The highest grossing film in the world in 2020 was, for the first time since people have been tracking such trivia, not an American movie. It was a continuation of an anime television show about a teen-aged demon slayer set a hundred years ago, in Taisho-era Japan. The Demon Slayer movie has made well over $400 million thus far, easily surpassing Spirited Away to become both the highest-grossing anime and the highest-grossing Japanese film ever made, and the popularity of the series has rocketed the manga on which it’s based (which began in 2016) to become one of the most popular of all-time as well. It’s not hard to see why: the series is slick and bright, with exciting action sequences and compelling world-building, alongside an unabashedly earnest emotional core. That heartfelt sense of compassion is about the only thing that Demon Slayer has in common with the best anime films of recent years (Yamada Naoko’s Liz and the Blue Bird and A Silent Voice, Shinkai Makoto’s Your Name and Weathering with You, Yuasa Masaaki’s Ride Your Wave), and it distinguishes it from the kind of cynical pandering that characterizes so much of the American superhero work with which it shares certain generic similarities. The result, popular as it obviously has been in Japan, seems ill-suited to the US market: too formulaic for the slice-of-life anime fans, too openly decent for those with an unhealthy fixation on Disney’s intellectual property.
The movie doesn’t do much to contextualize the story, instead assuming that we’re all familiar with the characters and mythology that has been built up thus far across the 26 episodes of the show. In a nutshell: teen hero Kamado Tanjiro comes home one day to find that his entire family has been murdered by demons, all but his younger sister Naoko, who has been turned into a demon herself. The demons function or or less like vampires: they need to feed on human flesh, you become one by drinking their blood (well, one specific demon’s blood), and you can only kill them with sunlight or by chopping off their head with a special demon-slaying sword. The demons become stronger the more humans they consume, eventually developing strange magical powers that make every one of them unique. This accounts for some of the most clever aspects of the series: one demon rearranges the rooms in the house he lives in by beating a drum; another uses spider webs to manipulate humans like marionettes; a third dissolves into a swampy black pool that sucks unsuspecting victims underground. Tanjiro trains to become a demon slayer in order to find a way to turn Naoko back into a human, while she refrains from eating any humans and is eventually accepted as a kind of adjunct to the demon slaying corps.
The first season (the second is set to air sometime this year) follows Tanjiro as he learns various breathing and sword techniques and fights ever more dangerous demons. It’s comprised of several multi-episode arcs, which have subsequently been combined into feature-length movies. These arcs are filled with flashbacks and internal monologues, for both the slayers and demons: ultimately the conflicts are as much internal and psychological as they are about finding a weakness in an enemy’s defense and chopping off its head. In the show, Tanjiro meets a number of fascinating characters, deepening the show’s mythology and helping distinguish it from its generic forebears (it reminded me most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without the metaphor and Whedonism). Unlike Liz and the Blue Bird, which was a spin-off of the series Sound! Euphonium and very different in both animation style and character focus, the Mugen Train movie is a seamless extension of its series, essentially one of these story extended story arcs. Tanjiro and Naoko, along with their similarly young compatriots Inosuke (who wears a boar’s head mask) and Zenitsu (who is outwardly girl-crazy, manic and cowardly but subconsciously highly competent), are assigned to assist one of the top demon slayers, Rengoku, master of the Flame Technique, in stopping a demon who has taken over a train. This demon is one of the most powerful we’ve seen, part of an elite group serving the head demon, Kibutsuji Muzan, and their ability involves controlling dreams. The slayers board the train, the demon puts them to sleep and tries to destroy their souls from inside their subconscious. Will they awaken in time?
The action and animation in Demon Slayer is bright, cartoonish, and fun (some sight gags reminded me of no less than Nichijou), although as clever as most of the demon powers are, the structure of the fights can feel repetitive (Tanjiro gets beaten badly, learns to breathe better, then gets more powerful), lacking the propulsive energy of the fighting in 2019’s Promare, to compare with one recent anime . But that’s more than made up for by Tanjiro’s great strength as a hero-figure, which is his compassion. Seemingly alone among the show’s universe, Tanjiro is able to pity and forgive the demons. He has a purity of soul that contrasts sharply with the brutal violence of the world he finds himself in. This, more than the flashy animation and reliable serialized storytelling is what ultimately makes Demon Slayer so effective, this balance between blood and grace.
