Saturday, April 24, 2010

Kick-Ass: A promise kept

My parents think Spider-Man is a pussy.

They've seen Sam Raimi's original 2002 Spidey outing and decided enough was enough for them. I could see why Raimi's love letter to Silver Age (basically the 50s/60s) comic books was a little hard for them to swallow. Peter Parker becomes a superhero out of guilt over his uncle's death and decides to start fighting crime, as his initial selfish impulses to make money through his powers end in doom. A noble motivation, to be sure, but when Peter's refusal to admit his feelings towards his friend Mary Jane at the end of the film, my parents zoned out. The character was, simply put, "an idiot". Sacrifice is a part of the workaday life of any immigrant fortysomething former coal miner, but this Parker kid was just a masochist to them at this point.

Matthew Vaughn's newest film Kick-Ass certainly doesn't have that problem. Nerdy high school protagonist Dave Lizewski dons a scuba suit for the simple thrill of being talked about and liked. He doesn't even do anything beyond wearing it under his clothes the first few weeks of coming up with the idea. The first time he tries his hand at some actual crime-fighting, he gets stabbed and run over. After a few months in hospital, he's back on the streets with metal plates over most of his bones and damaged nerve endings, granting him a severely increased pain threshhold. Through sheer determination he manages to defeat three hoods beating up some guy, and the video makes the rounds on the intarwebs.

Kick-Ass becomes somewhat of a media figure with merchandising and everything. Despite freakshow fame and an ability to take a punch, Kick-Ass is still outmatched in strength and fighting skill by... well, most people. So much so, in fact, that his life is in danger not soon after his initial victory. He is saved by eleven year old Hit Girl in a slashy rescue most people will find Kill Bill-esque. Hit Girl and Big Daddy (her regular daddy, played by Nicolas Cage who is obviously so happy to be in a good superhero movie he practically jizzes on the camera in every shot) are well-trained, determined and have a target: mob boss Frank D'Amico.

If it weren't for these two intersecting with Dave's life, Kick-Ass would have been an Apatow-comedy with a comic book gimmick. But now Dave suddenly finds himself in league with two people who slaughter cartoon gangsters in their spare time. I've heard a lot of talk about the "switch in tones" the movie makes once the murders start to happen. How it somehow goes from a real world to an over the top action movie from the moment Hit Girl (if this movie makes one contribution to pop culture, however slight, it's probably her) stabs a dude.

I disagree. It never felt to me that the movie was really operating under any kind of reality. D'Amico's crew, for one, are complete caricatures. They wouldn't look out of place in Vaughn's earliest producing efforts (Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). The death of the protagonist's mother is treated as a twenty-second gag in the first five minutes. The mafia seems to rule 2010 New York as if it's 1930s Chicago. These are not exactly the hallmarks of Dogme 95, people.

Some people also believe there's a muddled message being delivered here, seeing as how Dave's character growth culminates with him killing a bunch of dudes, or maybe they come to the conclusion the film isn't meant to have a message at all and just asks you to sit back and enjoy the carnage. Personally, I think Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman kind of hit the nail on the head when it comes to the whole idea of superheroism.

If you go back to the very start, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman wasn't the boy scout he is now. He's a pretty angry dude in his first few appearances, using his super-strength on non-powered thugs. Hell, Batman straight up shot guys before Robin came along. In Gerard Jones' rather amazing Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, Siegel and Shuster are described as sheltered momma's boys, unable to vent their teenage frustrations somewhere constructive.

The term "power fantasy" is often bandied about in regards to superhero comics, and at its very core that's absolutely still what the genre is. Alan Moore already recognized this in his seminal 1986 comic book Watchmen, and Vaughn's Kick-Ass (not to be confused with Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, which is only about terrible things happening to horrible people) basically tells us the same thing: "Superheroes would be pretty fucked up dudes in real life... but holy shit look at this awesomeness!" It's no wonder Dave gets the girl after revealing his secret identity to her, even though she was under the impression he was gay and he'd abused her trust to GET IN DAT ASS. In real life Katie's decision may not make sense -- or at least the speed and eagerness with which she makes it doesn't -- but hey, the hero gets the girl.

Kick-Ass is a bit like Shaun of the Dead. It's meant to be a satire, but damned if I don't think it's on par with most of the "real" efforts in the genre. It's a total and complete celebration of a geek niche that is, at its very heart, kind of disfunctional. It knows it, it laughs at it, and it's never even remotely ashamed of it. The final shot of the movie echoes that of Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, one of the very first action movies. Here's Vaughn now essentially saying "Oh, and we've always wanted blood in entertainment to get our kicks lawl". I can't help but think that's very cool of him.

But I have no interest in this whole damned genre! It is infantile and abhorrent to me! Oh really? You must think you're a real goddamned Mr Fancy Pants! You know what the DEVIL has to say about that?

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