Reviews

The Empire Strikes Worst

Comic book fans are a funny bunch. Predispositions about our kind (and I say that in the least alien way possible) dictate that we commonly possess an intolerance to either milk or gluten; a tendency to spout blood from the nose without warning; a perpetual, helpless state of virginity; and, perhaps most damning of all, an inability to socially interact. I fall into none of these categories, and yet I can’t blame the populace for adopting the stereotypical view of comic book readers as what they have so regularly been defined. This is mainly for two reasons. The first is, likewise, a common belief that most human beings have the capacity to assume a shallow perspective on the lifestyle choices of others. The second is, realistically, an acceptance on my behalf that many comic book readers are overweight, of ill health and indeed eternally lonely. Whether this has been sustained by the imagery of their kind by popular media is a question worth asking, but it is safe to presuppose that a section of society that feels rejected and disillusioned with the bigoted, small-mindedness of others can find solace in the blissful escapism of a Captain America book, inside a landscape where the world as we know it is ostensibly inverted and aggression toward numerous foes is categorically justified in moral and social terms through the unreal strength of a Man of Steel. Comic books – at least in the mainstream sense of the term – typically revolve around seemingly invulnerable characters that embark on repeated crusades against a tyranny that threatens the world.

We fully acknowledge that the ideology that permeates these tales is one of militarist intent, of heroes that police the world through acts of soft yet fantastical violence and justify their action through concern for the greater good. Yet, despite these aspects – and despite independent comic books offering a broader range of theme and genres – there is still much to admire about the superhero comic. The art style, for one, can save a mediocre piece of writing. Likewise, a compelling story arc can distract from a particularly jarring visual choice. Yes, comic books have their niche audience, and the audience comes to the store each week fully aware of the product it is consuming and the enjoyment derived.

Cinema is a different animal altogether. Whereas a comic book need only tick a few boxes to earn its seal of approval, a film consists of a multitude of complex layers that each deserve intense scrutiny. As a cinephile, it is hard to defend the spate of comic book films that have arrived within the past decade. Some of the Marvel offerings may be entertaining, a large majority of them may be boring. One thing we can be sure of is that there is no considerable aesthetic apprecation to be had for, say, any of the X-Men films in comparison as to how one might receive the art style displayed in the franchise’s monthly book instalments. As each comic book film arrives, one can’t help but notice how the formula begins to retread itself so lazily, and the crime of repetition is somehow greater than that of the comic book artform.

What is the saving grace of this genre? It is undoubtedly the phantom of the Western – the psyche of the rightwing, patriotic American ethos inscribed in the allegedly justifiable heroics of the action hero. Sure, we had action heroes a decade earlier in the form of Willis, Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but  in a world now consumed with fear over terrorism and threats to the security of the nation, Hollywood finds itself in dire need of a new breed of hero, a thirst that the bottomless well of budding heroes from comic book lore is only to willing to quench. The ideology that underlines the genre may indeed be infinitely more interesting to deconstruct than the films themselves.

Kick-Ass, helmed by the unremarkable Matthew Vaughn, is a misguided, clumsy attempt to shake some life into the genre through its assimilation of 21st century media touchstones (social networking in the form of MySpace gets a big nod here) and a curious contemplation of just how an ordinary citizen would fare should he or she dress in spandex and take to the alleys. Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is the stereotypical nerd in question guided by, as he puts it, ‘optimism and naivete’, but also the very best intentions. After all, most if not all superheroes are armed with the interests and security of their fellow citizens at heart. Dave’s psuedonym for himself is ‘Kick-Ass’, which one would probably be expected to respond to with stifled laughter, a sure sign that his best intentions are unquestionably admirable, but in the vein of all comic book nerds who have come before and will go after, he is literally a walking punchline, a hopeless endeavour.

No sooner does he find himself in too deep within the complex web of the crime syndicate than we are introduced to Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), both seen by the film as more adept and skilled in the art of crimefighting than Kick-Ass could ever hope to be. All semblance of superhero parody and (apparent) satire is thrown out of the window with the introduction of these characters as the film descends into sequence after sequence of increasingly ludicrous cartoon violence that acts as a constant pinch in the arm to the audience – an opium for the people. The perennial barrage of bullets and blades forms a deafening alarm bell that ensures our consciousness is never switched off, even if our brains are showing no sign of life.

