishes, and Matt’s sincere attempts to reason with the now-unhinged Andrew in the Seattle skies. This leaves us without a resolution for Matt and Casey once we see where Matt winds up following how things end with Andrew. If Casey had been more necessary to the story than simply being a partial catalyst and reinforcement for Matt’s awakening sense of responsibility, the lack of closure here would not so sorely underline the weakness (a writing problem, likely) of her inclusion. That’s really the only flaw I can lay on this film, though, which says a lot. Besides, it is in no way as offensive as the underuse of Jane Foster in Thor, though that film has a similar dynamic between its hero and villain as Chronicle does.

So I said before that Chronicle is sort of a live-action Americanized remake of Akira. A seminal 80’s anime dealing with psychic power and motorcycle gangs in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, the similarity mostly centers around that films two leads, Kaneda and Tetsuo, and how their respective journeys and final confrontation are mirrored by Matt and Andrew in Chronicle. There’s also that with his unruly hair and big forehead, Dane DeHaan looks like a perfect little whitebread Tetsuo. Then there’s the telekinesis run rampant and so on. Chronicle is also the spiritual remake (or whatever) of Akira that we actually deserve. It riffs on that film without trying to claim it, does its own thing with those themes while also mixing it up with superhero conventions. This makes Chronicle far from original in terms of its DNA but like I said before, it’s all in the execution. It stands to reason that if you liked Akira and don’t have a stick up your ass about storytellers borrowing from each other, you’ll love Chronicle.

One of my favorite shots. I want to be able to fly so fucking much!

It’s important to note that Chronicle is a masterclass in tonal balance. The film is funny and fun when it needs to be, especially in the early stages as Andrew’s connection to Matt and Steve begins to bring him out of his shell, and the three do the sorts of things (aerial football!) that you would expect from teenage boys with superpowers. Andrew does represent an overall foreboding that is given space to breathe (the car crash scene, particularly) before things really take a turn. Thus, when Chronicle unleashes its final conflict, you’re ready for the darkness and for the emotionality of it.

One of my favorite things about the film, which is a bit of an aside, is that tone of awe it manages to thread through everything else that’s going on. That and the joy. There’s a joy in what these boys are capable of, a joy unhampered by the characteristic dourness of most superhero stories. Nor are the powers simply a tool to use against supernatural enemies. Like Andrew says, it becomes a part of them and you really feel that in Chronicle more than you would in, say, Thor or Captain America where the things these guys can do are not explored in and of themselves.

The flying sequences are a highlight. Well done and realistically conceived.

Chronicle is ultimately an expression of why superhero stories are popular in the first place. Essentially, these are stories about empowerment and awakening. Those never get old to us because even outlandish abilities like telekinesis are symbols of the kinds of power we can more realistically expect to grasp in our lifetimes. There’s also the fulfillment of seeing a thing we all wish we could do experienced and explored by people who aren’t so different from us. Without being post-modern or satirical about the omni-presence and popularity of the superhero genre, Chronicle becomes a refreshing part of it and a bit of a spur (hopefully) for the people out there writing adaptations of DC and Marvel’s classic heroes. The fact is, Chronicle does a better job of telling this sort of story than any given comic book adapted version of it in our time. That isn’t to say that Chronicle is better than all other superhero movies as a whole, simply that it tells a classic origin story better than all the other ones that have tried using established characters (Spiderman, Green Lantern, Thor, Iron Man, etc). Others’ mileage will vary given their degree of affection for particular characters or the presence of subordinate themes (Iron Man has other stuff going on than a superhero origin story, for example). For my money, though, Chronicle is head and shoulders past any of the examples I’ve given here and I certainly like it better than Nolan’s Batman films (though they, too, have a lot more going on and are more complex stories/movies overall… especially The Dark Knight).

So there.

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