In today’s world it’s not enough to simply be a hero. Now you must be a superhero. Unlike the old days when square-jawed movie stars rescued damsels in distress or battled cold-hearted landlords, today’s champions won’t get out of bed for anything less than the threat of complete world annihilation. Liberating a cat from a tree or performing the Heimlich Maneuver is considered HeroLite™, the work of lesser lifesavers.
Today it’s all about averting the apocalypse. In Captain America: Civil War the idea of how to police and ultimately save the world is at the heart of the action and X-Men: Apocalypse’s bad guy has grandiose plans to “cleanse mankind and create a new world order.”
This weekend the heroes of Independence Day: Resurgence join Mystique, Quicksilver, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Donatello, Captain America and legendary do-gooders Batman and Superman in some good, old fashioned world saving.
The twenty-years-in-the-making sequel to Will Smith’s mega-hit sees aliens from outside the Solar System attack our planet. It’s life and death on a planetary scale, a premise that has become increasingly popular in recent years.
It’s not a surprise the stories are getting larger and louder. Audiences want a big bang for their buck and Hollywood is pleased to oblige with high stakes situations that provide frenetic action and happy endings (unless, of course you’re rooting for the bad guy). These days Hollywood also looks to overseas markets for mega-revenue and presenting globe-spanning stories helps to attract crowds in other countries.
Business aside, why have audiences embraced world-on-the-brink movies?
Films, says Dr. Norman Holland, Marston-Milbauer Eminent Scholar Emeritus at the University of Florida, work on different parts of your brain.
“The parts that turn off are the parts that plan action because you’re not going to act on what you see on the screen in front of you,” he says. “You turn off the systems that plan, that look ahead that evaluate futures. That explains the phenomenon of the willing suspension of disbelief. You accept the most improbable things, like Stars Wars or Spider-Man or whatever. At the same time the lower centres of your brain are generating emotions like mad in response to what you’re seeing. This is the peculiar phenomenon that you can feel and care about these people on the screen while at the same time knowing they are nothing but a fiction.”
In other words, it’s what legendary purveyor of thrills Alfred Hitchcock said. “People like to be scared when they feel safe.”
We live in unsettling and troubled times and going to the movies can provide an escape. In these heroic tales good almost always wins out, a comforting antidote to the nightly news where stories often don’t have happy endings. It makes us feel good, but, as Dr. Holland notes, it’s also restful.
“As you know they are redesigning movie theatres with recliner chairs so you can sleep through the movie,” he says. “Yes, it is relaxing. This is the part of your brain that worries, that plans for the future, that is concerned about the state of your body. All that shuts down. It’s restful, no question.”
Going to the movies is restful? Good for us? Seems like in our busy, stressful world it’s the films that are the heroes, not the characters.
Years ago Cliff Arnall, a tutor at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University, declared January to be the most depressing month of the year. “Following the initial thrill of New Year’s celebrations and changing over a new leaf,” Arnall said, “reality starts to sink in.” His study cited weather, debt, time elapsed since Christmas, average hours of daylight and unsuccessful New Year’s resolutions” as the reasons for the slump and named the third Monday of the month Blue Monday, the single most depressing day of the year.
Whether Arnall’s “sadness algorithm” passes scientific muster remains to be seen but there’s no denying January can be dispiriting. This year Cineplex is offering up a way to beat the January blahs—cheap movies. On January 18 Scene card members can redeem just 500 points to see any movie at Cineplex, from general admission auditoriums all the way up to the fancy-dancy VIP Cinemas.
In a recent survey Canada’s largest film exhibitor discovered 45% of Canadians say they typically feel rested after watching a movie while 38% say they feel “less stressed, like I took a mini vacation.”
Marston-Milbauer Eminent Scholar Emeritus at the University of Florida Dr. Norman Holland is an expert in psychoanalytic criticism and cognitive poetics, which in layman’s terms means he has made a study of how our brains translate activities like going to the cinema into pleasure. “It’s restful, no question,” he says.
“The parts of your brain that turn off are the parts that plan action because you’re not going to act on what you see on the screen in front of you. You turn off the systems that plan, that look ahead that evaluate futures. That explains the phenomenon of the willing suspension of disbelief. You accept the most improbable things, like Stars Wars or Spider-Man. At the same time the lower centres of your brain are generating emotions like mad in response to what you’re seeing. This is the peculiar phenomenon that you can feel and care about these people on the screen while at the same time knowing they are nothing but a fiction.”
The Cineplex survey indicates that when feeling blue 78% of Canadians look to funny movies to cheer them up. “We don’t want Ingmar Bergman on Blue Monday,” says Dr. Holland. “The idea is to do something for yourself. Do something that pleases you.”
Overall, according to Cineplex, Canada’s top two comfort movies are the Robin Williams comedy Mrs. Doubtfire and Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Men chose the uplifting prison break movie The Shawshank Redemption as their favourite feel good flick.
Dr. Holland isn’t surprised the top movies are old favourites featuring big stars. “Familiar characters, familiar faces,” he says. “They’re people we’ve had good experiences with before and can expect [to have] good experiences with again.”
So what would the good doctor go see on Blue Monday? “8 ½ by Fellini,” he says. It’s a fanciful movie that engages both the emotional and intellectual sides of the brain. “I love Fellini.”