On Wednesday, I wrote about how audiences’ increasing fluency in the narrative language of superheroes opens new avenues for storytelling. I stand by that argument. I look forward to the stories comic book cinema can tell now that we don’t need to rebuild an entire language every film.
But as I sing the praises of complexity and sophistication, I hear behind the song a silence, and hushed anxious whispers.
Let me explain.
After graduating from college, I taught English at a magnet high school in rural Anhui province, in southern China. Xiuning County, the area where I lived, has developed a great deal since I left, but during my years there my school was surrounded on three sides by farms, far as the eye could see. Across the road stood a small village, centuries old, with a few hundred people, no stoplights or cars. Many families kept a pig in a hutch out back.
CREDIT: Max Gladstone
My school was the county’s best, its students the cream of the high school entrance examination. As such, kids came from hours in every direction. Most couldn’t return home daily, especially given their three hours of tutorial sessions every evening. They slept on campus, in cozy eight-bunk rooms.
The kids had class six days a week, and half-days on Saturday — a third or so of the student body, mostly those from the deepest corners of the countryside, couldn’t make it home and back in that half-day. They became semester-long boarders. Hundreds of teenagers cooped up with nothing to do on a Saturday night.
Partly to give the students options, and partly as an excuse to borrow the campus’s digital projector, Wyatt (my co-teacher on site) and I began hosting English-language movie night. Our first attempt, the Lord of the Rings, was a smash success, packed houses every showing, a hundred students at least. Cash… wasn’t. And while Wyatt and I enjoyed The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it turns out Leone’s masterpiece was too slow for our kids. After two rough weekends in a row, we needed a surefire crowd-pleaser. Enter: Indiana Jones.
Raiders killed, as did Temple. And then came Last Crusade.
Near the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s an extended action sequence where Indy fights a tank. Much punching and Wilhelm screaming ensue. A Nazi gets crunched under a tank tread. And, at the very end of the sequence, the tank tumbles over the edge of a cliff, taking Indy with it.
Great culmination to an action scene, right? I mean, it’s obvious Indy isn’t dead. We still have half an hour or so of movie left, and his character arcs with Ilsa and Henry remain open. But what a way to break us out of the go-go-go of an action sequence, recenter the characters, tug our heartstrings on some unconscious level even though we know there’s no way Indy’s gone…
Henry Jones Sr. peered over the edge of the cliff. Far below, the tank’s crashed remains burned.
CREDIT: Lucasfilm Ltd.
And I heard the silence.
A hundred teenagers, who’d spent the last hour and a half whispering to one another, texting, looking up vocabulary on their phones, explaining plot points, gossiping—a hundred teenagers stared fixedly at the screen.
Two decades ago a foley artist rendered the faintest gust of wind over desert sand, and his art has never had a more attentive audience than our students in that chemistry classroom.
Hushed whispers trespassed on the silence: 《死了。肯定死了。》 He’s dead. He’s certainly dead. 《不可能！》 Impossible.
In the front of the room, a girl began to cry.
And then — when Indy’s hand inevitably juts out from the abyss to grab the edge of the cliff and haul himself to safety —
You may think you’ve seen theaters applaud. I certainly did.
I had never seen anything like this. Cheering. Hugging. Hands in the air. Kids turned around in seats, to point excitedly at the screen in case their fellow students missed what just happened. Palpable relief.
Maybe it was the magic of the big screen. Maybe it was the quality of the film. Maybe my students were especially involved with Indy, or maybe they were less jaded to a particular kind of Spielbergian film technique than American audiences. Whatever the reason, they carried me along with them, and for a moment, in that dark room in southern China, I saw the resurrection of Indiana Jones.
As we grow comfortable with genre conventions, we can forget how marvelous it is to believe for the first time a man can fly. To see the plucky hero return for the first time from the grave. To hear Obi-Wan whisper in our ear. To feel our sense of possibility dilate to admit a miracle. These realignments happen rarely, but when they happen, we remember. Such moments become the foundations of our stories; such surprises form the rituals of narrative.
So while I salute the superheroic fluency of cinema audiences, I wonder from what direction that next big surprise will come. Because using a narrative language may be silver — but inventing a narrative language is gold.