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September 1, 2013

3/5 Not bad, but had better potential

*SPOILER ALERT: If you have never watched a superhero movie in your entire life, stop now. Go and watch one – any one – and you will know within the first 15 minutes what’s going to happen in Kick-Ass.*

What with the recent furore about a new Kick-Ass movie, it’s hard not to think back when it all started. This may or may not have been a bigger issue in its home country, but there was a bit of a kerfuffle at some point about a pre-teen using The C Word. And for the record, I don’t think they meant commitment. Also, less shockingly, she killed some dudes and got sprayed with blood, got badly hurt, got shot by her own dad and was generally encouraged to be a bit of a psycho. Plus there was that disturbing Jap-style sexualised school uniform thing.

We’ll get to that, but before we do, there’s another pressing issue to cover; the new superhero movie thing, where apparently it was going to be about a normal guy who tries to be a superhero. Sort of like Batman, if he was dirt poor. First up, I think these guys are taking liberties with the word “normal” here. We are led to believe that our guy is an Everyman, but in my experience, teenage boys who don green wetsuits and prance about in front of the mirror are something of a rarity.

The idea is good in principle, originating from a comic book under the same name. This explains why it doesn’t differ much from the usual comic book formula, since if you bought a superhero comic without superhero-y stuff in it, you might be disappointed. If I were the director, though, I would feel that the idea is good enough in itself that the film doesn’t have to directly mimic the original media in order to get its point across, which is why I was expecting something different when I read the film synopsis.

To my mind, a tale about a teenage boy obsessively fantasising about being a secret vigilante but lacking the powers to do so could very easily be made into a comic but gritty drama as he struggles to come to terms with his own powerlessness, the hopelessness and insignificance of his existence – especially in the dustier parts of New York, where all the lycra in the world won’t protect you from the knives and guns.

I politely ignored the jaw-jarringly predictable preface where we are introduced to our protagonist, Mr Dave Kick-Ass himself (his university enrolment will be an interesting) in all his nerdy, loserish glory. Incidentally, I have a theory that Dave is the ultimate name of Power: The Bank of Dave; The Republic of Dave; Channel Dave, which airs Red Dwarf, led by Dave; and the heinously potent Dave Syndrome, sensitively brought to public attention by Black Books.

Kick-Ass did continue in the vein I was expecting for a while; Dave does get himself into a spot of bother, given false confidence by the name of Dave and the power of lycra, whereby he is injured. This leads to the interesting comic-book-logic-esque assertion that his injuries and the Tin man patch-up job that somehow kills half his nerve endings actually strengthens him tenfold. His hospital-induced CIPA, far from discouraging him from stupidly picking fights with armed men, lets him jumps right back in and he collects a large cult following of gormless onlookers for taking the biggest beating ever given.

Now, in an age where Youtube is the cornerstone of contemporary culture, I buy completely that a clip of a guy dressed in green lycra getting his arse kicked would get a lot of views. This did, however, cut short what I thought would be a Rocky-fist-pumping-eye-of-the-tiger-style resurrection and rise to the top. Such is the hasty nature of social media. There is also a distinct lack of commentary here; I live in a world where people question why (and indeed, how) videos of these things gain such widespread popularity. But dear Dave and his peers have little to say about it; he’s a Youtube star and that’s it. Hmm… From Clueless to The Breakfast Club, I’d say even good American films constantly underestimate the critical abilities, emotional complexities and individuality of teens.

Talk about an old person’s viewpoint. A Youtube star rises to fame and just sort of lives happily with it for a while? Ha! I know a thing or two about the personal lives of Youtube stars. You can hear them all at VidCon, lamenting the loss of their ability to walk down the road without being stalked and harassed. And these are people who talk about tea and the Twilight saga for a living, usually not dressed in tight green lycra. They have it easy by comparison. If Kick-Ass showed up at VidCon, I dread to think of the chaos that would promptly ensue.

I suppose my criticism is that this part of the movie feels emotionally stunted and rushed, when it needn’t have been. The man achieves his heart’s desire not half an hour into the movie and no one stops to wonder how it happened. We’re all supposed to move on. Considering how keen film-makers are to eke another movie out of a franchise and develop a trilogy out of subject matter than least supports it, it’s a mystery to me why a film with subject matter that could well have filled a two hour film gets crushed into a bewilderingly trying-to-be-realistic-and-failing half hour. Were they just trying to get the contemporary culture stuff out the way?

