Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Damn hell ass superheroes


As a companion piece to the more ambitious, more interesting, generally more thrilling original, it's fun enough.

Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow (based on the comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.)
With Chloe Grace Moretz (Hit-Girl/Mindy Macready), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass/Dave Lizewski), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (The Mother Fucker/Chris D'Amico), Jim Carrey (Col. Stars and Stripes), John Leguizamo (Javier)

Spoiler alert: moderate

 Don't stop believin', dudes.

Mark Millar, the creator of the Kick-Ass comics, has never been my favorite writer.  He started out in American comics as Grant Morrison Ultra Light, and his reinvention as superhero comics' no. 1 provocateur has never felt totally sincere.  There's a degree of hackery even in his best comics, and at like $4 a pop for maybe fifteen minutes of entertainment, hackery isn't something I readily abide.  (Which means I don't really read many new comics these days.)

Also, even more importantly, I do not especially care for JRJr's line.  That's on me, yet there it is.

It was thus with no great consternation that Kick-Ass the book happened to pass me by, and still passes me by to this day.

Kick-Ass the film came and went too, for a while.  No great loss, I reckoned.  But unexpectedly it showed up on Netflix Instant Watch, and stayed there.  A few friends, unaware and certainly uninterested in my love-hate relationship with Mr. Millar, told me I should watch it because, well, superheroes.  I also saw the highlight video above, which made it seem awesome, probably because cool remixes of Journey's mega-classic are what tip the scale to make life worth living.  And when it's on Netflix, I'm essentially only paying with my time, so I knuckled under and watched it, even though I expected crap.

Of course, Kick-Ass was actually shockingly good, anchored by a winning combination of solid performances, goofy charm, enjoyable ultraviolence, extremely selective psychological realism, and some kind of nebulous but resonant theme of self-improvement.  The most egregious differences between the book and the film, I understand, are that in the book Kick-Ass never gets laid, and that Big Daddy is a total rather than ambiguous monster.  Sounds uncompromising?  Sure, I guess.  You know who else was uncompromising?  Rorschach.

Kick-Ass 2 (the film) picks up two years after the first left off, with Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl retired but itching to get back into the superhero game, and the artist formerly known as the Red Mist obsessed with vengeance against the man who blew up his dad.

So it's amazing how a sequel that relies on such heavy continuity from its predecessor can simultaneously hit the reset button so hard. Kick-Ass 2 forgets so much that happened in the first movie I'm surprised Nick Cage wasn't cast by accident.

The most obvious and disappointing result of this is that Kick-Ass is switched back to the same default weenie mode he was in before receiving numerous beatings, witnessing Hit-Girl massacre a room full of people with a glaive, and blasting apart several human beings with a pair of gatling guns and an anti-tank weapon himself.

It's been said that Kick-Ass was flawed because he was ineffectual and its protagonist should have been Hit-Girl.  First: yes, we watched the same movie.  And maybe Obi-Wan Kenobi should have been the protagonist of Star Wars.  He could have left Luke Skywalker's inept ass out on the desert floor after he saved him from Tusken Raiders.

Second: the idea that Dave Lizewski didn't grow and change enormously over the course of the film is belied by the fact that he worked out, got to have sex with a hot girl, then flew a jetpack up to a skyscraper and murdered people with heavy weapons.  Becoming hardened to and capable of dealing out brutal violence is, indeed, a character arc.  You may not like it—if so, you, like Jim Carrey, may also be stuck in default weenie mode—but in the Kick-Ass universe especially, this is the shape of the hero's journey.

 Pictured: Campbellian monomyth.

To see this pilgrim's progress reversed for the sake of some unnecessary berating by Hit-Girl during their training sequences, which include a live run against some convenient daylight muggers in the NYC police state wherein Dave once again assumes the fetal position, is kind of a bummer.

PTSD?  Yeah.  Fine.

Do we also recall how Dave revealed his identity to the aforementioned hot girl, Katie, in the first movie?  Hope not, because she's out of this movie in like ten minutes and they dispose of her character through the expedient of having her unreasonably believe he's cheating on her with one Mindy Macready, a.k.a. Hit-Girl, now a freshman at her school.  I think we might have also forgotten she was already a freshman at her school at the end of the last movie two years ago.

Mindy will demonstrate that she's Hit-Girl to her classmates several times but will not engender suspicion from anyone.  Despite the fact that Hit-Girl's existence, if not identity, is public knowledge, no one will ever entertain the idea that Hit-Girl is Hit-Girl, let alone Katie, because if there's one thing you don't want, is a potentially interesting subplot about Katie being able to deduce this patently obvious conclusion and it causing conflict and/or tension.

