Sunday, January 04, 2015

Revenge of the Nerds

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 (2014, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams) is suggestive of why Disney bought Marvel a few years ago. They see potential blockbusters in odd corners of the Marvel catalog. This one is completely unlikely. The original is borderline obscure. Indeed, the source material isn't very good, coming as it does at the tail end of Marvel's 90s-era dark age in which everything was a steroid inflated version of extreeeeem grimdark. I doubt that there was ever anyone clamoring for a movie version of Big Hero 6. The movie bears only a cursory resemblance to the comics, which is all to the good. This is a case where the movie version is so much better than the original that by all rights it should completely eclipse it.

The story follows Hiro Hamada, boy genius, who is misusing his gifts by designing robots to fight in bot fights. When we first meet him, he's attending a bot fight in a back alley in San Fransokyo, hustling a veteran bot fighter. Hiro's bot is hilariously small, but turns out to be entirely lethal when he drops the hammer on his opponent. His opponent doesn't take well to being hustled, and Hiro has to be rescued by his brother, Tadashi. Tadashi is completely disappointed in Hiro, and decides to jolt him out of his apathy by taking him to the lab at school where Tadashi is working on a secret robot project. That project is Baymax, an inflatable robot designed to be a health-care provider. Hiro also meets Tadashi's fellow students, and geeks to their various projects. Tadashi's lab, to Hiro's eyes, is nerd heaven. Hiro also meets Tadashi's mentor, Robert Cavanaugh, who invented the tech that Hiro employs in his bot fighter. Hiro resolves to enter a competition with entry into the school as the prize. Hiro's invention, a micro bot that collectively works miracles when you have a lot of them, is a huge hit, attracting the attention of science businessman, Alistair Krei, who offers to buy Hiro's tech. Cavanaugh offers Hiro entry into his program and steers him away from Krei, with whom he has an acrimonious history. Later that night, the exhibition hall burns. Tadashi realizes that Cavanaugh is still inside and is in the hall when it explodes, taking him and all of the exhibits with it, including Hiro's microbots. Hiro is left with a single microbot and Tadashi's Baymax robot, who sees Hiro's grief and vows to treat it. The microbot, on the other hand, begins acting up, and leads Hiro and Baymax to a warehouse where someone is mass producing microbots. This leads to a confrontation with a man in a kabuki mask who is controlling the bots. Hiro puts two and two together--he's a genius, after all--and realizes that the man in the mask likely destroyed the exhibition and killed Tadashi in order to steal Hiro's tech for his own nefarious ends. The microbots prove too powerful for Hiro and Baymax to oppose, so Hiro starts "upgrading" Baymax to become a weapon against the man in the kabuki mask. Baymax, ever the caregiver, decides that Hiro really needs community to heal, so enlists Tadashi's fellow nerd students, who all suddenly find themselves under attack by the microbots. When they manage to escape, they all vow to use their own tech to help Hiro defeat him, each coming up with a different set of abilities based on their research. But the man in the kabuki mask's agenda and his identity throw them all for a loop...

Big Hero 6

This is a state-of-the-art animated film, and as such, its artistic resources are formidable. This is a boldly imagined film, pleasing to the eye without lapsing into kitsch. San Fransokyo is one of the great superhero otherwheres, part Miyazaki, part cyberpunk, part alternate reality collision of real places (as its name suggests). The scene where Hiro and Baymax fly through the city and come to rest on top of one of the blimps hovering above downtown is downright lyrical. San Fransokyo does all of this without ever letting the mask drop as anything other than a plausible real city. This isn't Gotham, which was once designed by the first Batman movie "as if hell had erupted through the pavement and kept on going." San Fransokyo seems like a place where people actually live and work, even while presenting a wonderland for superhero action.

Big Hero 6

The characters, too, have been thoroughly imagined. The cast of Hiro's friends (to say nothing of Hiro himself) is pleasingly diverse, and occasionally subverts stereotypes, both ethnic and cultural. Significantly, there's only one white dude in the core team of Hiro's friends and he's kind of a goofball. This film goes out of its way to depict women in STEM, and while it ultimately doesn't matter to the plot of the film, it matters in a huge way as positive representation for its potential audience. The best part of all this is the way it defuses the (not so) subtle racism and sexism one finds in the comic. By abstracting these characters into cartoons, we get a surprising variety of body types, too, which is also laudable. Superhero stories often fetishize the Olympian ideal of the human body, but no one in this film even approaches that ideal. Physically, these are just regular people. The film gives them the foibles and personalities of regular people, too. The technology they use is just plausible enough to sell the story and just absurd enough to add color to the film.

Big Hero 6

Approaching this film as a longtime reader of comics, I can't help but see it as a repudiation of what superhero comics became in the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns all those years ago. The grimdark fallacy still holds sway over huge swaths of the superhero idiom, and it's made the leap to the movies: hence utterly joyless superhero films like Man of Steel or Kick-Ass. The form of Big Hero 6 is suggestive: it's a Pixar-style animated film, one that includes a huge dollop of comedy to leaven the seriousness of its revenge-driven plotlines. Its characters--particularly the goofy inflated robot, Baymax--are all designed to be cartoony in the best sense of that word. Nothing in the source material suggests, really, any of what winds up on film. This film values fun, which is something that's been a rare quality in superhero comics over the last three decades. It's not for nothing that The Incredibles--which is Big Hero 6's nearest relation--is the best superhero film of the last decade. That film included the seriousness and deconstructive impulse of the post-Watchmen superhero story valued by fanboys while embracing the goofiness and charm of older comics traditions. And fun, of course. There are worse role models.

Big Hero 6 also takes apart the revenge motive and exposes it. Revenge is a horrible reason to do anything even if it makes for a huge portion of the world's dramas. Big Hero 6's underlying theme derives from Ghandi's notion that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." Watching Hiro discover this adds a layer of complexity to him that other revenge-driven heroes can't touch. Hiro remains likeable even when he's hellbent on avenging his brother, but it's when he learns to repudiate that revenge that he becomes truly heroic. Rather than destroy the villain, Hiro comes to understand him. Even if he doesn't quite offer him redemption, he does eventually soothe the rage that drives him. To say nothing of the rage that drives himself. This is the Ethan Edwards formulation of heroism: the main antagonist isn't necessarily the man in the kabuki mask, but is, rather, Hiro himself.

Big Hero 6

Part of Hiro's complexity derives from the relationship between Hiro and his brother, and with his brother's surrogate, Baymax. This relationship is tinged with a pretty broad range of emotions, from disappointment and disapproval while Tadashi is alive to grief and depression once he's gone. Tadashi's death may be the motivating event in the plot, but it's also a carefully observed relationship that still reads as "real" in spite of that. I wish that Hiro's aunt were more fully fleshed out, but you can't have everything, I guess, but this film is packed with characters, so someone is bound to get short-changed.

I'm wondering, now, if Marvel will take the hint and retool Big Hero 6 along the lines of the movie rather than along the lines of their original comics. You would think that an all-ages comic would be a no-brainer. But brains are something that are sometimes in short supply at Marvel Comics, who probably view this as something outside their core business. In this instance, I wish that their corporate masters would crack the whip, but they probably won't. Such is the sorry state of mainstream corporate comics these days. Alas.

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