We Can Be Heroes

Elvis (2022)

illustration by Tom Ralston

“When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book. I saw movies, and I was the hero in the movie. So every dream that I ever dreamed has come true a hundred times.”

—Elvis Presley, in an acceptance speech on January 16, 1971

Ilove Elvis. I’ve loved him ever since I was a little kid. Back then, I knew nothing about his life; beyond the music, all I really knew was his iconic look—the jet-black hair and the sideburns, the lip curl, the swiveling hips. Honestly, I was more caught up in the image of Elvis Presley than anything else. Dressed to the nines in his sequined white jumpsuit and cape, Elvis looked like a comic book character come to life—and a boy needs his heroes.

Around the same time, Elvis conspiracy theories were all the rage. Tabloids at every checkout stand claimed that the King of Rock and Roll had not met his untimely death at the age of 42. No, he was alive—and in hiding. As ludicrous as that may sound, I grew up relishing stories about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, so the idea that Elvis had faked his death was not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Like a young Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe. After all, isn’t “ELVIS” an anagram for “LIVES”?

I remember watching The Elvis Files (1991) and The Elvis Conspiracy (1992), two television programs hosted by Bill Bixby, an actor whom I’d known only as Dr. David Banner, the mild-mannered alter ego of another childhood hero, the Incredible Hulk. Bixby was a friend of Elvis’s, and I’ll never forget how he ended The Elvis Conspiracy

In my personal opinion, I believe—sadly—that Elvis did pass away on August 16, 1977. I also believe that in a very special, sublime sense, Elvis Presley will never die, and he’ll be alive as long as people love him and cherish his memory.

As an adult, I agree with Bixby, but the much younger version of me was a little disappointed. It felt like he’d let the air out of my balloon. I guess it was high time I grew up and faced facts—Elvis really had left the building.

A decade after the conspiracy theories faded away, I became an even bigger Elvis fan. I bought ELV1S: 30 No. 1 Hits (2002), which led to a deeper dive into his music. I watched various TV documentaries, several concerts, and more than a few movies featuring or inspired by Elvis. However, when it came to biographical films that wanted to dramatize his life, I was mostly uninterested. The prospect of a biopic seemed altogether pointless. Elvis cuts such an iconic figure that any actor tasked with portraying him would suffer in comparison. For me, the whole thing would be an exercise in fakery and caricature. 

Enter Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022), a movie to which all the superlatives apply: it is a tour de force, a masterpiece, a work of art, a singular achievement in filmmaking. The challenge of encapsulating Elvis’s life into a single film is no easy task, and the result is somehow a biopic, a musical, a concert film, and a Greek tragedy all wrapped into one—a paean to the American dream that isn’t afraid to explore its dark underbelly. 

We cheer on Elvis (Austin Butler), a nice, polite country boy with big dreams and otherworldly talent, as he becomes the most famous man in the world. But in the end, he succumbs to his personal demons, all at the hands of his manager Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), a slimy, stand-in paternal figure who exploits him for personal gain. 

As a biographical movie, Elvis plays fast and loose with history, taking bits and pieces of the man’s life and slamming them together with aplomb. Viewers with encyclopedic knowledge of Elvis’s biography will either be amused by the creative liberties Luhrmann takes or deeply annoyed. In an interview with Matt Zoller Seitz, Luhrmann argues that there was indeed a method in his madness:

I’m not here to defend myself against people who are like, “Oh, you made that up.” I’m a research nut bag. I have a great research team, and I’ve got an office in Graceland. Look how long it takes me to make a movie! But I find a way of coding all of that research under the story…What I’m saying is, I become so saturated with the facts that then one interprets. Because in the end, even the best, most detailed biographical drama is an interpretation.

Oddly, I wasn’t too bothered by Luhrmann’s fabrications. After all, the film gives itself an out by having the notoriously unreliable Colonel Parker serve as the narrator. Throughout the movie, the Colonel refers to himself as “the Snowman,” a self-given nickname that shows the villainous pride he takes in conning other people. In the end, Elvis is the story of Superman told by an admiring Lex Luthor. 

In fact, Elvis plays out like a series of comic book films told as a single story, detailing the origin of a superhero, his rise to prominence, and his final adventure. Luhrmann mines Elvis’s real-life love of both comic books and larger-than-life superheroes to craft an extended metaphor about fame, immortality, and legacy. And yet, underneath all of Luhrmann’s visual and narrative showmanship, there’s something incredibly meaningful in Elvis just waiting to be discovered.