Quite apart from anything else, the film completely changes its tone after this; the realism suddenly drops away, leaving us suspended awkwardly over cloud cuckoo land. Dave goes off to defend his (inevitable) love interest and almost gets himself killed – because twice isn’t enough in a lifetime – only to be saved by a flipping (that’s literally flipping), knife-wielding, trigger-happy, purple-wig-sporting, bloodthirsty, uber-assasin child. In a familiar comic book disregard for the laws of physics, she can dodge bullets simply by being quite fast and flexible. Hmph. It’s a good job I lost all hope in realism at this point, or I would have been apoplectic by the time the jetpack showed up.

This girl, who looks 11 years old but is probably closer 32 (this being the movies and all) is an ordinary human being. Supposedly. She’s called Hit Girl and is part of a heroic duo with her expert marksman of a father, Big Daddy, whose parental sense of responsibility leaves much to be desired. And wouldn’t you know it? He’s dressed as Batman. He has Batman’s skills also: money, obsession, selective aggression, occasional bad manners, nuttiness, a split personality and a healthy axe to grind with the world in general. The only thing he doesn’t have is a very patient butler.

Perhaps I misunderstood, but I thought that Kick-Ass was supposed to be an alternative take on the comic book film genre – to be to comic book films what Shrek was for fairy tales. Maybe someone sneezed the piece of paper containing that idea out of the window and forgot about it. These characters are supposed to be “super”heroes not superheroes, and fair enough, dear Dave is a bit of a dweeb, but Hit Girl is nothing if not super. OK, she may not be able to shoot webs out of her nostrils or have inflatable parachute buttocks, but when you can take out entire buildings full of gun-toting goons by flipping around all over the place like a Chihuahua in a shock collar, evidently you don’t need them.

In fact, all the characters have a ring of familiarity about them. Dave is Peter Parker whenever the blue-and-red-bulb-head is caught with his webs down. Big Daddy, as established, is Batman. Hit Girl is a little more original for the fact of being both female and a child, but this is naught but a gimmick really, much reflected by the need to have her be foul mouthed and alarmingly callous (if that car-crushing scene doesn’t make you wince, nothing will). There is a tendency to peddle it out with forced regularity, as if to say “Look! We’ve got a swearing kid! Aren’t we edgy!” Sorry, ‘Murica, we’ve had those for a while.

The whole thing has a tone about it that suggests it is trying to be controversial as possible, which is a shame, because I genuinely find straight-talking, sweary kids hilarious and forced controversy a bit boring. There is nothing controversial about bad language, and certainly not bad language on kids, who in real life use it more than adults. I imagine that some of this is a thumbing-of-noses at finicky censorship rules, and I suppose this is breath of fresh air when you consider how arbitrary film sanitisation is – sex is worse than death? Really? I’d say you’re doing it wrong. Following the film, people’s reaction to it made the directorial choice seem more justified, but that does not give it any more worth in itself; considering that this film, in which someone gets blown up in a giant microwave, has a 15 age rating over here, I think it’s obvious we’re moving away from overzealous censorship – which is soon going to make Kick-Ass look dated.

Ah, and the minor characters are all the same, too: dead relatives; vengeful ex-cops; kindly cops; useless cops that are nowhere to be found at the crucial moment; endless hoards of equally useless goons that are torture-happy but thick as two short planks; a main villain that is the final adversary plus a drugs overlord who is so unspeakably evil it’s a wonder he wasn’t arrested the first time he laughed at an episode of Scrubs; a “good” character who isn’t really good but turns worse (why hello, Harry Osborn, so nice of you to drop in); two completely superfluous friends whose only purpose to show us that our main character is at least neither as stupid nor as creepy as them; and a partridge in a pear tree. No, I wish there had been a partridge in a pear tree – that I could have recognised as original.

