We’ve had our faces mashed into Superman’s Man of Steel mess lately. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice* dredged up all the thinkpieces from 2013, forcing upon us a vision of Superman as a selfish, tunnel-visioned monster with scant care for collateral damage. It's become the defining moment, for better or worse, of Zack Snyder's version of the character.
So it’s incredible to me, so soon after that film’s release, that more people apparently haven’t made the connection between Man of Steel’s Dickhead Superman and The Jungle Book’s Dickhead Mowgli. Spoilers follow.
At the end of The Jungle Book, Mowgli kills his nemesis Shere Khan. He accomplishes this feat with a trap, sending his tiger foe plummeting to a fiery death in the forest fire which Mowgli himself caused. His initial plan - to fight Shere Khan directly with a flaming torch - has Mowgli run to the Man village then bring a torch back to the increasingly inaccurately named Peace Rock. Problem is, the he lights the entire geographically indistinct jungle on fire on his way, setting it up for Shere Khan's death.
The forest fire is conveniently put out by elephants, of course, leaving Mowgli apparently free of responsibility for what he did. There’s not a single beat where the forest fire is even considered, other than in a brief, accurate dialogue jab from Shere Khan. Mowgli sees the fire purely as a trap in which to kill his enemy, and nobody calls him out on it. In the final moments of the film, Mowgli stands proudly with his new family, having learned nothing and destroyed everything.
Shere Khan spends the entire film warning the animals that they don’t know what they have on their hands; that the Man-Cub doesn’t belong. Mowgli will grow up to be a Man, he says, inevitably destroying everything he touches. He specifically warns of the “red flower,” fire, which unchecked is a threat to the entire jungle. It’s easy to read this as a metaphor for immigration and racism, with Mowgli a misunderstood outsider tarred by the actions of his people. Indeed, it’s almost (but not quite) a subversion of the colonial subtext of Rudyard Kipling’s original books.
But then the fiery finale proves Shere Khan proven absolutely correct. And dead. It proves him dead.
This reveals an even bigger problem, because bringing fire to the jungle is the sole action that Mowgli takes as a character. Mowgli is a passenger in his own story, spending the entire film either following orders or running away from predators. The incident that sets the story off is a combination of happenstance and the friggin' weather; he follows Bagheera’s orders until he stumbles into Kaa’s grip (doing exactly as she says, too); he follows Baloo’s directions until he’s abducted by monkeys; his escape from King Louie is orchestrated and executed entirely by others; and so on. The first and only time Mowgli takes matters into his own hands is when he runs back to the Man-village to steal a torch. And it gets the jungle burned down.
Who is Mowgli? What does he want? What does he need? These are not questions with which The Jungle Book is concerned. It’s only interested in putting him through a series of episodic, unconnected situations, many of which feel like they’re included obligatorily (lookin’ at you, Kaa). At the end of the film, Mowgli hasn’t changed; he hasn’t moved forward; he’s precisely where he was at frame one (albeit with one notable addition to his trophy room).
The problem with telling an expensive, CGI-laden cinematic story in this day and age is that to a degree, you can’t have the central character change all that much. You’ve got to leave room for a sequel, and boy, does The Jungle Book ever do that. But stripping the central character of any growth - or in this case, even wants and desires beyond maintaining the status quo - makes for an unengaging story. The Jungle Book is an astonishing feat of visual effects, but it’s hollow inside. It doesn’t make a difference how endearing the animal characters are if they don’t influence the protagonist. And when that protagonist blithely torches a forest in pursuit of killing an endangered animal, and never has to take responsibility for it, it’s even harder to get on board. If Mowgli had been forced to confront the consequences of his actions, and his transformation into Man, that would have been an interesting character beat - a coming of age moment. But this boy doesn't want to grow up, and he definitely doesn't want interesting character beats.
Will The Jungle Book 2 concern the fallout over Mowgli’s vengeance-fuelled destruction? Will the wolves set up a tribunal to try him for his careless crimes? Will Mowgli be eaten up inside by his mistakes, tormented by his own innate destructiveness? It seems unlikely, and frankly, it’d be as tonally jarring as the third act of this film is. But maybe Jon Favreau wants a taste of Snyder's red flower. Maybe he just wants to be like Za-aa-ack.
* Historians will one day marvel that a film actually got released into mainstream theatres with such a title.