Top 100 Blockbusters of the Multiplex Era: The Monster in the Mirror

You can find the full list of the top 100 blockbusters since 1972 here, as well as an index for other posts in this series.

If your monster has a mirror in it, do not shout.

This kind of situation does not call for freaking out.

And do nothing that you would not like to see him do,

Cuz that monster in the mirror:

He just might be you.

Pulp Fiction, one of the great ensemble blockbusters in American history, one which features deaths by handgun and katana and even by accident, takes a roundabout path to forcing Jules Winnfield to fight himself. In one of the early scenes in the film, bullets that should have blown away both Jules and Vincent while they were on a mission to collect a briefcase just…don’t. Jules is positive that those bullets were stopped by divine intervention; Vincent is dubious, to say the least. At the end of the film, Jules ends a robbery in a diner, making this either his last act of a life of crime or his first act of his life as a “shepherd,” someone who intends to protect other people because he feels his life has been spared for a purpose. In a longish monologue spoken while he points his piece at “Ringo,” he recounts his favorite definitely real Bible passage, Ezekiel 25:17, and he speaks firmly about where he fits into it. “The truth is,” he tells the robber, “you’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men.” Jules understands that he has been an errand boy for the powerful and the malevolent, and for a while that was fine because it paid reasonably well and especially because it was a cool job to have. “But I’m trying, Ringo,” he says. “I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.” Jules defeats himself in this scene, and not just because he decides to turn his life around and become useful to people who might need him. It’s also, as Vincent says, that he is taking up a new profession as a “bum.” It’s a romantic decision, one that might kill Jules in the long run. That Vincent doesn’t even survive the short run means that Jules might have had a point.

Grover and I might call it “the monster in the mirror,” looking at yourself and having that jolt when you see what’s looking back at you. Your eighth grade reading teacher would probably call them “character foils” instead. Either way, it’s as reliable a way to create conflict as I can think of. Fight yourself and there is necessarily an interesting change, as Jules shows us, although this kind of inner conflict is not often the basis for a movie that makes hundreds of millions of dollars. If your blockbuster is going to be about this particular idea, typically you have to dress it up a little. Consider Groundhog Day adequately dressed up, a film which is easily sold as the “that one where the universe forces Bill Murray to relive one day over and over again.” It’s funny because he carjacks a truck with a groundhog in it, or finds new and wonderful ways to kill himself, or becomes a real whiz at that one episode of Jeopardy. But it’s a great movie because Phil Connors has to look at himself after many, many years of being stuck in this little town, since after a while there’s nowhere else to look. Phil spends three and a half decades of his life in Punxsutawney, a long enough time for someone to age into a midlife crisis, let alone overcome it. Groundhog Day has a happy ending, which is a little surprising for a film in this vein. Most of them angle a little more in the direction of bittersweet than cheerful, but that’s what Groundhog Day chooses to do. Why shouldn’t it? Phil Connors goes from being the kind of guy who has developed a narcissistic complex over being a Pittsburgh weatherman to the kind of guy who puts his entire life into trying to save an old homeless man who will be old and homeless tomorrow, too. Convinced for a while that he must be a deathless god, he finds that being unable to die himself is not the same as being able to give life to anyone else. Phil was already on a path to improving himself by the time he devotes himself to the old man, but surely there’s something sacred in that doomed old fellow, as he is the only person in Punxsutawney who can do something that Phil wants to do and cannot.

Equally dressed up is Amadeus, albeit in more elaborate costume and in front of more elaborate sets. I’ve always thought of the film as one of the better stories about religious faith, if for no other reason than its unusual tack of “God is real, and he’s a real piece of work.” Salieri’s rejection of his God of Bargains, who has, in Salieri’s mind, reneged on a deal to make Salieri the world’s great composer, is one of the most dramatic monologues in the past four decades of commercial cinema. Yet the film is no less compelling from a perspective that does not grant Salieri the grace of a supernatural enemy. If God is not real, or if God simply was not the reason for the rises of Salieri and Mozart to their relative heights, then Salieri is truly thrusting against himself. This is a perspective that a new ending of the play by Peter Shaffer ultimately presents—the Requiem is for the boy in Lombardy who was poisoned by ambition—and it’s in the Amadeus which precedes it. Belief in God is not a prerequisite for spite, avarice, or envy, and although Salieri is a much cannier figure than his frenemies in the musical firmament of the Holy Roman Empire, that political brain only serves him so well. So he manages to get Mozart strung out a few years earlier than he might have done on his own: not exactly a master stroke! Salieri has multiple opportunities to change his relationship to Mozart throughout the film, and in the end discovers that all his scheming has done is allowed God/History to have the last laugh. Salieri has outlived Mozart, but he has also outlived his own reputation.

