NOTE: This piece discusses story elements of Josh Trank’s Chronicle that may be considered spoilers if you have yet to see the film.
This past February, Josh Trank’s Chronicle proved to be quite the winter success. A “found footage” film, Chronicle -- which hits DVD and Blu-ray today -- follows three Seattle-area high school students who come in contact with a mysterious object underground and are soon endowed with phenomenal telekinetic abilities. As the film goes on, initially about friendship and the bonds formed by sharing a unique experience, Chronicle quickly takes a darker, more serious turn as one of the kids begins to use his new abilities for violent and dangerous purposes.
Much of the buzz on Chronicle seemed to revolve around being an interesting twist and exploration of the concept of super heroes, given the fact that extra-real abilities like flight are involved, and how the film’s final act becomes a battle between a force of good and a force of evil. While there is certain merit to that argument, I firmly believe that Chronicle is instead the first live-action film in a similar, yet fundamentally different genre: Chronicle is a super-villain film.
This is definitely interesting territory for films to cultivate (see: Megamind, Despicable Me), because while some of the best super-hero films try to give some rhyme or reason to the actions of the antagonist, Chronicle takes it a step further by making the villain the film’s protagonist. Dane DeHaan’s character of Andrew Detmer leads a very hard life. His mother is terminally ill from cancer he has an abusive father, and has a less than stellar reputation among his classmates at school. Generally keeping to himself, Andrew has very little means to express his frustration and instead, bottles it up inside so much that it begins to fester.
Already, writer Max Landis and Trank are effectively and creatively borrowing some of the best components from the early life of one of comics’ greatest villains: the arch-nemesis of Superman, Lex Luthor. In a recent incarnation as outlined in the Geoff Johns/Gary Frank graphic novel Superman: Secret Origin, Luthor lived in a small town as a young man and felt that his personal brilliance and desire to learn alienated him from the rest of his peers. Like Andrew Detmer, Luthor’s father was also an abusive alcoholic who largely ignored and discounted his son, feeding what would become Luthor’s legendary anger. The abusive father is also an element of legendary Spider-Man villain Dr. Octopus, another man of brilliance with a temper that would make Octopus light the sky up in flames if he could. Other comics villains like Daredevil’s Bullseye and Batman’s the Penguin share this trait, as well.
As I tell you this, I want to make clear that this is far from a criticism. Landis and Trank understand elements of character that resonate with people, and the abusive father portion of Andrew’s history gives us an early insight into the pity that he deserves at the outset of the story. As time goes on, and Andrew starts to have his powers manifest at a greater rate compared to his other two endowed friends, it becomes easier and easier for Andrew to use his abilities to make those that made fun of him and hurt him pay for their sins. The problem with me while watching it, and I suspect with several others, is that you understand Andrew’s desire to make them pay and in some cases, sympathize with it.
Is it a really satisfying moment when Andrew confronts his father? Yes, absolutely. Do you understand why he chooses to steal to provide better care for his mother? Oh, yes. Absolutely. What about the bullies at school, which taunted him in the halls and humiliated him in front of his classmates? Landis and Trank tapped into a new twist on the comics-inspired genre because we get the full story of Andrew Detmer from the very beginning, and even when he becomes the unadulterated and pure super villain in the film’s final act, you don’t feel the uneasy hatred you might have for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in Thor and The Avengers, or for Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow in Batman Begins, or Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane in Iron Man. You’ve gone on this journey with Andrew, completely understand why he is doing the things he’s doing, and you might be okay with it. To me, that was the most engaging and disturbing thing about Chronicle. Even though he was the perpetrator of some truly terrible acts on others and himself, I still liked Andrew and felt for him.
Some of this might come from the fact that I know a lot of people like him, and even recognized some of myself in him. In high school, I wasn’t the most popular kid and had certainly been the butt of several jokes that I wished I hadn’t been, and being a comic book nerd may have made me a bit more of a misfit in the eyes of others too. I also happen to be a person that prides myself on morality and am very much a proponent of myself and others to do what’s right. Although Chronicle confronts me, and I’m sure many others, with a disturbing question: In similar circumstances, could I be so easily corrupted by power? Would it be so easy for any of us to find justification in doing terrible things because of some terrible things that had happened to us?
Then, as clear as day, Trank and Landis bring in a critical component in answering this question: friends. As time goes on and he becomes more powerful, Andrew also becomes more isolated, feeling that he is set apart from his fellow power-holders because of his superior strength in using his abilities. He alienates himself from his friends when all they want to do is help him and be there for him. I found a lot of truth in this component of the story as well, because as someone who battled clinical depression in his early teens, one of the best pieces of advice and help that I received was being told to embrace others, not to turn inwards. When you’re left with your own contorted thoughts without taking advantage of the love and respect of your friends, the battle becomes much, much harder to win. This part of the film truly resonated with me, and made Andrew’s eventual fall that much more tragic.
Chronicle, for lack of more eloquent terms, knocked me on my ass when I saw it. It spoke to me, as a high school nerd, as a comic book fan, and as someone who at one time struggled with a mental illness. There are some genuinely weighty scenes that are present throughout the film, and it’s a wonderful look at what can motivate someone who started life as a good, quiet person to become a society’s worst nightmare. I hope that Warner Bros. and Disney saw this film and took some notes, because any future DC and Marvel film that comes out should be paying close attention to the life of Andrew Detmer, and the motivating factors involved that made him a super-villain.
If anyone takes any other message away from Chronicle, it should probably be this: be kind to others. You never know which young people among us will grow up to be the noble heroes, or the ones that will grow into being the most dangerous villains. Consider yourself warned, courtesy of Josh Trank, Max Lanids, and the character of Andrew Detmer.