Actually, I'm kind of serious, because if she did stay in the movie, the villain was going to rape her to death.

If your dick is evil, try pineapple.

(There is a substitute scene, with another character, that is perhaps somewhat more palatable.)

Anyway, it's still amusing enough to watch as Dave restarts his heroing career with a crew of folks inspired by Kick-Ass' domestic terrorism from the first movie, including Jim Carrey's Colonel Stars and Stripes, whilst Chris assembles an army of supervillains to fill the conflict void with the help of his bodyguard, John Leguizamo.  Maybe it's best, however, that you not go in thinking these two veterans bring anything nearly as essential to the movie as Cage did as Big Daddy in the first, because like Lynsy Fonseca briefly reprising as Katie, their appearances are more like extended cameos than substantial elements of the story.

Colonel Stars and Stripes is seen here trusting Kick-Ass, further demonstration that people just don't learn in Kick-Ass 2.

Chloe Grace Moretz is, however, every bit as much of a compelling presence here, and perhaps more thanks to greater age and experience, as she was in the first film.  As Hit-Girl, she's always amazing.  In her civilian guise, she is perhaps even more impressive.  I'm actually a little less cold to the idea of her taking on the telekinetic mantle of Carrie White in October, because there's a mini-Carrie in the middle of this movie, with Mindy taken in and humiliated by a bunch of quintessential Mean Girls, and while it's written rather terribly, she still sort of pulls it off.

To delve into it a bit, Mindy is initially approached by some popular girls to hang out with them.  This is treated in the film as an unlikely occurrence, although there is no reason an obvious alpha female, who looks like Moretz, is in her character's social class, and has the athletic skill of Hit-Girl, would not be perfectly popular herself, and hard to get boys or even other girls to conspire against.  Her only real issue is her somewhat anti-social tendencies, which don't manifest in resentment-fueling behavior at school nearly so much as that of the self-proclaimed (seriously?) "queen bee," and which she clearly wants to shed.  I mean, even She's All That knew they needed to at least turn fellow trinominalist Rachel Leigh Cook poor and glue some Velma glasses to her face, and it was still pretty preposterous.

This is nonetheless a decent theoretical idea for a subplot, but I was more than a little put-off by the film's head-first lunge into some sort of vile old man conservatism, complete with simultaneous panic toward budding female sexuality and an extremely prurient interest in it.

Not pictured: metaphorical rose petals.

There follows a(n astoundingly artificial) monologue by one of the popular girls about alternatives to vaginal sexual intercourse mined directly from the script to the lost TV-MA episode of Daria.  Obvious statement: kids have talked about sex since proto-human language was invented, grandpa, and fifteen year olds were giving each other head when you were fifteen.  Maybe not to you, but that's life.

"Quinn, it is hard enough to color-coordinate for the Fashion Club Rainbow Party without your attitude."

I suppose it could be read differently: I can't tell exactly if the scene is supposed to represent the evil temptation of evil teen sexuality as practiced by evil girls who don't wait; or if it's to contrast the traditional role of women as wielders of sexual weaponry as opposed to butterfly knives and handguns; or if they think it's just shocking! and therefore funny; or if it's to acknowledge that Hit-Girl isn't a sexless robot, in which case it's actually faintly sex-positive, in the same main vein as the first Kick-Ass definitively was.  (For all its putative problems, the original never slut shamed Katie, when it could have; and sometimes Chris Rock is wrong and you do deserve credit for doing what you're supposed to.)  Considering how everything plays out in Kick-Ass 2, I'm going to go with the first and least charitable interpretation.

One of the things that does remain charming about the Kick-Ass universe, however, is that everyone involved in its superheroic pseudo-fantasies is either so presumptively individualistic or reverent toward their comic book icons that (with one exception) they respect existing IPs and come up with their own dumb superhero names.  The other charming thing is how the Kick-Ass series underscores how vanishly few good names and themes for superheroes and supervillains alike are actually left, almost 75 years and hundreds of thousands of published four-color pamphlets in the genre later.

But then again, the Red Mist oedipally changing his name to the Mother Fucker is the example par excellence of the downside to this.

Maybe I forgot this part of the first movie.  You know, the scene where Chris D'Amico evinces any desire whatsoever to bang his mom.

Kick-Ass is surely a stupid name (more like... Ass... Kick, hmm?), but it's got a bit of undeniable flair to it, which is why it's the title of the comics and the films.  The heroes and villains introduced in Kick-Ass 2 vary wildly in how much panache their gimmicks and nommes de guerre possess, and many are outright terrible (compare Colonel Stars and Stripes, which could be a real Golden Age name, versus, say, the Tumor).  It's funny, arguably—Leguizamo absolutely gets some mileage out of it—but the sad fact about lame is that it's lame.

