Meta Meta Meta Meta Meta Meta Meta Meta BOOM

Finally got around to Iron Man last night. How bizarrely and refreshingly personal it was: focused in so tight on the relationships of its characters, so generous with its first act, that when Stark returned to America from caveside, my wife leaned over and whispered “This is a twenty-five minute movie?” I still don’t know who handed Jon Favreau and RDJ the pile of money necessary for those special effects (some of the least pseudorealistic I’ve seen, in a good way), and obviously I’m way to late to the film for anything I’ve got to say about it to ride, y’know, the wave.

But I can talk about the previews.

The previews were for Tropic Thunder and Hancock. These previews, and the movies they promised, were so meta that I almost ran out of the theater. Both movies seemed to be about meta-ness, with the characters just stock stand-ins, puppets, props.

The gimmick in Tropic Thunder is the flipside of the one in Hancock. In the former, self-absorbed and self-referential to the point of insanity, Black, Stiller, and RDJ deliver ironically un-meta lines in an ironically ultra-meta setting. They think faking it is still real! With guns! Oh the hilarity. Of course no ironically un-meta performance is complete without its own episodes of self-conscious meta-ness: fake black guy RDJ consoling a real black guy, who doesn’t need to be consoled, by whispering the Jeffersons theme song in his ear; getting called out on it; whispering just as seriously that it doesn’t matter. This is nearly as sweltering and dispiriting an ordeal as hacking through the jungles of ‘Nam. Can we admit this style of humor is dead of its own compound inauthenticity?

In Hancock, self-absorbed and self-referential to the point of celebrity, Will Smith is coached by some scumbucket PR agent (“I do PR” appears to be an actual line from this film) to embrace his inner and outer meta — self-consciously donning a rubber suit, mocking it before the cameras, etc., etc. Instead of artificiality as reality, we get reality as artificiality. Meta-ness as salvation: an unholy message if ever I heard one. And a fully deliberate filmmaking choice. The audience, you see, would be turned off by seriousness. This is revealing:

Although Hancock – with Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman in key roles – is dark, Berg says that the original screenplay, written by Vincent Ngo, was way more so. “You know the Nicolas Cage character in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’?” he says, referring to the booze-soaked, suicidal scribe that won Cage an Oscar. “Well, Vincent’s screenplay took a left turn from Leaving Las Vegas … We all loved the idea of that character, but weren’t ever interested in making a film that tough.”

Still, one of Berg’s early cuts of Hancock featured Smith’s character, a guy who can fly, who has super strength, and whose body is impervious to harm, trying to kill himself. If you’re invincible, suicide becomes a serious challenge.

“It’s a great sequence, but it’s just very dark,” Berg says. “And we felt like it would be hard to get audiences laughing after that opening … The film has always been tonally challenging. It took a while for the tone to sort of shake itself out.”

Yes. Flee from the human experience. Enough layers of meta, and we need never be seriously invested in any experience. No risk, no downside, we can enjoy a pure — and purely impoverished — relationship between spectacle and spectator, where all spectacles refract out from self-spectators themselves, and all of those selves are themselves spectacles. Nice trick while you can keep it up, but I feel a very un-meta kersplat coming up. (Or not.)