Has Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive developed into a cult classic superhero movie? We certainly think so.
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When we hear about “superhero flicks,” our minds usually go straight to movies like The Avengers or Justice League – action-packed and special-effects-laden films that give us an extraordinary glimpse of the fictional worlds within those superpowered universes.
It’s rare to think of superhero movies being made on such an intimate scale as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive – and yet, it’s hard to deny that the classic indie film about a lonesome getaway driver ticks all the boxes for what a superhero movie should be. In many aspects, Drive fulfils the classic formula for a superhero origins story, which makes it all the more frustrating that we might never get to see what happens next in the driver’s story.
What Makes a Hero into a ‘Superhero’?
While most traditional definitions would agree that superheroes are often aided by supernatural forces or some other form of sci-fi narrative elements, the modern landscape of superhero characters is astoundingly diverse, making it increasingly difficult to differentiate traditional “heroes” from their superpowered counterparts.
A clear example of this would be Marvel’s Punisher. In every sense of the word, Frank Castle shouldn’t be considered a superhero – it would be more correct to call him a vigilante – but his actions in the context of the Marvel universe are what makes him “super.” That, and his iconic skull logo – more on that in a minute.
In Drive, Ryan Gosling’s character goes through the tried-and-true hero’s journey. The Driver becomes an antihero by definition – much like the Punisher. However, when push comes to shove, the character shows his true colours, rising above the person he was at the beginning of the film.
By the end of Drive, the Driver has redeemed himself not just in the eyes of those he loved, but also in his own mind. By breaking the shackles that tied him for so long, he transcended the mere “good guy” status, becoming a real-life superhero. A “real human being,” as the song by College repeats incessantly near the end of the movie.
It also helps that the movie introduced a clear symbol that could be easily related to the Driver’s character. We’re talking, of course, of the now-iconic golden scorpion jacket. This emblem, much like the Punisher’s skull, has become engraved in modern pop culture, consolidating Drive’s popularity as an unconventional sort of superhero flick.
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A Gun, a Girl and a Car
There’s a popular phrase widespread throughout Hollywood; “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” A statement Nicolas Winding Refn clearly took to heart when creating Drive, only adding “a car” as the third element in this neo-noir heist film.
While flicks like The Fast and Furious exemplify the genre, Drive avoids the usual template and races back 20 some years to honour the spirit of the ’80s car-chase action films, in art-house-style nonetheless.
In a genre filled with clichés and predictability, the words “action movie” or “superhero movie” don’t often go hand-in-hand with intelligence. Refn, however, does well to marry the two, employing brilliant direction, great acting and a haunting soundtrack to a story that mixes elements of romance, car chases, and grotesque violence.
Drive is a classic tale of both revenge and love, with Ryan Gosling resting at the very centre of this morbid piece; playing the cool, calm and often mute superhero.
Refn also channels all the energies of a great supporting cast, including Albert Brooks (mob boss Bernie), Ron Perlman (mob boss Nico), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Carey Mulligan (Irene) and Oscar Isaac (ex-con Standard) to unforgettable performances.
The tense opening sequence in Drive is a testament to the energy and moody nature of the movie. Dimly lit and heavy on low camera angles, accompanied by synthesized pop pulse beats, the scene sets up the look and feel of the entire film. It’s very different to other action movies.
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What is Drive Really About?
Ryan Gosling plays the nameless enigmatic main character, Driver (never called by name in the entire movie), a loner by nature, who works as a stunt car driver for the movies by day and a getaway car driver for mobsters by night. His boss, Shannon, in hopes of a career change, attempts to enter the race car circuit with our hero behind the wheel. Shannon makes contact with mob bosses, Bernie, and Nico, inviting them to go into business with him.
Meanwhile, the Hollywood stunt driver has befriended a pretty neighbour, Irene, an innocent and shy young mom (and her young son). As the two drive around the city, he falls slowly and deeply in love with her, drawing him out of his emotional limbo. Just as things are working out for the two, her ex-con husband is released from prison. Unfortunately, Irene’s husband makes poor decisions that land everybody in grave danger.
But Drive is also so much more.
While reading the fairytales of The Grimm Brothers to his daughter, director Nicolas Winding Refn became interested in how the tales had been stripped of their complexity in order to appeal to children. That became the basic structure and tone of Drive. Much like a fairytale, the film tells the story of a good guy, an innocent woman who needs protection, and a very bad guy.
There are some who believe that Ryan Gosling’s scorpion jacket is an allusion to The Scorpion And The Frog Russian fable:
“A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. When asked why, the scorpion points out that this is its nature. The fable is used to illustrate the position that no change can be made in the behavior of the fundamentally vicious.”
When discussing the symbol, however, Gosling had a very different take on its origins:
“He [Refn] said to me, “Watch “Scorpio Rising,” I don’t know why, but I feel like it’s a good place to start.” And I watched it and it’s a bunch of guys taking their shirts off and guys with muscles fixing bikes. I didn’t know where the thread was, but the thing that led the way, like a lighthouse through the storm of that experience, was this scorpion. And both Nicky and I agreed that that would be sort of our Batman signal in the sky. And it found its way onto the back of the Driver’s jacket.”
“On the Driver’s satin jacket,” Director Refn continued during the interview. “Satin was very important, that it was going to be satin. Satin was like a knight’s armour and the scorpion was the symbol that a knight would have. Essentially what was good about Driver is that he protects purity.”
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Any Hopes for a Sequel?
It’s safe to say that Drive is easily one of Nicolas Winding Refn’s most popular movies. The production elevated the filmmaker to near cult status, delivering a near-flawless visual composition and thrilling storytelling that audiences in 2011 were so desperate for.
The man might be solely responsible for the revival of neon aesthetics, and that dominated the better part of the last decade in cinema – that says something about how influential Nicholas Winding Refn became for the entertainment industry after Drive.
Still, Refn is and has always been an auteur. His projects are born out of passion and the need to tell a specific story. These filmmakers rarely pursue a standard entertainment career – and that means that they stay as far as possible from franchises and sequels.
Refn himself has confirmed that he would never make a sequel to Drive, and that’s understandable. After all, Drive is his creation: he deserves the right to decide when the story of the unnamed Driver is over, as painful as it might be.
Even so, it would be amazing if we ever got to see a continuation of Drive’s storyline – even if it’s in some other medium away from the big screen.