The James Clayton column: don’t hurt Hugh Jackman. Hit some Real Steel

Real Steel brings boxing robots to the big screen. But does it, James wonders, hint at a future dominated by artificial intelligence…?

Hugh Jackman has an adamantium skeleton, but he lacks real steel. This is why, for the film Real Steel, he’s adopted a robot called Atom and put him up for fights in a cage. Operating outside of the ring as a coach instead of a pugilist, he can be a real father to his son and protect his dashing good looks from damage.

In a way, I’m glad that Jackman is retreating to the corner for Real Steel. It gives him the chance as an actor to perform in a different dramatic capacity as a mentor and parent, instead of as a straight-up action lead as Wolverine (his most iconic role).

What’s more, as much as I like seeing Hugh fighting wayward mutants and, erm, helicopters (the highlight of his X-Men Origins spin-off) I don’t want to see him get hurt. He’s too nice. Even if he has the invincible edge and incredible healing abilities of Wolverine, it’s horrible watching the Aussie actor experiencing pain.

My personal liking for Jackman and enhanced empathy is the reason why I’ve so far declined invites to enrol in Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. For the foreseeable future, I have no intentions of joining the X-Men.

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This also partly explains why I found The Fountain so upsetting. Darren Aronofsky’s film presents a triple-whammy of torment as Jackman is simultaneously tortured across three different realities – as an embattled Conquistador, as the doctor and husband of a terminal cancer patient, and as a space traveller floating into a nebula in a tai chi tree garden bubble. At the centre of all the heartbreak and beautifully melancholic existentialism is a tragic figure – a man who I want to see smile.

Even if he does have an alloy spine, regenerative powers and a loving tenacity to challenge the impossible, Hugh Jackman’s various characters can never truly beat death or halt the natural progression of the universe.

At least Real Steel offers some reassurance, in that the actor won’t have to endure immense physical hardship. The emotional and psychological themes are present – hard economic times, family relationships, self-esteem, etc – but I’m holding on to the belief that the robo-blockbuster will provide an uplifting, feelgood hit. Enough Wolverine pain for now – let’s give the guy a break and allow him to enjoy sporting victory as Charlie Kenton with his son, Max, (played by Dakota Goyo) and his mecha-boxing student.

Nevertheless, chances are that, as soon as the credits have rolled and my tears have dried, I’ll bounce straight back into the “Let’s see claws, carnage and brutal violence, Bub!” stance. I have this oddly fickle attraction/repulsion fascination with many of my favourite film stars. To name a female equivalent, I really like Natalie Portman, and want her characters to be happy and untroubled, yet repeatedly enjoy watching her suffer and undergo tremendous pain, both physical and mental (or both, to extreme degrees, in Black Swan).

It’s not purely because I’m really a sadist who gets twisted kicks from cinematic schadenfreude. I’d say there’s a potent power in experiencing appealing individuals delivering astounding performances of dramatic range and weight that reinforces the deeper aspects of why you like them. Even so, humans do have repressed dark, violent and voyeuristic desires, and films and TV act as mediums through which we can get vicarious pleasures from other people’s suffering.

Whereas our ancestors enjoyed gladiatorial combat, bear baiting and cock-fighting (cock of the bird variety, not the Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant kind), modern society fulfils its needs through reality TV shows that thrive off conflict between ego-crazed celebrities, attention seekers and mentally ill people sacrificing themslves for media industry exploitation. That’s the atrocious extreme though – healthier-minded humans exorcise their subconscious needs by playing video games, watching films or sticking pins in stress balls to let off steam.

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If you still feel disquieted and ill at ease about enjoying the pain of others – even in fictional works – Real Steel comes guilt free. It’s not nice Mr Jackman or a sympathetic human taking the hard blows in the fighting flick, but bits of scrap metal specially constructed to be contenders. The robots may have artificial intelligence, individual athletic ability and a persona as boxers, but they aren’t human. They don’t bleed when beaten, or go through emotional trauma and irreparable brain damage when smashed into submission by an opponent.

Unlike we organic folk, or even mutants like Wolverine, they can be rebuilt and reprogrammed. Unless you have exceptional android empathy, the big screen version of Robot Wars won’t hurt your feelings – at least, it won’t as much as Blade Runner, but that’s only because Roy Batty bleeds, cares for doves and recites beautiful poetry.To be honest, the idea of creations like WALL-E, the Iron Giant and Bishop from Aliens getting trashed makes me feel very sad, so I guess I have a certain amount of android empathy, at least for family-friendly film-bots.

Generally, though, the prevalent trend in sci-fi is to urge a more antagonistic and fearful view of AI. Technology is something to dread, and is configured as having evil designs on eradicating the human race.

Forget benign, cute droids like Artoo and Threepio, and all thoughts of peaceful coexistence and calm human-cyborg relations. You should really be dwelling on The Terminator and The Matrix series, contemplating HAL’s inhumanity in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and appropriately arming yourself to oppose the machines that seek to oppress, enslave and annihilate us.

We need to keep an eye on the robots and technological contraptions to ensure they don’t conspire and rise to kill us all. This is why the release of Real Steel is timely and helpful for audiences. Getting the machines to maul each other in gladiatorial battle and keeping them as performing slaves for humankind’s voyeuristic pleasure is an excellent idea and more imaginative than straight-up genocide (or technocide).

Eventually, if a Robopocalypse (the real life dystopian scenario, not the upcoming Spielberg project) looks increasingly likely, we simply take the Robot Wars format, and shape it into something more severe along the lines of Battle Royale.

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Takeshi Kitano and the Japanese government dealt with an uncontrollable youth explosion by forcing school kids to play ‘last man standing’ survival games on an island of death. This time, though, it’s androids destroying each other for popular entertainment. I bet that Atom will emerge as the big winner, and Hugh Jackman, unhurt, will have another reason to smile.

James’ previous column can be found here.

You can reach James on his Twitter feed here, see his film cartoons here and more sketches here.