It’s been a bad year for movies of course, and an even worse one for superhero movies. The genre that has come to dominate the Hollywood blockbuster market, devouring its competitors like Orson Welles’s planet-devouring Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, or like his equally grotesque chili-devouring Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, has spent most of the year in frozen hibernation, waiting out the plague-induced shut-down of the nation’s multiplexes. But here at the tail-end of 2020, we have a Christmas miracle of sorts: Warners, in an apparent bid to burn down its theatrical arm in order to boost the subscription rate of its nascent streaming platform, and thus inflate the corporation’s stock value in the eyes of investors blinded by shiny things, is releasing its follow-up to 2017’s warmly-received Wonder Woman straight to HBO Max. At the same time, Sony has rolled out a hybrid theatrical/VOD release for its much-delayed adaptation of the Monster Hunter video game*, directed by the equally lauded and reviled Paul WS Anderson. Taken together, the two provide a convenient contrast of the different strains in the superhero genre: the white elephants of the MCU, Star Wars, and DC versus the termitic team of Anderson and his star/wife Milla Jovovich.
Patty Jenkins’s 2017 Wonder Woman was a solid entry in the MCU/DC wars, a reasonably deft origin-story movie that was helped enormously by the charm and absurd beauty of its two stars, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. The sequel picks up 65 years later, with Diana Prince now working in the Smithsonian and Steve Trevor long dead. Kristin Wiig and Pedro Pascal show up, along with a magic rock that grants wishes. Everyone makes a wish: Wiig for Diana’s powers, which turn her into the amoral crazy cat lady Cheetah; Diana for Steve to come back, which he does in some guy’s body (Diana alone sees him as Pine); Pascal to become the stone himself, which gives him the power to grant everyone’s wishes, but also maybe drives him crazy and makes him bleed out of his nose, ears and eyes, for some reason. It’s a Monkey’s Paw story, as the characters explain to us, several times, stretched out for an unconscionable two and a half hours. The film has only a few action sequences, including a prologue that feels like an afterthought, like a studio note to include a scene back in the land of the Amazons, and a chase down a desert highway that neatly encapsulates the film’s wrong-headed approach to both action and color.
It’s baffling that a film set in the 1980s, fueled as they were by cocaine and Day-Glo synthetics, should take as its dominant tone the color beige. Color and shadow are drained out of nearly every scene leaving a bland, flat wasteland of boring dialogue and little emotion (though Pascal does his best to chew up all the scenery left untouched by Gadot, who never appears to be occupying the same space as the other actors). Clearly this color-scheme is intentional: a labored and unfunny montage of Pine in different 80s outfits ends in him dressed in light earth tones, while Pascal has his hair dyed dirty blonde and wears a beige suit throughout. It’s like going to the beach and staring at the sand. The highway chase, set in a Middle Eastern desert (maybe simply to remind people of Gadot’s IDF past?) is so monochrome it makes the dishwater gray finale of Endgame look vibrant. But even worse is the action itself, which feels absolutely weightless and frictionless: the stunts don’t thrill because nothing tangible actually touches anything else. Diana runs around, over, and through things with no substance, her lasso expands to whatever length the effect requires, a gold line on a computer screen, at one point contracting around a lightning bolt, the impossible physics of which would be cool if it didn’t so well epitomize the flashy nothingness of the movie’s stunts. It’s just all so boring.
And then there’s the film’s subtext, which at the end of this dreadful year of politics is hard to read as anything other than liberal left-punching. Wonder Woman 1984 is about abandoning hope, about the dangers of wishing for things to be better than the way they are. Charitably, it could be read as a paean to Obamaist pragmatism, that there are no shortcuts in life and that change takes hard work which manifests itself in facing hard truths and choosing to do very little about them. It’s hard to make a superhero fantasy movie about how better things aren’t possible, so I guess this is some kind of an accomplishment (and maybe in more subversive hands this idea would in some way connect to the year chosen for the film’s title: the story of a liberal totalitarianism in which the illusion of freedom is granted in exchange for the elimination of imagination). In a way, I kind of admire the perversity of making an 80s throwback movie without using any 80s music and the audacity of making a superhero movie that only Amy Klobuchar could love.
Monster Hunter, on the other hand, has very little in the way of political subtext outside of a vague ideal of people from different worlds uniting together to, well, hunt monsters. Milla Jovovich leads a team of Army Rangers on a search and rescue mission for some other lost soldiers in a desert specified only by longitude and latitude (PWSA does love his maps) but filmed in South Africa. They get lost in a weird sand and lightning storm and end up transported to some new world filled with giant monsters, which attack them almost immediately and eventually wipe-out everyone but Milla. She’s rescued/captured by Tony Jaa, apparently a native of this world, and the two work together to get past the giant beasts blocking their way to a mysterious tower that might send Milla home and unite Tony with his friends and family.