I have never really appreciated characters that are there purely for comic relief, and in this case it is particularly odd, since the whole thing is mostly a comedy anyway (at the very least, you could never accuse Kick-Ass of taking itself too seriously). If a film is well-rounded, the comedy should all come from the main plot line If you think it has to be shoe-horned in, it’s time to re-evaluate where the faults are in the main plot. More often than not, these characters are simply irritating and pop up to make inappropriate comments that detract from whatever human moments might appear in the movie. I don’t much care if some dumb sack of shit who I don’t know from Adam has “scored” some girl I know even less well. I would rather know our main characters better than be led off on a tangent that wastes runtime. Judging by how fast this movie was, there wasn’t any time to spare.

Lastly, there’s Dave’s missus of sorts. Look, if you’re going to paint someone as a standard nerd, do it. Don’t balk at the last moment and give them a girlfriend or in some other way make them “cool” so we the audience can empathise with him more or something. Quite apart from being a ridiculous matching, it doesn’t show anything of the sort; I’m not as stereotypically nerdy as this guy, and yet I have been single at some point in my life and not considered myself a pining, desperate loser. I have also never “scored” with that little effort or in such a monumentally stupid way. A funnier and better scenario would be to have her understandably tell Dave to naff off.

I mean, I’ll be damned if this relationship, and this girl, aren’t exactly the same as every other one in Hollywood. Ever. She’s one of the worst examples, actually; she is under-developed compared even to Mary Jane Watson (film version), and she could have rivalled Princess Peach in terms of sheer uselessness. They’re opposite ends of the spectrum, but turn out the same way. Mary Jane leaked endlessly into Peter Parker’s shoulder (mind you, he was pretty leaky himself) and what’s-her-face with Dave is almost emotionless. Oh, Hollywood.

I know all films have tropes, but characters cannot be tropes, only clichés. If they are recognisably a set of characteristics, then they are clearly not as developed as they could be, because a truly absorbing character does not give you an opening to recognise which character tropes they adhere to. When there isn’t a good script or a good director, actors have to pick up the slack; I dare you to name one trope there that couldn’t have been completely overturned if it was played out by Meryl-fuckin-Streep. Go on. I dare you.

Most of the cast here are fresh-faced youths and despite my earlier comments, the youngest – Hit Girl, played by Chloe Moretz – is by far and away the best. This is mainly because she assimilates the way kids have become in recent years in her language and characteristics, if not all the flipping around and killing people stuff. This has yet to become a cliché because most directors have refused to touch it. I like seeing a bit of acknowledgement about the personalties of kids, without painting it like it’s The End of Civilisation. OK, so its overdone and Kick-Ass is too far the other direction – frivolous in its depictions of violence. But despite all of this, and however old the film may look in a few short years, it will always now have a landmark character because the film-makers dared to take risks with her.

I am concerned, however, about the emotion deficit in this character far more than Dave’s bland squeeze. Remember that Hit Girl is an 11 year old who’s getting beaten up, being shot by her own dad, seeing him burned alive having already lost her mother, crushing people in huge metal contraptions and generally just running around murdering people willy nilly. Not a big deal, apparently. Just so long as she’s back before10pm to drink her warm milk. At no point do we see any pronounced suffering or vulnerability. There is a moment of pain – physical pain – that is drawn out uncomfortably, but nothing relating to her actual human feelings.

I mean, it’s one thing to portray her as being resilient, but quite another to balls out ignore the fact that this kid had no childhood and has a potential lifetime of juvie and jail hanging over her head, all because her psychotic father, who she trusted, can’t let go. She’s seen torture, she’s seen blood spraying up the walls, caused it to happen, and we’re supposed to swallow that a mentally normal girl (well, reasonably) is just going to shrug it all off. She’s going to go back to school, an orphaned mass-murderer, and go and study trigonometry, is she?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing I dislike more in a film than shameless moralising, but a bit of touching base would have done no harm here. I can see why people were disturbed by the movie; what they wanted was for the violence to not be so gratuitous, to have emotional (rather than physical) consequences. It was a rare opportunity and it was lost. Where is the message? I can’t be expected to believe that it’s all OK ’cause the Good Guys Won. I wanted to know if she was crying herself to sleep, if her loss of innocence had screwed her up for life, if there was any hope or if she would turn into Kristanna Sommer Loken’s terminator. Christ, Lord of The Flies showed us what can happen to kids in this situation, and that lot only killed one person. Between them. I hate to harp on about this, but Hit Girl is a mass-murderer. If I were to make a sequel, it would be all about how this kid responds to her emotional trauma. But I guess that wouldn’t be funny enough for you all. Well, we could always put in a fart gag. And maybe some blood, if haemoglobin is really as funny as you suggest.