Coincidentally, that sense of discovery has been representative of my experience with Elvis’s back catalog. I love the Beatles just as much as Elvis, but when I got into their music, it wasn’t too hard or expensive for me to get my hands on all their albums. Becoming a Beatles completionist is an achievable feat. That is simply not the case with Elvis. Yes, I’ve heard all the hits and plenty of deep cuts, but thanks to Colonel Parker, Elvis cranked out so much material that it actually seems impossible to listen to, let alone collect, all of his albums—at least before the streaming era. In the six months since watching Elvis, I’ve heard some truly wonderful Elvis songs that I’d never heard before, and there are still more out there.

In so many ways, Luhrmann’s film is a loving reminder of that. Yes, this is still a movie about a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi who becomes the biggest musical icon of all time. Yes, we know all the different incarnations—the hip-shaking ‘50s-era Elvis, the Hollywood Technicolor Elvis, the leather-clad ‘68 Comeback Special Elvis, the jumpsuit-wearing Las Vegas Elvis, and even the cruelly dubbed “Fat Elvis” of his sad final year. We know the major songs, and we know the big story beats. But Luhrmann shows us that with Elvis, there is still more to discover—not really facts, but feelings. Whatever your ultimate opinion of the movie may be, there’s no doubt in my mind that Elvis will make you feel something, which is what all good art should do. 

It might even make you believe in heroes again.

Elvis Lives


—Elvis Presley, undated handwritten annotations to Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

Like Elvis, I have always loved comic books and long imagined myself as the heroes from those very same pages. My favorites were—and frankly, still are—Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the Hulk. Looking back, it’s easy to see why I loved those DC and Marvel characters so much: Superman was a strange visitor from another planet adopted by Kansas farmers, and I was a mixed-race kid born in Singapore and raised in rural Oklahoma. Batman was a scared little kid who worked hard to become the pinnacle of human achievement, and I was a diligent student who believed that anything was possible if you put your mind to it. Spider-Man was a high school nerd-turned-superhero who still had problems to which any young man could relate. And of course, the Hulk was rage personified, the perfect alter ego for a kid who would have loved nothing more than to wreak havoc on the bullies who just wouldn’t leave him alone. On some level, I must have understood these connections even as a child.

Did Elvis Presley ever think about these things when he imagined himself to be “the hero of the comic book”? After all, it wasn’t Superman or Batman that captured Elvis’s imagination as a child; it was Captain Marvel Jr., the teenage sidekick to Captain Marvel who first appeared in Whiz Comics #25 on December 26, 1941. 

At first glance, the character’s origin does not bear any obvious connections to Elvis’s upbringing or his early experiences. In the original Fawcett comics, the evil Captain Nazi kills a Good Samaritan and critically injures his grandson, Freddy Freeman. Soon after, Captain Marvel takes Freddy to the hospital, but there’s nothing they can do. The boy’s back is broken, and he won’t survive the night. Unwilling to let the boy die, Marvel seeks the help of Shazam, the wizard who granted him his superhuman abilities. Shazam cannot save Freddy’s life, but says that Marvel can heal him by sharing his magic powers. Without a second thought, Marvel passes on some of his gifts to the dying boy. From that day forward, whenever Freddy says the magic words “Captain Marvel,” he transforms in a flash of lightning into a superpowered version of himself, all while wearing a yellow-on-blue costume with a magnificent red cape.

While Baz Luhrmann does not explain Elvis’s real-life fascination with Captain Marvel Jr., he does use it as a conceit throughout the film. To introduce this idea, he employs the visual grammar of comic books, transforming the heretofore live-action footage into comic book panels to depict Elvis’s birth and early childhood. 

The arrest and imprisonment of Elvis’s father, Vernon Presley (Richard Roxburgh), for check forgery unfolds in colorful animation as the Colonel describes the young Elvis’s reaction via voiceover: “But that boy had a big imagination. He really believed he was the hero in one of them comic books. He was going to bust his daddy out of the hoosegow and fly him to the Rock of Eternity!” The accompanying onscreen comic book panels show Elvis transforming in a flash from a blond, overalls-wearing child into the black-haired Captain Marvel Jr., doing just as the Colonel describes.

