The Superversive in Film: Tron & Tron Legacy

In 1982, Disney released a second science fiction film during that six-year period where the original Star Wars trilogy made its mark on world culture. That film was Tron. (The first being 1978’s The Black Hole, which I’ll get to another time.) As with many science fiction and fantasy films of this era, it became a cult classic and made a big impression on a generation who’d come of age with personal computers and (later) the emergence of the Internet.

I didn’t have “superversive” to describe the original film when I came back to it as an adult. At the time, I called it a “Boy’s Own Adventure” film because–despite the protagonist being an adult, and the subject matter being quite serious–how the film went about telling this story clearly aimed at an audience of boys either early in or coming up on adolescence. It has a fairy tail quality to it, a sincere and earnest quality, that those who’d seen earlier films (such as The Computer That Wore Tennis Shoes) would find familiar and comfortable.

Yet this film most certainly was Superversive, and even now that’s clear as day. The villain (Edward Dillinger) is a thief, albeit a cunning one, and a rival to the hero (Kevin Flynn) as a creator; the villain’s creation (the Master Control Program, “MCP” for short)has surpassed him and now threatens to go out of control, trapping the villain by his own hubris. The hero succeeds thanks to his friends’ aid (as well as that of their creations)- most notably being the title character, the program Tron. The virtues of courage, fortitude, and loyalty win out over the treachery and despair that the villains wield as much as the discs this film is famous for. Kevin’s fortune is restored, and the promise of a better tomorrow for all is put before us at the end. Its story is simple, but well-done, and still holds up today.

The sequel, Tron: Legacy, seems a subversion- a deliberate pozzing. Yet it is not; it is as Superversive as its predecessor. People mistake the darker tone and mood for subversion, when it is a clear extrapolation of the exact mood evident at the end of the original film. Again, the flaw at play here is hubris; Kevin exhibits a clear overconfidence in the original film, which is what got him in trouble initially and stymied his efforts to get back at Dillinger then. As the sequel shows, this flaw was not tamed; the overconfidence consumed Kevin and drove him to madness that he did not realize until it was too late and–like Dillinger–the creation (Clu2, Kevin’s System Administrator) got out of control and threatened even worse.

That seems like a shallow excuse to remake the original with a new case and fresh effects, but to its credit Legacy went beyond that. The narrative clearly shows the consequence of Kevin’s hubris on every single character in the film, trapping Kevin into despair and non-resistance- a trap that takes the heroine (Quora) with him.

Unlike the first film, the new hero (Sam Flynn, Kevin’s son) doesn’t blindly repeat his father’s adventures. He challenges his father’s assumptions, telling him how his utopian visions resulted in dystopian dysfunction out in the real world. This gets amplified by Kevin realizing the root of Clu2’s hatred for him: parental abandonment, as Clu2 (without ever saying so) resents Kevin for favoring Sam over him (using his argument about his purpose and mission as the proxy). For Kevin, this film is a tragedy of his own making and he owns up to it in the climax.

For Sam, the film is not just saving his father, but superseding him as he succeeds him- taking Quora with him into the (again) promised better tomorrow. To get that ending, he had to face–and fess-up–to his own despair-based behaviors and change his ways accordingly. In other words, Sam had to man up, and in so doing got his father to man up also. By the end of the film, she looked forward to a new world full of light and life at Sam’s side.

Hollywood in general, and Disney in particular, have had a serious problem with undermining the culture with their films and television for years now. These two films are exception; they don’t lie to the audience in the course of telling their stories, which is likely why we won’t see another like it for many years to come- not without popular support backed by related sales. Watch these films; you’ll be glad that you did.