World Cinema: Superheroes

The most famous superheroes may hail from the US, but that doesn’t mean world cinema doesn’t have plenty of its own...

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s… probably a character you’ve never heard of, actually. Welcome to the world of the international superhero. For all of Matthew Vaughn’s apocalyptic comments regarding the end of superhero and comic book movies, the truth remains that they have fuelled the international box office of the last decade.

They remain in rude health, and the bread and butter of sites such as our own. But along with the Western, they are most definitely an American genre, representing the American worldview and touching upon American concerns.

But, while the USA may, indeed, be the birthplace of the genre, it by no means has a monopoly on the ideas, as there is an international community of celluloid heroes and villains out there, waiting to be discovered. So, ladies and gentlemen, let me take you on a tour of some of the ones worth seeking out.

As has been noted elsewhere, superhero films are often action films dressed up in costume. So, where better to start then Hong Kong? Here we find such heroes as Black Mask (played by Jet Li in the 1996 film), a super-soldier from the mysterious 701 unit who dedicates himself to stopping the crimes of his former comrades. Looks a bit like Kato. When I say a bit, I mean exactly the same.

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In mainland China, the heroes are more traditional, and endowed with powers from the gods rather than industrial accidents. Of particular note is the classic Monkey story, made famous in the West by a ropey TV show. Sadly un-filmed is Science Wonder Boy, which, for the name alone, would get me to buy a ticket.

Moving across the water to Japan, there is an abundance of heroes. Manga and anime are justly world-renowned and, in fact, worthy of a column of their own. Their comic industry is as rich and even more varied than the States, and, while a handful of films and characters have crossed over (e.g. Astro Boy, which in no way is Science Wonder Boy based on), there are thousands to be discovered.

Film-wise, I am a particular fan of Casshern, a 2004 film based on the anime series. One of the first films to be shot against a digital backdrop, it plays out like a live-action cartoon, and with director Kazuaki Kiriya stating he was influenced by Russian avant-garde filmmaking, amongst other things, it was definitely not your ordinary superhero film. And it has robots in it too.

I would also count Godzilla as a Japanese superhero, too, if only to include his adopted son, Minira. Yep, that’s right, his adopted son. Looking a bit like a cat mated with a frog mated with a lizard, Minira was awesome, and fully deserving of his 1967 film Son Of Godzilla, or, to give it its full title, Monster Island’s Decisive Battle: Godzilla’s Son. Monsters using their atomic rays on a giant spider? Works for me.

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Crossing to South America, there is a healthy appetite for homegrown characters in Argentina and Brazil, although, sadly, the majority of these remain unfilmed. Breaking this mould ,however, is Brazil’s Vigilante Rodoviário. That may sound cool, but he’s actually just a road watchman designed to give out safety messages. He did have a canine sidekick, though, which is more than I have.

Finally, arriving in Europe, there is, once more, evidence of a tradition of filmed heroes. Sweden’s Pippi Longstocking is a character who has more than her fair share of screen time, including a television series, several live-action movies, an animated series and an animated movie, but when you have super strength and speed, flight, super breath and invincibility, you’d probably demand the same.

Also worth mentioning from Sweden, is the incredibly named Kenny Starfighter.

To the south of Europe, Spain also has a long lineage of masked adventurers, although, sadly, the only ones to make it to the screen are somewhat reminiscent of more famous American heroes. El Coyote is a masked swordsmen fighting against injustice and corruption in Baja California in the latter 19th century. Despite this resemblance to Zorro, I am told that it’s worth seeking out the 1949 novel and the 1998 filmc as he is a very different character.

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Not quite so defensible is the 1979 film Super-Sonic Man. With a character dressed in red and blue, of extra-terrestrial origin, named Kronos and pretending to be a reporter, Siegel and Shuster should have probably sued.

Last, but not least, is France. As ever, the French did things a little differently with their most famous character. Created in 1911, Fantomas is not so much a superhero as a murdering, sociopathic king of crime. However, he became and remains absurdly popular, with the first film version coming out in 1913 and an American remake following within the decade. Then followed several adaptations throughout the 20th century and a proposed film due out next year by acclaimed director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood Of The Wolf).

Without condoning the character and his actions, the iconography is extremely enduring and, frankly, cool. He also was an influence on the Surrealist movement, Donald Duck and Faith No More’s Mike Patton. How many other characters can claim that?

Looking Forward

As it’s now on general release and I don’t wish to recommend the other releases this week, I thought I’d recycle my pick from almost two months ago.  Forgive me if you’ve already read this!

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The Secret In Their Eyes

Described as a “glossy, thoroughly satisfying whodunit”, The Secret In Their Eyes offers plenty of twists and turns, and more than holds its own against similar mainstream fair. Beginning as a simple mystery, it quickly turns into something far more ambitious, beguiling and ultimately rewarding, and serves to prove that Latin Cinema is currently the world’s most vibrant (at least in my opinion!).

Director Juan José Campanella has crafted an exquisite and accessible piece, which, although causing a sizeable uproar with its shock 2010 Oscar win, more than deserves the praise thrown its way.

It is these types of films which will hook a whole new audience for World Cinema, and for that I thoroughly commend it. Even if the director did believe it would be his least successful film!

Looking Back

Having mentioned it above, it seems only wrong to ignore it here…

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Brotherhood Of The Wolf (directed by Christophe Gans, 2001)

Quite simply, this film rocks. A heady combination of period piece, mystery, martial arts action romp, and finally, monster film, it should be awful, but it all combines to make something thrilling and fascinating at the same time.

I have long envied the vibrancy and scope of French cinema, and I have said on these very pages that it is a cinema that the UK should seek to emulate.

Here is a perfect example. Set in the 1760s, it tells the story of two companions, Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and Mani (Mark Dacascos, who steals the whole damn film) as they are sent to investigate tales of a beast terrorising the countryside. Drawn further into the intrigue then they initially considered possible, they encounter a one-armed Vincent Cassel and a mysterious Monica Bellucci (who stars in the celebrated match shot between her and a mountain range. Work out the details for yourself.).

The ever-present atmosphere of Catholicism, combined with a closed off rural community impart a suffocating claustrophobia on the proceedings, which are punctuated with timely action set-pieces. The film also explores both werewolf and witchcraft mythology before it’s done, while throwing in a subtle political message in favour of republicanism for good measure.