The monster in the mirror is typically a product of the character’s choices, but there are some rare occasions where the character’s circumstances are significantly more important to putting one face in front of the other. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon centers on two women with complicated romantic feelings. Shu Lien is in love with Mu Bai, who seems to feel similarly but refuses to act on those feelings to respect the memory of his friend, her fiance, who died years ago. Jen is in love with Lo, who absolutely feels similarly but who is separated from Jen by social class, for she is a noblewoman and he a thief. Both of them can claim a tragic love in the sense that neither one would choose rationally to love the men they do, but it is circumstance more than personality or desire which characterizes those affairs. Courtliness is at the center of both affairs. Shu Lien cannot violate her ethics, or the ethics of her class, for love; it’s a question of having to live with herself. On the other hand, Jen feels a great empowerment in rejecting the niceties of her social class because she comes from a higher stratum than Shu Lien. Falling for Lo is the kind of class betrayal which only the truly rich can ever commit. Jen is not going to be able to go home again after her escape from a proper marriage and her escapades with the Green Destiny, but all the same that higher starting point emboldens her to act more securely for the love she wants. Shu Lien, through no fault of her own, cannot feel emboldened in that same way. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl has its own thieves to contend with, and focuses on them rather than high-born characters. Will Turner and Captain Jack Sparrow are mirror images of one another, down to their interest in the same woman. Both of them come from a pirate background, but where Jack has put himself in a trebuchet to be launched at this lifestyle, Will, who is in fairness ignorant of his late father’s profession, has made a significant part of his identity an anti-pirate one. Circumstance alone creates the feelings they have about these buccaneers, and the film takes some pleasure in loosening Will up to a life of theft and kidnapping and whatever else goes into being a Disney pirate. Jack Sparrow proves to have solutions to Will’s problems which a more straitlaced and less desperate Will would have rejected, and so it is that Will trades in his goody-good card by film’s end for a ridiculous hat with a ridiculous feather and a chorus of “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me).”

Shu Lien does not make Jen; Jack Sparrow, despite all of his nudging, does not make Will. There are blockbusters, though, which are primarily interested in the ways that one person makes a mirror image of himself that is warped beyond acceptance. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Kirk does not, strictly speaking, make Khan. Khan was a megalomaniac deposed many years before Kirk’s parents were born, and the fact that Khan was marooned on a planet (“THIS IS CETI ALPHA V!”) which happened to be suffer an enormous disaster is not Kirk’s fault. The reason that Khan chooses to make his first order of business avenging himself against Kirk, however, lies in some perverse way with the captain of the Enterprise. In doing what he thought was the best course of action, he has created something new in Khan. The tenacity and lust for power that animated Khan as a warlord on Earth has now been fused into a single weapon, because it is much simpler to execute one man than it is a spaceship or a continent. The two of them are formidable foes for one another, in large part because they are so similar. Both men are tactical geniuses, and neither one of them has any ability to surrender or go quietly into the night. The Kobayashi Maru reveal—that Kirk cheated the test by reprogramming it so that it was possible to win—is not so different from a bloodied Khan’s final Melvillean gesture, stabbing from “Hell’s heart” at Kirk by arming the Genesis weapon which will take the Enterprise with him to the grave. Perhaps this is why the real hero of Wrath of Khan is not really Kirk, but Spock, who dies in the procedure which allows Kirk and his subordinates to survive Khan’s explosive final work. There is too much Kirk in Khan, and vice versa, and it requires a translation by a better type of man to allow Kirk to survive that encounter. Another blockbuster sequel watches a better man create a much worse one, although the tragedy in that story is a greater one.

