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The Tashen Marvel Comics Book Library Asteroid City with Scarlett Johansson

Review: Asteroid City

Bemused America

Did you ever see the old, classic era horror film Dr. Cyclops? Albert Dekker in thick glasses torments a group of people he reduces to doll size via radium and they want to, understandably, escape. Asteroid City is along these lines, though the people are in 21st style existential American torment i.e., tragically bemused, but this isn't a horror film (though if someone said its a sci-fi-comedy they wouldn't be too far off) but they are all nonetheless in a kind of doll house (and it isn't an Anton Chekhov doll house, either, to be clear).

The "thing" in Asteroid City is the "thing" in the Multiverse stories that have taken over superhero movies, that is, multiple time lines and multiple worlds are afoot with characters that look similar (since they're played by the same actors in the various derivations) and this layered story is moving forward within these layers, along with a little hiccup in which an alien (Jeff Goldblum) makes a visit to a "Junior Stargazers Convention" to borrow a meteor.

The film has a PG-13 rating but also a completely nude Scarlett Johansson without a head (because the head is out of frame, more or less like pornography which likes to decapitate men and women's heads out of the image), but apparently in Asteroid City the nude Scarlett Johansson is an obvious body-double and there's even a joke about body-doubles to make sure you understand that's not really "the" Scarlett Johansson in the nude.

Asteroid City is open to interpretation, and I'd say it is a meditation on the covid pandemic, plus the concept of the multiverse haunting big budget movies of these last years. It is a tricky, and funny, story of a bunch of actors and their troubles as portrayed by contemporary actors like Tom Hanks, Johansson, Goldblum, Jeffry Wright, Edward Norton, Matt Dillon, Tilda Swinton, Margot Robbie and many more, all recognizable in the way those "star-studded" films of the past made by Woody Allen, and the disaster films of the 1970s, contained famous faces meant to be recognized as themselves as much, or even more so, than the characters they are playing.

The "multiverse" trickery of Asteroid City, if its even fair to put it that way, consists of a neat conceit: a crowd of contemporary famous actors (our cast) are working on a live production of the story "Asteroid City" in a 1950s black and white TV studio, and when they broadcast the show (which we the audience watch as the movie Asteroid City) it isn't in 1950s black and white TV screen dimensions, but is instead in 21st century widescreen full color, which means they are broadcasting into the future when such a color-soaked production could actually be achieved on 21st century wide screen TV sets.

All of this is the brainchild of the furiously smoking and typing writer Conrad Earp (Norton) which in effect puts in an additional layer of "reality," but that 'reality' is bracketed by the narrator and TV announcer (Bryan Cranston) who helps us parse the story and move along between the different layers.

So what do we have? We have time travel because the 1950s black and white studio is broadcasting in wide screen color into the 21st century, we have black and white 50's actors struggling to put together their performances of the full-color version that's in front of our eyes (Margot Robbie only has one scene in this film, and its good and long, but she's in a totally different production, taking a smoke break on a fire escape. On the other hand, she is in a photo shown to us by Jason Schwartzman as war photographer Augie Steenbeck, but he is in the Asteroid City part of the movie), and behind this we have the fictitious writer Earp, and with this much artifice going back and forth (with in-jokes about other films, such as Mars Attacks and 1950s Broadway), we are fully aware of the real writer and director (Wes Anderson) behind it all, along with his cast of real people who are there in the story to be recognized. It's a nice juggling act and funny in places, kinda turgid in the middle, and operates and ends with plenty of room for further interpretation of its Master of Reality story structure.

The "pay-off" of the plot is that some kids who are grieving over their dead mother are able to get over it with a burial scene that is full of spiritual confetti from various sources. Well, it's entertaining and thoughtful in places, and goofy, and very American, and with a very American landscape, though it was shot in Spain.

Completely unrelated: Superhero Comics and the Freedom of Art

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Original Page June 23, 2023