It’s no revelation to say that we are living in a Golden Age of superhero films. The spandex-clad superhumans have invaded film and TV to such an extent that each year’s highest grossing movies and most eagerly anticipated shows are frequently superhero fodder. This is a time when the next Bond is scheduled for an April release so that it doesn’t have to compete with the likes of Black Widow in a superhero-saturated spring and summer line-up. With superhero branding currently the most lucrative association for a franchise, it is easy to overlook the increasing number of smaller, more obscure (and often thrillingly original) films whose themes, narratives and (anti-)heroes fit the conventions of the superhero genre without feeling the need to market themselves as such. Joachim Trier’s criminally under-seen Thelma is a prime example: imagine a Jean Grey origin story filtered through the blood-smeared prism of a Norwegian erotic horror, and the result is just as awesome and superpower-centric as that sounds. Two other films equally worthy of superhero movie stature are Gareth Tunley’s The Ghoul and Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade.
There are few films as impenetrably opaque as The Ghoul. Gareth Tunley’s feature film debut sees detective Chris (Tom Meeten) investigating a perplexing double homicide, faking acute depression in order to gain time alone with the psychiatrist of the lead suspect. What starts off as a routine crime thriller quickly develops into a labyrinthine narrative that throws objective reality into a blender and challenges you to piece it back together again – like some kind of gritty, epistemological smoothie. Chris soon recounts to the psychiatrist that part of his mental illness involves playing out a fantasy in which he is a detective: is this an elaborate backstory to avoid suspicion, a false confession drawn out of him by a manipulative psychiatrist with ulterior motives, or is it simply the truth? There is no clear answer to this question. Searching for it may strain the attention of some viewers. The film’s intrigue lies in its sinister ambiguity.
The Ghoul‘s shocking climax is equal parts cathartic and bleak, depending on your interpretation of previous events, as Chris’ journey towards it can either be read as a bloody-but-triumphant reclaiming of his original identity in the face of his psychiatrist’s efforts to reduce him to an inept depressive state, or the horrific result of a complete mental breakdown. It is these possible delusions of grandeur that mark The Ghoul out as a potential superhero film, the protagonist striving to move beyond his bleak and insignificant existence to serve a larger purpose. It presents a twist on the classic superhero trope of the alter-ego, whereby even the hero himself is unsure of his true identity.
Chris’ battle against his depression (nicknamed ‘The Ghoul’) is itself a heroic effort, yet the psychiatrists themselves are also worthy of villainous stature. Alleged by a fellow patient to be cultists seeking to achieve immortality by creating a loop inside their patient’s minds (which they can then supernaturally inhabit), they present an evil fantastical force for the protagonist to battle through his (potentially) fantastical role as a detective and crime fighter. Alternatively, they can be seen as a physical manifestation of his depression, restricting his contact with the outside world and potentially orchestrating his ultimate isolation. So the film can be interpreted in a number of ways: either as a heroic journey to vanquish supernatural villains, a bleak account of a delusional depressive whose illness drives him towards atrocity, or a cathartic journey to overcome a Ghoulish mental sickness that has infected the protagonist since the prologue. By the end of the film, morality has been thrown into doubt completely, leaving us questioning if we are left with a hero who dreams of saving others, or a villain who destroys them before he can save himself.
Upgrade’s ‘hero’ is Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analogue character in a decidedly digital age, resisting the pull of near-future technology in favour of a simple life as a classic car restorer for the super-rich and loving boyfriend to his girlfriend Asha. That is, until a violent encounter results in Asha’s murder and Grey being paralysed from the neck down. With nothing left to live for, his latest billionaire client offers him an experimental surgical procedure in which an artificial intelligence chip (named STEM) will be inserted into his spine to operate his body for him. Grey seizes upon the chance to use STEM to track down the people who took everything from him. What follows is a genre-skewing exercise in brutally efficient action and unnerving science fiction that plays out in an impressively rendered dystopian cityscape to the propulsive tune of a foreboding electronic score.
It’s also an effective superhero/villain origin story. Many have compared it to a certain other 2018 superhero film featuring a character’s similar mental battle with a manipulative higher intelligence: Venom. It is certainly startling how easily Upgrade fits into the figurative spandex of the genre. The joy of Whannell’s film is that STEM doesn’t just grant Grey a return to physical normality, but is able to take control of his body and use its superior intelligence and combat skills to decimate any fleshy obstacle that stands in Grey’s way. Bursting forth in a series of rigid staccato movements dealt with a cruel, calculated efficiency, Grey’s superpowered fight scenes are stunning, thanks in large part to cinematographer Stefan Duscio treating his camera like Grey’s helpless Siamese twin. His lens dodges, lunges and somersaults as it mirrors Grey’s acrobatic movements.
Of course, with great power comes great need to hide said power for the sake of those you love (and plot intrigue, and the ability to continue beating your enemies into a bloody pulp uninterrupted). In the case of Upgrade, STEM relinquishes control so that Grey can revert to quadriplegia and allay any suspicions. The film’s most intriguing aspect lies in it going one step further than The Ghoul by not simply blurring the line between superhero and supervillain, but between protagonists. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly uncertain whose origin story we are watching – that of a man seeking revenge for his loved one with the help of an AI, or that of an AI seeking freedom from the shackles of its hardware through exploiting the mind of an emotionally unstable man. The screenplay kindles this question expertly, allowing it to singe the narrative until it finally engulfs the climax.
With an oddly charismatic monotone voice, STEM makes for unsettlingly engaging company as he speaks to Grey in a kind of externally-imposed internal monologue, helping to plan and orchestrate his every move. It is still rare to find a superhero film where hero and antagonist are equally compelling, let alone one where the superhero (literally) embodies both characters. As Grey and STEM gain and reveal new abilities, struggling to hide their true selves from those that might destroy what they most value, Upgrade announces itself as an unofficial superhero film with increasing conviction as its narrative progresses from one gorgeously grisly fight scene to another towards a boldly intellectual (if not wholly original) finale. A violent superhero film where the protagonist struggles to achieve symbiosis with a seemingly sinister foreign consciousness – it does indeed look like Venom has been given an Upgrade.
Watch the trailer for Upgrade below: