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This Summer’s Real Superhero Movies

June 24, 2018

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Have I mentioned how sick I am of superhero movies? Oh, I have? My comic-book fatigue even impinged on my enjoyment of Incredibles 2. I mean, it was fine, but my constant cinematic craving is credibility. Realism is my guiding aesthetic in drama and comedy, and lately it’s led me to a newfound appreciation for documentaries.

A pair of such non-fiction films, RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, has pulled off the superhuman feat of cracking the box-office top 10 in the middle of the summer-movie schlockbuster season. But that’s not all these bio-docs of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and children’s TV pioneer Fred Rogers have in common.

They’re both portraits of soft-spoken rebels. Neither Ginsburg nor Rogers is known for raising their voices. The jurist recalls one of the most important lessons her mother (who died when Ginsburg was 17) taught her was to always act like a lady, which meant not to yell, and she has found over the course of her legal career that a measured tone proved more effective in arguing her cases for gender equality. Rogers, too, became famous for his gentle demeanor, yet in his own way, he was equally revolutionary, and his kindness and respect for others (especially kids) seems more radical than ever in today’s atmosphere of round-the-clock contentiousness.

They’re both defined by their uniforms. No, they don’t wear capes and tights (although some of the Notorious RBG’s fan art depicts her as Wonder Woman or an Avenger), but Ginsburg proudly displays the array of collars she wears on different occasions. Every episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began with the host walking in the front door wearing a jacket and dress shoes and changing into a friendlier sweater and sneakers.

They’ve both been vilified by extremists. RBG opens with an audio montage of right-wing radio hosts describing Ginsburg in hateful, often misogynistic terms like witch and zombie. Meanwhile, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? includes a sequence in which the hosts of the misnamed Fox & Friends, among others, attack Rogers as “evil” for having told kids they were special just for being themselves, allegedly creating a generation of entitled snowflakes. Bizarrely, homophobic protestors also picketed Rogers’ funeral, simply because he was tolerant of gays.

They’ve both been parodied by Saturday Night Live. One of the most entertaining scenes in the hugely enjoyable RBG chronicles the famously humorless judge (her kids kept a book called Mommy Laughed memorializing the rare occasions when she cracked up) watching Kate McKinnon’s exuberant impersonation of her on SNL.  For the record, Ginsburg giggles.

Rogers wasn’t always as amused by late-night spoofs, but he recounts an affectionate encounter he had with Eddie Murphy, who did his own inner-city SNL homage, Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.

They’ll both soon be subjects of dramatic biopics. Felicity Jones will play Ginsberg in On the Basis of Sex, due in theaters this November, which means fictionalized and factual depictions of RBG could both be up for Oscars next year. And two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks will play Rogers in You Are My Friend, the story of the host’s bond with journalist Tom Junod, who’s also one of the most engaging interview subjects in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Two more movies without a superhero in sight? That’s what I’d call a beautiful day in my neighborhood.

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