All superhero origin stories have scenes in which the hero acquires his powers, and Elvis is no exception. The final “panel” in this cinematic comic book sequence shows young Elvis reading an issue of Captain Marvel Jr., as the image transitions from 2D back to live action. Parker’s narration continues: “Them comic book heroes all have them superpowers. His was music.” In the scenes that follow, young Elvis witnesses a soulful performance of “That’s All Right, Mama” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and then sneaks into a church revival as the congregation sings and dances to the hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” The two moments happen back-to-back chronologically, but Luhrmann intercuts them, while the music from both scenes starts to merge. 

During this sequence, Luhrmann draws the viewer’s eye to the handmade lightning bolt that young Elvis wears around his neck, which resembles the symbol on Captain Marvel Jr.’s chest. We watch as he begins dancing and flailing to the music in a kind of religious ecstasy. Like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, Elvis has been bitten by the music bug. Or, to return to the Captain Marvel Jr. metaphor, the power of music has hit him like a bolt from the blue. His soul has taken flight. 

The movie then jumps forward in time to 1954, with Elvis performing on Louisiana Hayride, a popular radio show. He is incredibly nervous, but after conferring with his family and friends  (who sing a gentler version of “I’ll Fly Away”), Elvis goes out on stage and blows the roof off the place. An instant before, the Colonel remarks, “In that moment, in a flash of lightning, I watched that skinny boy in the pink suit transform into a superhero.” If the earlier church revival sequence was all about establishing how Elvis gained his superpowers, then this scene shows how he first used them. Louisiana Hayride serves as the venue for our superhero’s big public debut. 

Soon after, the Rock of Eternity, shown and mentioned in the comic book sequence but not explained, becomes the film’s major symbol. In truth, the Rock of Eternity is somewhat of an amorphous concept. Originally, Shazam’s lair could be accessed by an underground passageway via the subway system, but in subsequent stories its location shifts to outer space. The Rock of Eternity has been said to exist at the center of the universe, at the end of space and time, and even outside of space and time. In some stories, it is described as the hub of the universe where one can venture into the past and the future. However, the only way to reach the Rock of Eternity is to fly faster than the speed of light. In Elvis, the Rock of Eternity comes to represent the everlasting legacy that Elvis strives to achieve throughout the film—his eventual status as the King of Rock and Roll.

In the first act, Colonel Parker practically salivates at the idea of making Elvis his next big attraction. Attempting to sign him to an exclusive contract, the Colonel arranges a private conversation on a ferris wheel high above the carnival where Elvis has been performing. In a riff on the temptation of Jesus in the desert, the Colonel floats the possibility of “recording contracts, television, even Hollywood,” causing Elvis to joke about being rich enough to buy a Cadillac, an airplane, and even a rocket ship.

Elvis: Well, maybe not a rocket ship. My mama don’t like me to fly. But me, I’ve always wanted to fly. Fast. Faster than the speed of light to the Rock of Eternity.

Colonel Parker: What? To the Rock of Eternity?

Elvis: Captain Marvel Jr. He’s my favorite comic book hero. He flies.

Colonel Parker: Well, what about you, Mr. Presley? Are you ready to fly?

Elvis: Yes, sir. I’m ready. Ready to fly.

And fly he does—very much in the style of Captain Marvel Jr. Although the film does not highlight these parallels, it seems less than coincidental that Elvis’s jet-black hair, bold capes, and colorful sequined jumpsuits make him look like Captain Marvel Jr. come to life. In fact, the yellow, handmade Marvel lightning bolt he once wore as a child is later replaced with a gold lightning bolt necklace emblazoned with the letters “TCB”—short for “Taking Care of Business,” a phrase Elvis adopted as a personal motto and after which he named his band. 

Luhrmann seems content to let the audience make these connections on their own, as his focus is entirely given over to tracing the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley in popular culture. The ecstatic glee he experienced at the church revival, the breakout performance on Louisiana Hayride, his triumphant return at the ‘68 Comeback Special, and the pageantry of his Las Vegas residency— all of these sequences show that no matter how many times the Colonel, the powers that be, the media, or a fickle public tried to clip his wings, Elvis was still able to take flight.

Of course, what goes up must come down.

