American Exceptionalism is Boring: 2015 in film.

At the end of The Martian, Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut turned dapper professor gives an inspiringly light hearted speech to a group of young astronauts who are about to begin their training for the next manned mission to mars. He says something like this:

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, after a series of montages and several setbacks, you’re a dapper professor, making jokes about how one time you had to grow potatoes on mars with your own vacuum-sealed shitbags.

Everybody Laughs. Matt can joke about these things. He’s earned that.

And we all knew he would. Let’s be real. NASA isn’t going to do cross-promotional advertising for a movie in which they fuck up and the astronaut dies. That’s all-American golden boy Matt Damon, for god sakes. He’s going to be fine. Ridley Scott’s breathtaking panoramas provide strong counterpoints to one of my favorite essays of 2015. Take that, Committee to Abolish Outer Space. Mars is beautiful. Matt Damon grew potatoes there.  Space is real. Michael Pena floats through it, providing comic relief. Most reviewers mention The Martian’s comparative levity, especially in contrast to Scott’s other space epics, but it had better be more optimistic than Alien. If we don’t come out of it feeling gung-ho about funding a 2030 manned mission to mars, NASA is going to want their money back.

The Martian is an enjoyable ride, but the narrative is more how-to than suspense. There is no mention of the cyanide pills. Even Sean Bean survives. The only character to die is the potatoes. The emotional heart of the movie is Damon kneeling among his ruined crops, crumbling the flash-frozen leaves in between his fingers. But even in this, his darkest hour, we know he will persevere. His will is indomitable.

The same is true for Marvel’s stable of heroes in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Our all-star cast must join together to stop a foregone asimovian conclusion unleashed by the world’s greatest capitalist in a misguided attempt to police the globe. Turns out humans were the problem all along, goes the logic. We’re a plucky bunch though, and we must believe that our rag-tag underdogism is enough to defeat even the most ruthless machine we’ve ever built.

Iron Man has always been one of my favorite superheroes. Stan Lee conceived of him during the Vietnam war, saying this of his inspiration:

The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military….So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer, he was providing weapons for the Army, he was rich, he was an industrialist….I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him….And he became very popular.

Tony Stark’s 1963 comic debut had him fighting communists in a Southeast Asian jungle. The 2008 reboot with Robert Downey Jr. featured a more contemporary Middle Eastern backdrop. Age of Ultron goes Eastern European. If it’s not too soon, it’s too late. Our ideological proxy wars are now fought on-screen. This is how we keep winning.

Still, by the laws of narrative, the Avenger’s triumph must come at a price. Multiple scenes drive home the point that somebody is going to have to make the ultimate sacrifice. Everybody must be prepared to die for the cause. Jeremy Renner’s character is groomed with a few sappy family scenes, but in the final battle, crimean Kick-Ass takes the bullet for him. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s accent isn’t even good enough for us to care. The anti-imperialist undertones vanish in a puff of clean emissions billowing out the back of Tony Stark’s fusion-powered bugatti as it peels off into the sunset. It’s a good thing Samuel L. Jackson convinced congress to keep funding his flying aircraft carrier after all. That thing sure comes in handy during a refugee crisis.

Thor’s hammer and the logical rules surrounding ‘worthiness’ and ‘immovability’ are far more interesting than Chris Hemsworth’s adequate portrayal of one of Marvel’s goofiest characters. He can wield the hammer, he can keep the mindstone. It’s safe with The Vision, and these days safe is in short supply, says Thor before blasting back to Asgard for the final time. The line is in reference to Paul Bettany as The Vision, the superpowered A.I. 2.0 that they CGI up halfway through the movie, using Tony’s robot butler and a heady space rock. As It turns out, the only way to beat the machine is to make a new, better machine. The Vision effortlessly picks up the hammer that Tony and Don Cheadle have been trying to lift the whole movie in their perpetual power-suit big-dick contest. It’s a sword-in-the-stone moment. A kind of might makes righteous. If you can wield the hammer, you’re the good guy.

 

In Sicario, Benicio del Toro and his delta force escorts wield their own hammer with ruthless efficiency.  They are the good guys, or at least the better guys. They are certainly better at killing the other guys. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, our good woman in a world of bad, bad men. The weight of morality hangs heavy on her thin shoulders. She is concerned, at least at first, with doing things by the book. Every shot she fires is retaliatory. She balks when Benicio and his boys preemptively riddle a carload of cartel gunman who try to catch them in the traffic jam at the border. By the end, she’s less naive. She comes to know that it’s always been kill or be killed, and if you don’t shoot first, you probably won’t shoot at all.

In Spanish, Sicario means hitman. Benicio is that, the shadowed hand of an even larger, more powerful cartel come to fill the turbulent space. He is the lethal force that brings stability to the equation. He never gives us a chance to doubt whether or not he will prevail, because his conflicts are over before they even begin. He is the best at killing, and we are meant to like him for it. We at least respect him. His sins are absolved by the righteousness of his vengeance. He fights for his hijita, who was thrown in a vat of acid.

Sicario maintains a tension that The Martian and The Avengers lack, because it is the least sure of its own moral framework. Josh Brolin eventually shoots straight about the calculated pragmatism of American foreign policy. Macer never knows if she’s doing the right thing, and we don’t either, even after the credits roll. She does what she must to survive, but beyond that, everything becomes hazy.

 

2015 in film has been a year concerned with power and vacuums, with spaces and the ideologies that either invade or resist those spaces. These are the things that occupy our minds, that occupy our rhetoric. The question is this: how much further can our exceptionalism carry us?

Probably pretty far. There will always be a place for stories where the good guys are sure to win. They make us feel good. Still, every time you hear a story it becomes less exciting. You begin to recognize the ins and outs of the script. Your appraisal becomes relational. You judge this telling based on all the other versions you’ve ever heard. The stars can’t be viewed singularly. They become points in larger constellations of significance.

They say that art fills the void, but by filling it also comes to define the void’s limits. How can we conceive of something that has yet to be conceived? Step by step. Problem by problem, building off of what we already know. Our ideology is sown like Matt Damon’s potatoes, a rhizomatic narrative of supremacy that we’ve split and buried, steeped in our own shit, kept alive and warm inside the airlock. Herein lies our secret frailty. Even the smallest breach in the hull could result in catastrophic depressurization and a swift death in the frigid stillness.

In his address following the December 2nd shooting in San Bernadino, Obama seems almost bored reading the words off the teleprompter:

We will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.

Nick Fury is a bit more impassioned in his pregame speech to the Avengers as they steel themselves for battle, sitting around Jeremy Renner’s kitchen table:

Here we all are, back on earth, with nothing but our wit and our will to save the world.

If the movies are anything to go by, know this: we will create a better machine to keep us safe. We will bring the hammer down if we must. One day soon, we will live like pirate kings on Mars.


Henry Whittier-Ferguson