The Godfather Part II is structured so we can see the difference between Vito and Michael as they cement their power. Where Vito comes to his mastery of the criminal underworld from a mixture of accident and an urge to protect the weak, Michael’s tightening grip is one which pits him as one more capitalist greedhead with greater leeway to wipe out the competition. This is the most straightforward reading, and obviously there’s something to that, but in presenting Vito’s brutality as pragmatism and Michael’s as style, that reading tends to weaken what’s most interesting about the connection between the two men. The sins of Michael’s father are too separate from Michael himself in that reading for my taste. It seems to me that a more potent understanding of those two sees Michael as a natural evolution of his father, as opposed to a disappointment who takes the business of being “Don Corleone” too far. Vito does a lot of dirty work himself, where Michael spends a lot of time brooding in his lake house and sending people on errands. The difference, in my view, is a marginal one; Vito blows away Fanucci himself and Michael has Fredo killed, but they’re still corpses, killed for personal gain, regardless of who pulled the trigger.

The monster in the mirror who must be the most popular is the one who is most literal. The relationship between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight might be one of the four or five most important relationships in popular film this millennium, which is probably a form of cosmic punishment for the way the world impaled Heaven’s Gate or something. It’s now common knowledge that one cannot live while the other survives. Both of them are true psychos who dress up in costumes and take their approaches beyond what the normal people in Gotham can do. The Dark Knight is special because it recognizes, at least for a little while, that Batman is not the kind of hero that any city after, oh, the year 600 can really rely on as a basis for maintaining the civilization. The film imagines a future for Gotham in which a crusading district attorney like Harvey Dent can put the bad guys behind bars and do what needs to be done legally. What happens instead is that a true basket case manages to centralize local crime, the cops are unable to do what needs to be done, and the basket case on the side of righteousness uses a personalized NSA and his fists to deal with the chaotic basket case. Speed is a much more compelling version of this story because of how near the gazer and the mirror figure are to one another. Howard Payne is not so far away from Jack Traven. The former is an ex-LAPD officer, the latter a current one, and both of them are fiendishly devoted to completing the mission. The difference is that Payne is trying to blow stuff up while Traven is trying to stop him, obviously, but these men are the same dough kneaded different ways. The characteristics in Traven that make him a great police officer—the physical bravery, the desire to fulfill the mission, the problem-solving, the dogged perseverance—are the characteristics that make Payne a threatening local terrorist. Speed requires a man-to-man showdown between the two because they are so much like one another more than it needs one of them to get obliterated by a different form of public transit. And then there’s Black Panther, which follows the same basic blueprint as The Dark Knight but folds in more sympathy for the villain than we generally get in a regular blockbuster. We don’t need to recap the extent to which Killmonger actually had a point; I think everyone can appreciate that Wakanda, in the face of enormous oppression of Black people across the world, probably could have stood to exert more resources and effort to push back. What makes Killmonger a villain are intentions; he takes power legally and then decides that international terrorism is the route that he wants Wakanda to take under his rule. The intentions are probably better than T’Challa’s are, even if the world is not likely to be improved, precisely, if Wakanda is acting like the United States with better technology. Black Panther is interesting because of how much the gazer is improved in the end by his tussle with the mirror image. T’Challa, once we hit the famous storytelling device known as the “mid-credits scene,” has decided to do the community service version of T’Challa’s radical politics.

Sometimes, the monster in the mirror is, well, the mirror itself. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone uses the Mirror of Erised as the final twist. In an earlier interlude, Harry learns what the mirror does—it shows the gazer what they want most of all—and uses that to his advantage in this second faceoff with Voldemort. Sorcerer’s Stone does not blame Harry, an orphan who cannot remember his parents, for wanting to see his family terribly. Nor does it blame Ron, the sixth brother of six, who sees a vision of himself in which he has combined all of his brothers’ accomplishments into himself. But what it does is prove something about Harry which we’ve never really had reason to believe before. Harry has some internal decency; he sides with underdogs against bullies, and he believes in fair play. But it’s not until he looks into the same mirror that Voldemort is looking into (and which Dumbledore had looked into and lied about) that we realize that Harry has a kind of nobility which is rare among people, let alone eleven-year-olds. In a moment of enormous crisis, what Harry wants most is not to use the Sorcerer’s Stone, but to hide it, to keep it so it can be transferred to more responsible hands. There’s a monster inside that mirror which Harry has learned from, and thus he understands how to conquer it. Any monster in the mirror film is moralizing in some way or another, setting up dualities to point at as “good and bad” or “worse and worser.” Sorcerer’s Stone uses the mirror to hammer that point home with a giant nail.

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