Later in the film, the Rock of Eternity is alluded to once more, almost 20 years after its last mention. At this point, the Colonel has trapped Elvis in a golden cage at the International Hotel. Manipulated into obsessing over money and security, Elvis is, to borrow from the lyrics of “Suspicious Minds,” caught in a trap he can’t walk out of—a grueling Las Vegas residency that defers his dream of overseas travel in perpetuity. Little does Elvis know that Colonel Parker has declined lucrative foreign offers for selfish reasons—he’s an illegal immigrant with a shady past, and doesn’t even have a passport. If the Colonel cannot leave the country, then neither can his meal ticket.

Upon discovering his manager’s lies, Elvis fires the Colonel, telling his father that he wants to cut ties with the man forever. “I am flying away,” he says confidently. But Vernon, less a warm paternal figure than a weak-willed dependent, says that the Colonel’s lengthy invoice for services rendered will bankrupt them. Worst of all, they will lose Graceland, the Memphis mansion Elvis purchased at 22.

In the scene that follows, a furious Elvis belittles the Colonel, who calmly recites what at first seems like a genre cliché—the villainous You and I are not so different speech. What separates the Colonel’s version from the pack is that it is not a throwaway comparison; the mirroring of the characters is meaningful, serving as a bitter callback to their earlier, friendlier interaction on the ferris wheel:

We have supported each other. Because we shared a dream. We are the same, you and I. We are two odd, lonely children, reaching for eternity. Maybe you should fly away, my boy. Away from all of this. But if you do choose to leave…then I, for one, will be very lonely. So would your father. But I think you may be lonely, too. Oh, you see, my boy, the truth about the Rock of Eternity—it is forever just beyond our reach.

At best, this allusion is a misunderstanding of the Rock of Eternity, and at worst, a bald-faced lie. Certainly the Rock of Eternity is forever beyond the reach of mere mortals, but that’s not the case for someone like Captain Marvel Jr.—or Elvis Presley, for that matter. However, if we take the Rock of Eternity as the Colonel’s symbol for a lasting legacy, for a kind of immortality, then we can interpret his statement as an effective bit of gaslighting meant to prey on Elvis’s insecurities and return things to status quo.

Luhrmann emphasizes this point later in the film when Elvis tells Priscilla, “I’m gonna be 40 soon, ‘Cilla. 40. And nobody’s gonna remember me. I never did anything lasting.” Of course, Elvis is wrong, and so is the Colonel. They are not the same. Someone like the Colonel could never reach the Rock of Eternity, a point that Luhrmann underlines during the film’s epilogue. Through the use of intertitles, we learn the full extent of the Colonel’s pathetic death and posthumous infamy, a life that seems so small in comparison to the astounding achievements and legacy of our titular hero.

Elvis Has Left the Building

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes, just for one day

—David Bowie, “Heroes” (1977)

Believe it or not, I watched
Elvis for the first time in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was my first overseas trip since COVID-19 shut everything down, and my first time crossing the Atlantic. Of all the places in the world that I could have watched Elvis, the Scotsman Picturehouse was just about as perfect as you can get: “a luxury take on a big screen experience,” with red leather recliners complete with power and USB outlets, “nestled between individual tables and classic empire lamps, and [a screen that] benefits from a claret soft deep pile carpet throughout.” I don’t know what half of that means, but I can tell you it was truly the most majestic and luxurious cinematic experience of my life. It was indeed a theater truly fit for a king—and for Baz Luhrmann’s sumptuous film aesthetic. 

But do you know what doesn’t fit Luhrmann’s aesthetic?

Elvis’s death.

The last time I was this anxious about a movie’s ending was when I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). My enjoyment of that film was tempered by the presence of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie); the looming specter of her brutal real-life murder at the hands of the Manson Family cast a pall over my first viewing. Tarantino exploits the audience’s foreknowledge, eventually releasing, if not all-out unleashing, the tension with a wholly unexpected final-act twist—an ending that is gory, hilarious, and ultimately cathartic. 

At certain points during Elvis, I wondered if Luhrmann would be able to provide a similar moment of release. Although Elvis was not horribly murdered, his death has become a dark punchline for those who know the gritty details. In the end, Elvis Presley—that larger-than-life superhero to millions—was felled by a heart attack, one likely brought on by an addiction to prescription drugs. He died face down on the bathroom floor in Graceland, a sad and ignominious ending for the King of Rock and Roll. 