Hit-Girl has been conditioned in the art of – perfectly justified! – cold-blooded killing by the visibly unstable Big Daddy, whereas Kick-Ass has taken up his mantle through the influence of his comic book idols. This is a world in which he assumes no superheroes exists, and so his crusade is, in his eyes, a valiant, noble effort to fill the void and do what simply needs to be done. Both youngsters are therefore spurned into action by external forces that either encourage or take advantage of their childish guilelessness as opposed to the trajectory of the familiar superhero origin, in which lessons of responsibility and duty are acquired through more fantastical yet noble means.

Seeing a 13 year-old girl utter the c-word before slashing the throats of various hitmen in scenes of gratuitous violence may be disturbing to some, and sure enough these scenes have provoked the ire of knee-jerkers at the Daily Mail amongst others. Whether a film has any commitment to fulfil a wholesome moral image is a matter of personal preference, but Kick-Ass should not be dismissed for its bad language, and certainly not for the acts of violence alone. It is the context in which this bloodied, frenzied mess occurs that is the more immediate concern.

We have already learnt of the circumstances that lead to the creation of these superheroic alter egos. The narrative eventually leads us to a point where Kick-Ass considers – like all superheroes do eventually – stepping away from the crimefighting lifestyle. So soon, Dave? The civilised thing to do would be to settle down with his  girlfriend whom he has attained by a methodology that could only succeed within the falstities of Hollywood narrative (likewise, his substantially nerdier friend manages to cop off with another girl during a moment of panic, in one cringeworthy scene that resulted from the film’s resistance to leaving loose narrative threads dangling). Settling down is however out of the question for Kick-Ass. Hit-Girl needs his assistance after a turn of events that force the film’s so-far tone-deaf disposition to centre on slight emotional conditions. Kick-Ass needs to fight, and so we are once more drawn into the accepted ideology of the superhero genre as a morally justified violence for the benefit of the greater good. One scene involving a jetpack more than confirms Kick-Ass’ integration into the hardened, militaristic ideal that Hit-Girl and her father unquestionably embody.

However, the circumstances surrounding the violence have changed in this instance. Hit-Girl’s vendetta against the crime lords who are to meet their fate in the final act is one generated through personal hatred, and not one of social justice for the good of the people. For a film so bloodless (no pun intended), tone-deaf and utterly devoid of intended parody, it asks a lot of its audience to be emotionally invested in a tragic occurence that impacts on all key players so late in the film.

The butchery meted out by the heroes in the climactic showdown is carried out away from the public eye. Just as well, considering its graphic nature. What makes this episode of violence different from what has preceeded it is the context in which it occurs. In this instance, the key factor that has been accentuated is that of family. In a tit-for-tat  game of ‘my firepower is bigger than yours’, the battle between hero and villain escalates into a murky grey moral area in which both parties are indistinguishable amidst their insatiable bloodlust and thoughtless massacre of the other’s family. Do unto others as you would have done unto you is the order of the day by the film’s crimson-soaked climax; as the two apparent beacons of hope Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl stand triumphant atop a skyscraper with the sun beaming benevolently in the background, we are left with no question that they did the right thing – despite their actions positively reeking of reactionary aggression.

The ideology that lies within the fabric of Kick-Ass is one of mean-spirited, militaristic eye-for-an-eye callowness that recalls the actions of American soldiers carelessly bombing civilians and their families in the Middle East as a means of hasty retaliation over the death of their own loved ones in the September 11 attacks. Yes, some may argue we require comic book heroes to occupy the Hollywood landscape as a means of compensating for the climate of fear that currently consumes our world, but when they come as juvenile and hopelessly pathetic as the likes of Kick Ass, Hit Girl and Big Daddy, maybe we are better off without any guardians at all.

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3 thoughts on “The Empire Strikes Worst

  1. ” The ideology that lies within the fabric of Kick-Ass is one of mean-spirited, militaristic eye-for-an-eye callowness that recalls the actions of American soldiers carelessly bombing civilians and their families in the Middle East as a means of hasty retaliation over the death of their own loved ones in the September 11 attacks. ”

    This reminds me of something Armond White would say.

  2. Armond White, eh? Haha, I do indeed learn from the best.

    But in response to your both your comments, the example I use to express the film’s perspective can seem as if I’m digging a little too deep, but you can’t deny that this is the ideology that underlines the film and the parallel is simply used as a means of illustration.

    In regards to Phil (Mells) specifically, I’ve been getting a hard time from many of the film’s fans who claim it to be ‘wicked awesome, maaaan!’ so I felt I had to articulate on here why exactly I found it to be spectacularly lame. All I’ve heard in its defense so far is how ‘rad’ the violence was and so on and so forth.

    Meh, I’m done with it now. Shit sucks.

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