The modern age of superhero movies began in 2000 with X-Men. Marvel properties quickly established dominance with the aid of Spider-Man (2002); these two franchises made superhero movies more mainstream than they’d ever been. DC began to make its presence known with Batman Begins (2005) and then The Dark Knight in 2008, the year that also saw Iron Man kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe and change film forever. The only strong competitors to Marvel and DC in this time period were Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), but even these well received films came from Dark Horse. What about original properties? After Unbreakable (2000), if I take a look at original superhero films in the next eight years, the only ones that catch my eye are, uh, Sky High (2005) and Hancock (2008) (Lauren Tao Thoman will also put in a good word for Special (2006)), neither of which had the cultural penetration of even the bad movies Marvel and DC were putting out. So this is the cinematic landscape that Push was released into in 2009.
Raise your hand if you’ve even heard of Push.
Oh, huh, that’s more hands than I expected — you are my people.
I have fond memories of loving Push in the theater, and I am happy to report that it holds up! I can recognize its flaws, but it’s a good movie, dammit, and unjustly forgotten. It’s especially amusing to watch a superhero movie that features a future Captain America, a future Korath the Pursuer, a future Yellowjacket, and a future Agent Melinda May. It’s like a training ground for the MCU! (Dakota Fanning and Cliff Curtis are patiently waiting for your call, Kevin Feige.)
There are a lot of familiar ingredients in this cocktail but it’s mixed so well it tastes like something new. It’s not like we haven’t seen a sinister government agency chase down people with psychic powers before, but I love how director Paul McGuigan and writer David Bourla build a completely original (if derivative) world from scratch and — apart from an unnecessary voiceover in the opening credits — expect the audience to keep up. It’s a lived-in world populated by nine different types of psychics, and it utilizes a marvelous economy of characters, not only employing every single type as an organic part of the narrative but also ensuring that every character you think is solely there to represent one type of psychic comes back later to use their power in a different way. The film finds creative uses for these powers, too — how great is the TELEKINETIC SHOOT-OUT?! That’s right, two telekinetics move around guns with their minds and the guns fly around the restaurant and try to shoot at…the other gun? The other person? Who cares, it looks cool. And I love that the evil Mover — the in-world name for telekinetics — can create force shields and accelerate his own fists to deliver force punches. While I’ve seen these powers in comics, I’ve never seen them rendered onscreen like this, even in the X-Men movies. The force shield appears as a brief flash of light to repel bullets, and the force punch also emits a glimmer.
The distinct look of Push sets it apart from most of its brethren. Its stylish visuals — plenty of color filters with kinetic camerawork and quick editing — make it continuously pleasurable to watch. Did Dakota Fanning bring over the visual sensibilities of Man on Fire? McGuigan never picks the boring shot, and he might go a little overboard, but I appreciate the effort regardless. People complain about how drab the MCU films look, and it’s not something I ever notice when I’m watching them. But when you see a film like Push, you notice how much more colorful and textured it is by comparison. Plus, as it’s shot on location in Hong Kong — and I love that the film is set in Hong Kong rather than the three or four American or European cities where all movies are set — the exteriors and interiors have so much more personality. Though the camerawork may be stylized, the depiction of the city is not — Hong Kong plays itself, and it’s a naturalistic actor.
As for the human actors, this is where we start to get into some of the glaring flaws of the film because it centers on the search for a powerful Pusher — a psychic who can implant thoughts and memories — played by Camilla Belle. Remember Camilla Belle? For a few years she was a potential It Girl, headlining the horror remake When a Stranger Calls (2006) and Roland Emmerich’s epic 10,000 B.C. (2008), but Push was her last big movie. And I’m not surprised because although I haven’t seen her in any other movies, in this movie she is…not good. Her flat delivery could be attributed to her character’s initially being a bit of a cipher — she does display a little more range and some moderate facial acting skills later — but she almost sinks the entire film. Compared to Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning, she comes off as utterly lifeless, which is not ideal for a pivotal role. Evans and Fanning don’t necessarily elevate their material, but they feel like characters, and Fanning especially seems to be enjoying the opportunity to be surly as hell. And although the film’s villains are POC, I appreciated that Our Heroes have several POC helpers on their side, including the always welcome Cliff Curtis, whose character is named Hook Waters. Hook Waters.
Another major flaw lies — as it so often does — in the third act. It has a sound premise in putting Watcher against Watcher — it’s ridiculously fun to watch clairvoyants attempt to hide the act of seeing the future from each other — but it doesn’t strike the proper balance between explaining how any of this works and keeping the audience in the dark for the sake of a twist. The film establishes that a Watcher’s power works on intention, and so the obvious solution would be to make decisions without intention. I do applaud the movie for attempting a more elaborate solution that leads to an exciting montage like it’s suddenly become a heist film, but holy crap, can someone please explain to me how their plan was supposed to work?? I loved watching it in action, but I could not follow what was going on and why, and hell if I knew where the MacGuffin was at any given point in time. The Pusher vs. Pusher plot is similarly unclear about what’s real and what’s not, which is partly the point but simply adds confusion to an already confusing story. Overall, that third act becomes increasingly convoluted compared to the more effective storytelling of the first two acts. But hey, twists are fun!
That’s the thing about this movie: it’s friggin’ fun. It takes itself seriously, but it never loses that sense of cool. Perhaps it takes itself too seriously, but when a superhero film takes itself too seriously and we like it, we call it grounded, like The Dark Knight. And I want more grounded superhero stories. I love that these characters are not trying to save the world; they’re simply trying to survive this grimy psychic dystopia.
Push got a bad rap, folks. 23% on Rotten Tomatoes! 2.7 average rating on Letterboxd! Do these people just not like movies or what? Hell, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which also came out in 2009, has a 37% on Rotten Tomatoes and I know which movie I’d rather watch again and recommend to friends. Push ends with a bit of a sequel tease, and this world could have easily sustained a franchise of its own, but a sequel never happened. You know what did get a sequel, though? Ghost Rider. Friggin’ Ghost Rider (27% on Rotten Tomatoes). Marvel properties have got that cachet, and look, I love the MCU, I really do. But we’ve got to nurture these non-comic book properties. Superhero stories don’t have to come solely from those hallowed pages. They can succeed if you let them. They just need a little push.