Friday, September 2, 2011

Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass (2010)
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
Written by Jane Golman, Matthew Vaughn
Starring Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Mortez, Nicholas Cage


So I took another look at this one, wondering if having seen it in the midst of its initial run I was being reactionary in finding it an unpleasant experience. Nerds at large fell hard for this one, finally getting their long-coveted “hard R” superhero movie and feeling very grown up about themselves. The critics, too, mostly praised its kinetic pace and lightly postmodern take on the subject (this was back in the days before postmodern “What if a real person became a superhero?” films actually outnumbered legit superhero films [2018 edit: well, that was fun while it lasted]). But I thought it was a kind of nasty, stupid, ugly little thing just barely concealed in a sugary coat of glossy Hollywood professionalism. Most of the people who seemed to share my point of view were the typical family values censorial puritans [2018 edit: yes, there was a time when evangelicals actually purported to care about values]. But both Roger Ebert and Outlaw Vern agreed with me, which is pretty good company to be in if you’re going to be defending an unpopular opinion. Still, I wondered if I would learn to love this one like all my peers did if I took a little time away from it and returned knowing what was in store.

Nope. Turns out I was right the first time, this thing is a craftily concealed little pill of pure hate dressed up in fun action tropes. I guess I might have known that considering it came from the comic by Mark Millar, who wrote the indefensibly vile WANTED. I consider him to be perhaps the reigning auteurial voice of impotent white beta-male rage, and WANTED is very nearly a impeccable manifesto of school-shooter logic, the kind of movie where the moral of the story can be almost any kind of loony abstraction ("you should never disobey the orders of a magic loom that tells you to kill") as long as the disempowered young white men at its center are given the basic license to achieve erection self-actualization through murderous violence. But the weird thing is, I’m not sure Millar is at fault here, at least not entirely. I’ve never read his comic, but the film seems to me to be weirdly unaware –willfully, even—of what the story it's telling is actually about.

Here’s the thing: This is about a bunch of bitter, deluded, pathetic, hate-fueled losers who feel better about themselves only when they successfully commit acts of violence against other people. No one here even pretends to have humanitarian motives – they do what they do because it’s a nice confidence booster, to be able to beat people up or murder them and get away with it makes them feel special. And because they’re fighting crime, it’s all nice and morally justified and they can spout some platitudes about justice or whatever and not have to ask uncomfortable questions about why they're so angry and empty inside. That's the entire plot of the movie, more or less.

This would be a reasonably interesting take on the Superhero trope, had they chosen to actually develop this subtext (which admittedly was already better explored in the WATCHMEN movie, and already much, much better explored already in the Watchmen comics waaaay back in the 80s). Not exactly a hot take, but certainly a valid point; the entire concept of the Superhero, for all its posing about responsibility and justice and Law and Order, is nothing but a juvenile power fantasy, barely dressed up in the rags of Campbellian hero's journey mythos. Obvious, perhaps, but always worth a reminder, especially for the kind of nerds who would take this movie seriously. The terrifying thing about KICK-ASS THE MOVIE, though, is that instead of exploring what seems like the most obvious thing to draw out of the story --these people are toxic, egomaniacal monsters fueling their boundless sense of worthlessness with comically sophomoric violent posturing-- it’s totally on these guys’ side. It really thinks they’re fucking awesome, and the more violent they get the more awesome it thinks they are.

Which is, I think, what makes it such an unsettling experience to me. It's the kind of film which plays into all the worst tendencies of nerd culture – validating their misogyny, their secret feelings of superiority, their bitter, simmering rage. This is the movie where the geeks are right, girls really do only like jerks. Nice guys might as well be gay to them (and I don't mean that figuratively -- that is literally a subplot here). But if you become a successful enough bully, the girl who previously ignored you can hardly wait to fuck you in an ally (again, no exaggeration. Literally depicted). The subtext is about empowerment, validation, and popularity through violence, and there's no other way to see it. The movie even makes explicit this point. Kick-Ass is a selfish, whiny little prick who's ready to retire after committing one “heroic” act and feeling better about himself. But he has one thing to do first: go tell his crush that he's a hero so she'll fuck him. “What's the difference between Peter Parker and Spider Man?” Kick-Ass sneers, “Spider Man gets the girl.”

Is that really the difference, though? Peter Parker isn't like Batman, he's not living a faux life as cover for his superheroing. He's actually living a real life, trying to balance his superhero moonlighting with his responsibilities to his family and loved ones while grinding by in a low-paying, unflashy working-class job. He's got plenty to complain about, but instead he's sweet and upbeat, heroically taking abuse from people who think he's irresponsible and unreliable due to his anonymous webslinging. He could easily tell everyone that he's Spider-Man and probably do a lot better for himself, but he doesn't.* That's not what it's about. Besides, it's not like Spidey is thorax-deep in women, either. Yes, Black Cat is admittedly pretty hot, but it's Peter Parker, not Spidey, who ends up finding happiness with long-term babes like Mary Jane and (briefly) Gwen Stacy. Not because he's a hero, but because he's a good guy and an unselfish friend. He doesn't get the girl because she thinks it's hot that he beats up baddies -- he gets her in spite of feeling obligated to put his own life second in order to make the world safer. Spider-Man is Peter's burden, not his fantasy. He lives a double-life as Spider-Man because he's cursed with abilities which make him uniquely suited to helping the world.