Like all of Anderson’s work, Monster Hunter is neatly structured and rife with cinematic homages. The opening scenes of army-bonding could come out of any war movie made over the past 70 years, gentle ribbing and gun-loading meant to establish character and camaraderie in anticipation of the loss of life to come. It’s here that the corniness of PWSA’s dialogue really shines, though for once his terrible sense of humor has had real consequences as one of his lame puns was taken as a racist insult by seemingly the entire nation of China, killing the film’s box office in that country and, as a result, probably any hope of a sequel in what could have been a promising franchise (the offending joke has been cut from the movie and was not in the screener I watched). The genericness of this opening is, for PWSA fans, part of its charm: he’s one of the few directors in Hollywood today who really believes in the power of cliche. It’s what makes his films feel so refreshing: not a hint of hypocrisy in PWSA’s pumpkin patch, nor cynicism nor smirking contempt for his subject or audience.
The army scenes are followed by a terrifying underground sequence (another PWSA hallmark: he’s suggested that his fear of/attraction to confined spaces has something to do with his youth in coal-mining country) that recalls Aliens at its best. Then the movie settles down for a long middle section that reminded me of nothing less than a remake of John Boorman’s great 1968 film Hell in the Pacific, but with Jovovich and Jaa in the Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune roles. The two start out as enemies, capturing and recapturing each other between fist fights, before finally deciding to work together toward their common goal, which, true to the source material, involves killing one monster to get parts to make a weapon to kill another, bigger monster.
It’s all a great deal of fun, and despite the artificiality of it all (the monsters are of course computer-generated) the action always looks coherent and real. Jovovich and Jaa are both marvelous physical actors and they have an uncanny ability to make the audience feel every kick, punch, stab, and tail-swipe, whether it comes from stunt performers or pixels. Anderson has long been noted for the coherence of his action scenes, a skill he has not lost as he and his editor Doobie White have adopted a faster-cutting aesthetic, which began with their last film, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. It’s important to note that Anderson’s use of quick cuts is wholly different from what I’ll call the R. Scott/Greengrass/Nolan school of editing, which uses speed and shakiness to cover up deficiencies in performers, choreographers, and computers, using chaos to convey a dizziness that’s somewhat akin to the experience of watching action on film. Anderson though is working from what I’ll call the Ching Siu-tung tradition, which uses quick editing for that vertiginous effect while also staying spatially coherent and thus additionally providing the vicarious thrill of a performed stunt (physical or virtual or some combination thereof). When done well, as in Ching’s Swordsman movies, Tsui Hark’s The Blade, Neveldine/Taylor’s 2000s romps (where Doobie White got his start as an editor), and PWSA’s recent films, quick-cut action can be just as thrilling as the master-shot aesthetic of more athletically gifted directors and performers.
As the superhero film has taken over American blockbuster cinema, there’s been a lot of speculation over where this cycle fits with generic cycles of the past, for example the Westerns, musicals and noirs of the late studio era. The question is: are there superhero films that can be made in contrast to the dominant mode of the genre, thus revealing the personality of the person making them? In other words, where are the auteurist superhero films? Is it even possible, given the extent to which the monopolist conglomerates that produce them product-test and focus-group and micromanage their material, for a filmmaker to make the equivalent of Budd Boetticher’s Ranown cycle, or John Ford’s Wagon Master or Two Rode Together, or Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, or, to bring us full circle, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil? I think Anderson’s work is the clearest example that such a thing is possible. Monster Hunter should be, I think, like the Resident Evil series before it, considered a part of the same sci-fi/fantasy genre as Wonder Woman, the MCU films and Disney’s Star Wars films. And in addition to its palpable strengths in production and execution, it certainly reveals the personality of its director in a way none of the elephantine superhero pictures do, embracing the structures and conceits of the genre while tuning them to his own idiosyncratic interests (maps, caves, helping Milla Jovovich look really cool, etc). Years ago, I wrote about Anderson and concluded that he was Lightly Likable, the George Sidney or Busby Berkeley of his time. Since then he’s made two of his finest films, Pompeii and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and made this promising beginning to a new cycle, one which I very much hope he’ll get the chance to continue. He’s moved himself into the expressively esoteric. “Less than meets the eye” doesn’t quite seem right for the WW84s of this cycle though, if only because in them what meets the eye is already so meagre.
*I guess the VOD part of the release hasn’t actually happened. There were rumors that it would be out at the time I wrote this, but I don’t know what the deal was.