The new trailer for Eli Roth’s Death Wish has dropped, and causing a bit of controversy as you might as well imagine. A throwback (whether ironic or not is up for debate) to the “hero vigilante” movies of the 1970s and early 1980s, this remake of the 1974 classic features Bruce Willis as a “guy with a gun” getting revenge on the people who hurt his family (as well as shooting “bad guys” everywhere).
What immediately struck me about this (much reviled, in certain circles) trailer is how much the movie is reminiscent of Willis’ 2000 film Unbreakable, in terms of general premise (“who is that lone hero?”) and iconography. And by “iconography,” I’m specifically talking about the hoodie Willis wears.
Technically, what Willis wears in Unbreakable is more of a parka. But the archetype still “reads.” Because Death Wish—at least in terms of the trailer—seems to be presenting Willis as kind of a superhero, in a similar way that the M. Night Shyamalan flick presents Willis’ character, David Dunn, as a superhero. But it is a very specific type of superhero.
It is The Loner As Superhero.
We saw this motif all the way back in 2013 with Iron Man III, as Tony Stark, on the run, dons the familiar hoodie and sunglasses. There was a very bizarre similarity between that look and the famous police sketch of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; the same way there was an uncanny similarity between the illustration of a “hipster terrorist” in Peter Thiel’s book Zero To One and Elliot in Mr. Robot (a show that debuted after the book):
Kaczynski’s methods were crazy, but his loss of faith in the technological frontier is all around us. Consider the trivial but revealing hallmarks of urban hipsterdom: faux vintage photography, the handlebar mustache, and vinyl record players all harken back to an earlier time when people were still optimistic about the future.
If Elliot Alderson is the “hipster” version of this archetype, then Bruce Willis’ Paul Kersey is clearly the older, more conservative version. The entire Death Wish mythos revolves around an older man who is constantly shellshocked regarding the passing of an idealized era of “heroes,” fatally disillusioned by what he ultimately considers to be the death of the American Dream.
How very much the polar opposite the Loner As Superhero is from the Superman archetype. Superman—the “post-human” human, the Visitor From Another World. Compare these cinematic heroes from the 1970s: Charles Bronson in his leather jacket and and Christopher Reeves’ smiling alien in a red-and-blue nylon outfit:
Our society is so polarized at the moment that I cannot even say that the Loner As Superhero is “the” hero of the current era. Wonder Woman is also extremely popular, and she, like Superman, is that red-and-blue-styled Visitor From Another World—with inborn powers far beyond those of “mortals.”
One could almost say that young Peter Parker, with his working-class roots in Queens, is sort of like the midpoint between these two hero archetypes. He is Us but also Not-Us. He is sort of a vigilante, working outside the law—but also works with The Avengers. Like David Dunn, he straddles the world between the “regular folk” and the superhuman.
But the protagonist of the new Death Wish is not so ambiguous. This is a “ground-level” hero archetype. It is the “hero” whose “super powers” come from technology: guns, computers, even Tony Stark’s robotics.
Some critics have asked if Eli Roth isn’t completely irresponsible to present such a gung-ho vigilante movie like Death Wish in our current tense political/ideological climate. Will this movie not “set off” possible mass shooters and/or people of the Kaczynski variety and increase overall violence?
I guess the questions I’ll answer those questions with are: is Death Wish a “provocative” movie, or merely reflecting the energy that is already out there? Is Roth presenting this story sans irony or will there be more layers to the film that we haven’t seen in the trailer?
Can these heroes co-exist in the realm of popular culture? Or is this Batman Vs. Superman type conflict—and Ben Affleck’s Batman is certainly a vigilante of the Hero As Loner mold—just inevitable?
Can removing these types of narratives from pop-culture “fix” anything? Who will judge? Or should the box-office judge? Do we just let these filmmakers present their different narratives and may best film “win?”