At the end of KICK-ASS, the title character mocks the classic Spider-Man ethos by musing (in his incessant, self-satisfied narration), that, “With no power comes no responsibility,” and it's supposed to count as character growth that he goes ahead and kills a few people even though he didn't technically have to and probably won't even be substantially rewarded for it. That line should tell you everything you need to know about KICK-ASS's horrifyingly self-serving philosophy, but it also demonstrates perfectly just how little he actually took from the comic books he's constantly prattling on about and using as a smug cover for being a vicious little sociopath. I mean, do you really think Peter Parker would have just led a life of selfish instant gratification had he not been bitten by that radioactive/genetically altered spider? If Uncle Ben had been killed and Peter didn't have superpowers, would he just have shrugged it off and gone into middle management at an investment bank because, "with no power comes no responsibility?" Fuck no. He's in the game to help people, to make the world better. And that's something Kick-Ass (both the character and the movie) just fundamentally misunderstands about Superheroing. Every so-called hero in the movie is in it for entirely selfish reasons. In many cases, they make life considerably worse for other people. When Kick-Ass learns that an impersonator has been savagely murdered in his stead, it doesn't even occur to him to feel a twinge of remorse or regret for what he's started. He's just glad someone else got killed first so he has a heads-up to save his own ass.

Only one person in the film seems aware that they’re playing a sociopath, and that’s the reliably eccentric Nicholas Cage (PAY THE GHOST, THE FROZEN GROUND, DOG EAT DOG, MOM AND DAD, and also I believe he won an Academy Award at some point?) in one of his court-mandated 5 great performances per decade. He plays "Big Daddy," an emotionally stunted single father who forces his 11-year old daughter to become a vicious, remorseless assassin, a premise which the movie thinks is just so edgy it can barely contain itself about how daring and brave it is, and it doesn't like to use the word "hero," but you know, what else do you call someone --and artist, say-- with the balls to stand up to those Hillary Clinton PC thugs of the world who wanna tell you how to live your life man, fuck you Tipper Gore I don't conform to your delicate sensibilities, I'm an outlaw, I'm dangerous, baby, look at that, I put an 11-year old killing people with a sword in my movie and you're like, so outraged, GOD MOM WHY DO YOU ALWAYS RUIN MY STUFF? STAY OUT OF MY ROOM OK?! GOD.

As much as the movie wants you to think this guy’s awesome, though, Cage lets you know what a spaced-out psycho he is with his Ned Flanders mustache (he actually puts on a fake handlebar mustache in his crime-fighting persona, a touch of genius I must assume came from Cage), hilariously nutty gay southern drawl (he should have a talk show with Gary Oldman from THE FIFTH ELEMENT) and magnificent vacant-eyed uncomfortable earnestness. He immediately reads as someone who stands outside a bus terminal all day with a terrifyingly artificial smile, softly telling people they'll burn in hell for their min-dresses and Beatle boots. He's good at killing, but he's a total, abject failure as a father and as a human being. The movie is totally with him and falls all over itself trying to convince you how badass he is, but Cage brilliantly undermines the effort by putting just a hint of overblown theatrical flair into his superhero persona. Cage knows how to look cool as a superhero type, but here he (intentionally, I truly believe) makes the character look like a kid playing in a Batman costume, subtly reminding you that this guy isn't so much a serious gritty hero as a big self-absorbed child who happens to own a lot of guns. 


                  Nic Cage auditioning for BLACK SWAN 2: UGLY DUCKLING

Other than that, though, the movie is dead set on convincing you how awesome these guys are, and the scary thing is that it’s devilishly good at making the whole thing fun, funny, and kinetic. It’s a pretty good time, objectively, and I have to imagine Matthew Vaughn has a genuinely fun action comedy in him somewhere [edit: turns out I liked X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, but was pretty mixed on KINGSMEN, which has a lot of the same problems as this one but watered down]. But this ain’t it. This is a serial killer film where we’re supposed to cheer for the killers and think they’re cool. It idolizes violence, makes a tacit (and occasionally even explicit) argument for violence as a necessary tool for self-actualization. Which gives the screen violence an unpleasant, pushy feel, like an aggressive drunk getting in your face about something you basically already agree about. Shit, man, I love movie violence! I didn’t watch every FRIDAY THE 13th just for the sex scenes. But this thing worships the violence so feverishly, and so steadfastly refuses to introspect about the obvious horror story playing out in its narrative... that its actually a turn-off. It manages to make a guy flying a jetpack shooting chain guns feel like a bummer. My god, there's a special place in hell for that.

If it had anything to say about anything at all, that might even be OK. With a film this short on ideas, though, it just feels uncomfortably close to trying to win friends by feeding into people's worst traits and validating their most selfish fantasies. If you let yourself get sucked into its nasty little fable about discovering how special you are by beating people up, I imagine it can be a kind of powerful, seductive fantasy. But watching from the outside is pretty horrifying. And as we've watched exactly the demographic this movie is courting metastasize from angry unfulfilled basement-lurkers into nihilistic, rape-threat-spewing crypto-fascists, it's gotten harder and harder to see it as harmless, irresponsible mayhem. Movies may not cause people to turn bad, but sometimes they reveal a lot about the kind of person who does. And sitting through KICK-ASS is an uncomfortably slick tour through the mind of a very unpleasant person indeed. Not my idea of a fun trip.

*2018 edit: Actually I guess he does go public about being Spider-Man sometime in the mid-2000s in a book written -- ha, of course it was-- by Mark Millar. Anyone know how that turned out?

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