April 22, 2010

Kick-Ass Exploration of Morality

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Superhero movies can be one of two things: An effects-and-merchandise-driven CGI popcorn flick or, closer to the spirit of many graphic-novel sources, artistic meditations on the nature of heroism in society, mythic good vs. pervasive evil, the tragedy of self-sacrifice and lots of meaty stuff Joseph Campbell continues to beat off to in his grave.Exhibit A: Batman Forever, The Fantastic Four, X-Men 3, The Incredible Hulk and, let’s face it, Transformers.Exhibit B: Spiderman 2, Iron Man, The Dark Knight (more a timeless crime epic than a superhero film, but for argument’s sake).There’s a corollary to Exhibit B, containing the films that combine superhero with neo-noir and dissect the notion of what superheroes even are, pitting them against the forces of the mundane and the real world outside Smallville that Superman never really sets foot in. These are The Incredibles, Watchmen, Sin City and now Kick-Ass, directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake).Kick-Ass starts off more than promisingly, establishing a Superbad-type atmosphere of adolescent characters where no word, vulgarity, epithet or otherwise is off limits and every day is bookended by the awkward hell that is high school. Relative unknown Aaron Johnson plays Dave Lisewski, another unknown in his realm of New York City, just another dweeb who isn’t even the alpha in his zeta-male circle of comic book collecting friends. Between lusting after his lit teacher’s mammary region and getting the piss and snot walloped out of him for his lunch money, Dave does nothing else but ponder why superheroes don’t exist to rescue the downtrodden or at least provide a spectacle to punctuate the monotony of inner-city existence.Johnson plays Dave as anti-charming, dorky in every way that causes dorks to be reviled, while aggressively earning our sympathy through his earnestness. When all the world seems a dark place, his ray of hope-filled light is a child-like fascination with the heroic. Don’t we all wonder where all the cowboys have gone from time to time?Dave has had enough. He purchases a few assorted, sordid, outfits from the internet and combines them into a comically homespun-looking costume. Adding what looks like two miniature pugil sticks, he becomes the alter ego Kick-Ass, complete with MySpace page, and ventures off to fight crime with no superpowers, no Batman-gadgets and very little athletic ability. And crime fighting, namely, vigilante justice, is a messy business. Kick-Ass encounters two thugs and is hospitalized by them in broad daylight. Undeterred, Dave Lisewski soldiers through the day. Kick-Ass re-emerges by night. In one painfully realistic yet valiant defense of a man about to be mugged by three thugs, Kick-Ass faces the hero’s dilemma: To die for a complete stranger or not? Even if it’s “right?” Kick-Ass kicks ass in this moral quandary and a stray cell phone video makes him the YouTube sensation of the fledgling century.We’ve gotten involved in the story at this point. We’ve met Dave’s friends, played by Clark Duke (Sex Drive, TV’s Greek) and Evan Peters (Never Back Down). We know Dave likes a girl named Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) who is out of his league, yet befriends him because she thinks he’s gay. That’s harsh, folks. And pretty typical. We’ve seen the dilapidated corners of his mediocre life and his unremarkable, occasionally cringe-worthy speck of a high school social life. We have seen this character ponder the deep questions of morality and the dissatisfaction with nihilism that drives less-than-ordinary people to become extraordinary. We have seen and felt his triumph.Why then, does the movie introduce 11-year-old Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz, the sage little sister in 500 Days of Summer) and her awkward Big Daddy (the ever-self-aware, scenery-chewing Nicolas Cage)? These two are not average people striking out against the mixed morality of the world with vigilante justice. They just kill people. Brutally. Hit Girl somehow, in her bare decade of existence, has learned to use knives to tear out people’s throats in splattering glee. Big Daddy is a Batman-wannabe from costume down to motive, driven psychotic by the suicide of his wife, an effect of a long list of causes traced to Scorcese-worthy mobster Frank D’Amico (protean British actor Mark Strong, Sherlock Holmes, Body of Lies). Big Daddy uses guns. Lots of guns. Guns mounted on the walls of a secret room in his apartment. And he buys his daughter switchblades for her birthday. Aw.There is a huge contrast between Kick-Ass’s desperate, bloody attempt to stop three thugs and the pornographic bloodlust of Hit Girl as she magically mows down rows of baddies. Just like in The Matrix and Equilibrium, the bad guys always miss, and the good guys always win through superhuman effort. It’s easy to become a superhero. Red Mist (Christopher-Mintz Plasse, Superbad’s McLovin himself), another comic book nerd who happens to be a rich drug-dealer’s son, D’Amico Jr., just buys an arsenal and his own car that we can dub “2 Bats 2 Furious.” We identify with Kick-Ass. We know he’s in over his head. We feel his hopes and dreams. We doubt whether Dave and Katie will end up together the way indie films keep us on our toes … twisting conventions at unexpected times. It’s no one’s guess that a violent showdown between Hit Girl and Frank will occur. That’s the action cliché. Watching a grown man knuckle dust a preteen girl into a pulp isn’t any different than it happening to Arnold Schwarzenegger as far as story. As far as the grotesqueness portrayed on-screen, well, it’s a little disturbing, and quite different in the message it sends, as well as the red flags it raises. I almost raised my white one in response.The cinematography is great. Fire crackles, bullets pop and ping, the costumes are vibrant and the close-ups reveal the brutality of the violent interactions. The slow motion and CGI are tasteful and hardly overbearing. The “hip” vibe and cool self-awareness of the characters is not so great, somewhere between Juno’s annoying and Pulp Fiction’s unbearable. If they’d finished the original story without switching to a blam-splat film halfway through, this could have battled Watchmen and The Dark Knight for the mantle of true dissertations into heroism and vigilante justice in our scary post-modern world.

3.5 Towers

Original Author: Naushad Kabir