Lame.  Cool.  Lame.  Cool.  Lame.  Lame.  Cool.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Cool.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Iconically cool.  Cool.  Cool.  Lame.  Cool.  Cool.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Lame.  Cool.  Lame.  Cool.

You know who wasn't lame?  Frank D'Amico, the boss villain from Kick-Ass.  (Scientists suspect Mark Strong may be constitutionally incapable of being lame.)

So Kick-Ass 2 stumbles, too, in its action sequences.  Though the scope is supposedly broader than the original, due to the respective costumed armies Kick-Ass and the Mother Fucker can mobilize, the stakes also feel smaller, perhaps because no one in this movie even tries to fill the roles Big Daddy or Frank D'Amico played in the first.  More than a few folks do die in the build-up to the final showdown, but one can't be expected to care because they're all extremely ancillary, often almost non-characters.

Also, you know what drivers who find themselves behind a van filled with people firing AK-47s at a girl riding on top of the roof don't do?  Follow too closely.

Nonetheless, despite this litany of complaints, none are movie-killers, and I have to admit I kind of enjoyed it.  It's a genuinely fun world, with the right degree of edge, and I liked seeing Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl's story continue, and want to see it continue some more.  Probably not enough to bother with Millar's comics, which are often too ugly to be anything like fun, yet too juvenile to be profound, and from all I've read his Kick-Ass work is not only no exception, but the icing on the ugly, juvenile cake.

With the exceptions I've noted, Kick-Ass 2 still more-or-less hits that very un-Millar mark the first did, that sort of magical tone where things can be both grimdark and cartoonishly fun yet still work (for example, there is no way Mindy is not in adult jail after what she does to the popular girls, but who cares?).  Of course, I appreciate immensely—you have no idea how much—the sheer colorful vibrancy of this gritty universe in comparison to, say, the endlessly gray Man of Steel, or for that matter the similarly superheroic but far lighter fare filmed in CloudyVision for the too-dull-to-review Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention how pleased I was that Wadlow found a way to represent texting in a visually interesting, or at least not visually dreadful, way on screen.  I don't know if this is totally new—I've been made to understand it's been in other movies (apparently it was used in a flick that I'm sure I'll get around to watching real soon, called LOL, starring Miley Cyrus)—but it's the first time I've seen it, and I like it.  The conceit used to replace subtitles when some characters speak another language is pretty neat too.

If Kick-Ass 2 surpasses its predecessor in any serious way, though, it's in Aaron Taylor-Johnson's abs.  I wasn't joking at all about that nebulous but resonant theme of self-improvement, and if doing some sit-ups means I get to have sex with a woman who calls herself Night Bitch and insists I keep the mask on, or if it at least ensures that I not get beat up by fifteen year olds so much, well, then it's high time I hit the floor.

Score: 5.01/10

P.S. The Ultimates 2 is, nonetheless, one of, like, maybe ten superhero comics in the 21st century that can make a plausible claim to being great.  Unlike Millar's many, many, many efforts to be transgressive or subversive by saying naughty words (been there) or graphically depicting violence (I've read Miracleman, dude) or featuring rape as plot device or even as background color (again, Alan Moore has the monopoly) or appropriating celebrity likenesses without permission (Marshall Mathers' lawyer called, he wants his client's face back) or calling comic book fans losers (ooh so harsh!), The Ultimates 2 is well worth reading.  A mess?  A mess.  A frustrating, fascinating mess.  Almost a decade later and I still can't tell if it is an unsubtle but eviscerating commentary on Bush's America, imperialism, and patriotic tropes in comics and culture, or really is just an enormously (and enormously fun) jingoistic romp about American (and European! and Asgardian?) superheroes crushing a uniformly villainous ROTW beneath their mighty whiteness (and Nick Fury).  Either way, it's very exciting when Bryan Hitch draws stuff asplodin', especially when he bothers trying to get his faces to reasonably approximate humans (or rather that one human he keeps drawing, although maybe that's just me being uncharitable again).

Plus, the pair's Fantastic Four run is criminally underrated, an Enigma-esque return to innocence for the old wannabe punk to boot, featuring the best Dr. Doom story in a couple of decades, if not ever.

Finally, I freely admit that it's also perfectly possible I'd somehow love Kick-Ass and Kick-Ass 2 the comics.  Hey, one of these days: maybe.


  1. Fantastic review, keep them up Ide, I just love them!

    1. Back at ya Tim. Blackfish tomorrow. FINALLY.

      But I Am gives with one hand, and takes with the other: The Grandmaster will not be out here till next week, at the earliest. Damn this cultural backwater.