Why do simian superheroes seem more empathetic than the normal comicbook kind?
Let me backtrack a few paces before answering this.
All of us have heard the admonition in years past from our English teachers: “Write about what you know and who you know” — and have chosen to ignore it. Yet this precept has been paying off for filmmakers like Jonah Hill, Judd Apatow and their friends. Films like “22 Jump Street,” “This Is the End” and “This Is 40” all seem to have been written about themselves and their buds, seemingly for their own personal enjoyment.
“22 Jump Street,” like the others, is doing well overseas, which makes you wonder how Chinese or Russian teenagers decode jokes about gay shrinks and weirded-out fratboys.
Woody Allen, too, is making movies about people he knows, but I don’t particularly like his new circle of friends — witness the rich and snooty characters in “Magic in the Moonlight,” for example.
Most of Woody’s recent films have been shot around Europe, where the lion’s share of his financing comes from. I’m glad Woody gets a blank check to shoot in Barcelona and the South of France, but I miss the New York schleppers who populated his early films like “Manhattan” and “Broadway Danny Rose.” These were Woody’s people. He was at home with them. Even the titles of his movies now seem remote. “Magic in the Moonlight” sounds like an operetta. Or a porn party.
To be sure, the superhero pictures of the summer try to build a connection between filmgoers and their protagonists. Spider-Man, like Batman, had a troubled adolescence. Captain America is inept with women. Iron Man doesn’t handle his money well (which is ironic considering Robert Downey Jr.’s formidable wealth).
These characters are just like us, right?
Why is it then that I empathize more with Caesar and Maurice than with Spidey or the kid in the Batcave? They are the simian superheroes of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the new film that’s generating good reviews and solid box office.
No one apparently told Matt Reeves, “Dawn’s” director, that it would be safer to focus on the people than the apes, or at least to create one simian who acts like Jonah Hill. (The heavy in “Dawn,” an over-aggressive orangutan named Koba, pursues rhetoric alarmingly close to that of Dick Cheney, but that may have been inadvertent.)
A megabudget franchise movie, “Dawn” deviates from the standard summer superhero movie once its early footage dispenses with events since “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” its predecessor: It seems that most of the previous cast, even the ubiquitous James Franco, have been victims of an apocalyptic virus, leaving the simians to establish a sylvan, Athens-like society across the bay from San Francisco (Franco, who is not in the movie, likely went to North Korea to smooth over relations).
The upshot is what critic A.O. Scott of the New York Times describes as “the best of this summer’s large-scale studio franchise movies,” which he acknowledges is damning with faint praise.
Whatever its narrative frailties, “Dawn” succeeds in taking audiences away from summer comedies that feel more like fraternity parties (I don’t want to join “Tammy’s”) or the superhero prequels that try so earnestly to make their characters relatable to their loyal filmgoers, who are becoming less loyal.
Spidey is a good kid, but he lacks the insights of Maurice, the stooped, copper-colored simian in “Dawn” whose speech sounds like it was scrambled by an errant deejay, but who nonetheless conveys a calm in his community. While I never knew anyone like Maurice, I expect to see him in future simian sequels. And I look forward to those encounters.