Elvis passed away a year before I was born, and I am now older than he ever got to be. It’s baffling. In the final year of his life, Elvis was in bad shape. His drug abuse and junk food addiction led to all sorts of health problems as well as a dramatic change in appearance. For decades, “Fat Elvis” has become a cruel epithet used to delineate the rest of his career from this unfortunate time in his life. But no matter how well we take care of ourselves, Father Time is coming for us all. To quote Top Gun: Maverick, “Time is our greatest enemy.” It’s a statement that becomes truer to me with each passing year. In my darkest moments, I wonder if I’ve still got it. Did I squander it? Did I ever have it to begin with? Whatever it really is.

Thankfully, Elvis does not end with our protagonist dead on the bathroom floor. In the film’s final scenes, the Colonel reminisces about the last time he saw Elvis. What happens next is a thing of beauty, a transcendent cinematic moment: a recreation of Elvis’s concert in Rapid City, South Dakota on June 22, 1977. By this point in the film, Austin Butler is Elvis Presley. But even with the help of the hair, makeup, and costume department, there are plenty of moments in the film where he doesn’t look a lick like Elvis. And yet, in every scene, Butler somehow embodies him. It all boils down to the voice. Yes, he sings some of the early songs himself, but it’s the speaking voice he uses throughout the movie that makes the biggest impact. It doesn’t come across as an impression, or worse, a parody. It’s good and honest and true—it’s the real voice of the movie, not the Colonel’s narration.

In the final concert scene, Butler looks even less like Elvis, but perhaps that is merely true to life, as Elvis hardly looked like himself either by that point. Butler wears pancake makeup and prosthetics to puff up his naturally angular face. Dressed in a too-tight jumpsuit, this incarnation of Elvis is tired, sweaty, and mumbly. 

As big an Elvis fan as I am, I honestly didn’t know where this scene was going. I was not familiar with the Rapid City concert and initially wondered if it was another fanciful fabrication on the part of Luhrmann. We watch as an unsteady Elvis sits down at the piano while a man holds a microphone for him. Once again, the Colonel provides voiceover narration: 

Y’know, a few weeks before he died, I saw him sing for the very last time. He could barely stand up…But that night, he sang as he always did. With all his heart and soul…That old voice rang out, and he sang with all his life.

And sing he does. The tune he plays on the piano is “Unchained Melody,” a much-covered 1955 song by Alex North and Hy Zaret that was made famous by the Righteous Brothers in 1965. We watch Austin Butler sing along to Elvis’s stunning vocals, perhaps assuming the sequence will end on a freeze frame of the actor. It doesn’t. After a few verses, something magical happens.

The real Elvis appears.

Admittedly, he looks bloated and sweaty in a way that even Butler’s makeup cannot replicate, as the heavy toll of the man’s lifestyle is written all over his face. And yet, on that night in Rapid City, South Dakota, probably just like many other nights, Elvis was a real showman, not at all a “Snowman” like the Colonel. As I watched him belt out the song, I remember saying aloud, quite involuntarily, “He’s still got it.” 

The more Elvis sings, the more it looks like he is summoning a power from within himself or from the heavens above. I watched the screen in awe as his facial expressions began to change, seemingly gaining strength from each successive lyric. In a flash of lightning, this sad husk of a man comes alive. At the end, he smiles radiantly. ELVIS LIVES.

Elvis is no longer reaching for the Rock of Eternity; he has become it. We are watching the onscreen apotheosis of Elvis, the King of Rock and Roll—then, now, and always. For all the bluster and frenetic energy of Luhrmann’s cinematic love letter, for all the enjoyment I took from the film up until that sequence, seeing the real Elvis, even in his deteriorated state, blew away everything that came before. 

At that moment, Baz Luhrmann and Austin Butler seemed to be admitting that no matter how successful they were at achieving their goals in this film, nothing they did can compare to the genuine article. Ultimately, this is the greatest tribute a biopic can pay to its subject. It exemplifies Bill Bixby’s quote about Elvis—he will never die, as long as we love and cherish his memory. 

I’m not ashamed to say that the ending moved me to tears. I cannot hear “Unchained Melody” now without crying. The Righteous Brothers version, so famous for so many years, is a distant memory. Even at his lowest moment, Elvis Presley was still capable of great heights—and by extension, so are we. This is what a superhero does. 

He fights. 

He inspires.

He flies.