One of the most distressing aspects of the superhero movie boom in America is how self-important they all are. It's getting so you can't even get a guy all the way into those carefully sculpted multihued costumes before he starts brooding, and you feel the axes of the world start to grind into a new position, around him.
There's no other choice for a screen superhero these days: anything else is camp, and camp is what we got rid of with Superman: The Movie, right? Treating a superhero with anything other than deadly, even morose, seriousness became a cinematic capital offense after 1979, and all the violators are summarily written off just to prove it. It's only gotten worse lately, with the deification of the Christopher Nolan Batman in a series of movies so intensely self-involved that you yearn for a stray wink from Morgan Freeman just to lighten the load. The less said about the progression of X-Men movies, the better. And judging by the clips from forthcoming efforts like Man of Steel the near future offers slim hope of reprieve.
Dark and Light Narm-Loving Heroes
It's worse than you might think, too, because even the lighthearted cape movies can be the worst offenders. It looked at first as if The Amazing Spider-Man were coming from a fresh place, and that they'd learned from the painful last half-hour of Spider-Man 3 (Watch as Peter forgives the Sandman! Watch as Harry forgives Peter! Watch as no one forgives the screenwriters, and the franchise literally dies a painful death!). Sitting in the theater a warm hope simmered in my chest -- until that deadly, narmtastic climax where every crane operator in New York adjusts his noble blue collar and solemnly revolves their equipment, lining up to help and repay the selfless service of our wounded, child-saving hero (yak). Even the ludicrous success of The Avengers is almost certainly partly owing to there not having been time enough for this kind of nonsense -- oh, wait, isn't The Avengers the one where they brutally kill off the most beloved character in the entire history of Marvel movies, literally tossing his blood-covered personal effects at us, just to jar the squabbling heroes out of their endless yo-mama contest?
I mention all of this because there turns out to be a solution, and it's actually remarkably simple: Get someone else besides Hollywood to make your damn superhero movies. Case in point: Chernaya Molniya (2009, known in English as Black Lightning), the first cape movie I've seen in ages -- probably since The Incredibles (and for something live action you'd have to go even further back) -- that treats its subject seriously and yet is nonetheless an absolute pleasure to watch from start to finish. It respects its material enough that there isn't an atom of camp or glibness in it, and yet it respects its audience enough that there's no narm, either. The people who made Chernaya Molniya have disinterred the idea that superhero movies are supposed to be fun.
The Origin Story
At first glance, Chernaya Molniya isn't your common-or-garden capes and costumes movie, but the only difference in the plot trajectory is that the charmingly reserved protagonist, Dima (played with surefooted confidence by Grigoriy Dobrygin), discovers himself to be in possession not of superhuman powers but of a superpowered black 1966 Volga sedan. Everything else is archetypal: the car, the product of a purportedly unsuccessful Cold War-era project, falls out of history and eventually comes into the hands of Dima, a poor college student who envies the ability of his rich but callow friend Maks (Ivan Zhidkov) to catch the eye of a shy new beauty, Nastya (a wide-eyed Ekaterina Vilkova).
Dima, an innocent yearning for a path in life, discovers the car's capacity to tear across the sky at unbelievable speeds and uses it to emulate the self-made, look-out-for-number-one industrialist he's recently met, Kuptsov (Viktor Verzhbitsky, famous in Russia but, to our loss, little known here), until in the wake of a tragedy he successively reshapes himself, with quiet but fierce determination, into a protector of the people.
Welcome Deviation from the Expected
The chapter headings are Superhero 101, but the execution is pure joy. All aspects of the story are approached with care and intelligence. An example: we've all seen movies where newscasters tell us the plot, because that's the laziest way for a screenwriter to talk to the audience. But in Black Lightning, this technique is rotated 90 degrees, with a couple of passing TV news reports facing toward the action and shouldering the characters toward new conflicts. Or: It would have been very easy to make Maks, Dima's rival for the heroine's attention, into an obnoxious cartoon (like, say, Flash in the first Spider-Man); but Maks is just a guy, and it's Dima who, as his moral divining rod quivers and twists, ends up crossing a line as he competes with Maks.
The car itself has immense character and as intriguing a backstory as any of the bipeds in the movie, partly because of details like the Cold War project having been scuttled not because of failure but because of the petty intrigues of a quaint love triangle (signified by a scratchy recording of the two men in duet with guitar, which also serves a plot function as well), and partly because the car's story, like the movie itself, is deeply rooted in its own Russianness. The Volga's stark form and leaping hood ornament suggest a bygone, uncomfortably remembered time very different from the bustling money-suffused world of Maks's gleaming Mercedes. Its powers owe to a device called the nanocatalyst the heart of which was a peculiar rock found on the Moon, glancing on the Russian pride in having been the first nation in space. Even the idea of a flying rocket-car is the pure wish-fulfillment of every Muscovite who's spent his life parked in the city's unbeatable traffic jams.
Car Vs. Car
Any doubt that Black Lightning is a superhero movie is set aside at the climax, in which the villain, having determined that this hero must be fought with an escalation of the same concept in nemesis form, crosses blades with our hero in deadly earnest in a battle of version 1 plus heart against version 2 contaminated by evil -- just like The Incredible Hulk, just like Iron Man. Only in this case, Kuptsov comes to the conclusion that, with Black Lightning unbeatable by henchmen driving ordinary cars on the ground, the only way to destroy his enemy is to create his own, better flying car. The subtitle for Chernaya Molniya should be: In a World Without Helicopters.
Of course, that doesn't matter: that particular bit of myopia is part of the movie's charm. What matters is Dima's character arc, and thanks to the directors (Dmitriy Kiselev and Aleksandr Voytinskiy), writers (Dmitriy Aleynikov and Aleksandr Talal), and a sterling performance from Dobrygin, every moment of it rings true. Anyone making a superhero movie from here on out should have Chernaya Molniya assigned as homework before he shoots a single frame.
Availability: The Region 1 DVD from Universal is slated for release April 2, 2013, but earlier releases of the film may be found and it's available on Netflix.