That’s my main issue; Hit Girl is genuinely interesting, but they replace all the empathy we should feel for her with isn’t-she-endearingly-alarming humour. It would hardly be the first feature to do this, since it is by far easier to make light of heavy subjects than to give weight to popular fiction. It’s important to remember that an in-depth exploration of the issues is important, and that the standard Good Guys Defeat Bad Guys comic book formula is not incompatible with character emphasis All character emphasis does is improve strorylines in relation to fighting. It makes you care.

Because honestly, what does it matter who’s “good”? It’s not about good, it’s about interesting. You want an emotional connection to your protagonists and what they’re doing; in fact, you ideally want a connection with the antagonists, too. Kick-Ass must have been on the verge of understanding this, since you could hardly call Hit Girlgood” in the “Well, Jane, have you been a good girl?” sense of the word, even though we’re obviously supposed to root for her. Yet the fact that Dave goes back to square one after his adventure indicates that despite everything, he’s experienced no growth, which undermines all this somewhat. To me, zero growth is a mysterious setup for a sequel.

And of course, for a franchise like that, there was always going to be a sequel. Which is what makes it so unbelievable that the film-makers tried even for a moment to convince us that they were about to kill off their main characters. Yeah, of course. A big budget blockbuster franchise say goodbye to easy money? I think not. It would be a funny sequel indeed that had a whole different set of heroes – or even better, a whole two-hour movie where the cops finally buck up their ideas and bust the crime rings themselves, in a police procedural “You have the right to mutter something incomprehensible and say ‘no comment’ with an infuriating degree of frequency in the questioning room” kind of way.

At the time of writing, Kick-Ass 2 has not been released, but it makes little difference; because of the standard delivery of the original, the sequel must now be the same as it. Dave will still have to be useless, Hit Girl will still have to be unstoppable and constantly save his sorry ass, and the Bad Guys will still have to be cartoon villains. Otherwise, millions of people will be disappointed, because people are silly and like everything all to stay the same way and that is exactly the kind of audience Kick-Ass pandered to.

Is a franchise really just about watching the same characters do the same things over again? If it is, wouldn’t it be an idea to set the characters up with potential for growth? Long running TV series like House are great because the characters are complex and they alter. Their relationships to others evolve. Kick-Ass doesn’t lend itself to a decent sequel as well as it could because it lacks that propensity for change. However, perhaps it will be one of the rare occasions where the sequel is actually better because it learns from its audience response and realises who the most interesting characters are *cough* Hit Girl *cough* and addresses the personalities and motivations behind them. But then again, Kick-Ass 2 has Jim Carrey in it. Jim Carrey + Superhero movie = weird.

Not to say that I didn’t enjoy Kick-Ass. I simply felt that it had more potential. Anything which deftly shocks old ladies with a timely use of the old “Mike Hunt” is great with me. Although I think that a movie this overblown ought to have made more its potential to invert tired old tropes, I agree that there are priceless moments. Easily my favourite is when Big Daddy (at this point unidentified) shoots his daughter in the middle of the park after they’d been having a perfectly amicable conversation, and she takes it lying down. Literally. It was so shocking it was funny, the way jokes are when they are completely unexpected. And, it soon transpired she was wearing a bullet proof vest and was unharmed.

It’s too bad these moments are few and far between, but even if they were common it might not be enough; just because a movie is enjoyable, doesn’t mean it’s good. Rather like Britain’s Got Talent, or Youtube clips of grown men falling off skateboards. When the chance arises, I’m not sure I will watch Kick-Ass again. I’m sure you will, all la-di-da with your beer and your friends, and it will be perfectly fun for you in your drunken state. But alone and beerless as I am, I will be retiring to my room to write that gritty sequel: Hit Girl In Therapy. It will be a hit (*snort*) one day, you mark my words.


From → Media Analysis

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