Film | Sunday, 18 April 2010

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They can’t fly, but they can kick your ass

In this age of globalisation, spiritual and cultural uncertainty, moral ambivalence and information overload, the one constant seems to be crisis and change. So it’s comforting to be reminded that sometimes, certain certainties are in fact surviving, and staunchly so… even if one of these truisms is in fact the irrepressible irony of life. Case in point: when I was a spotty teenager, rifling through superhero comic books month in, month out in a desperate attempt to escape the dreary realities of public school, the idea of quality superhero films were little more than just a dream. Sure, we had the DC stalwarts to look back on: the first two Superman and Batman films. But this was hardly enough to sate our thirst, and the fact that Joel Schumaher’s more recent stabs at Batman (the word gains a particular resonance here) amounted to little more than high-budget Happy Meal promos didn’t help matters much.
Fast-forward a few years, when I’ve more or less outgrown the superhero thing, and the films are hatching like crazy. They progress in the usual Hollywood pattern of quality, moving from the very worthy (‘X-Men 2’, ‘The Dark Knight’) to the hopelessly dismal (‘Ghost Rider’, ‘Daredevil’) within a matter of years. The latest progression, in the wake of ‘Iron Man’, is an embrace of irony, laced with a pinch of self-referentiality, with Robert Downey Jr doing his rambling lothario schtick and breathing some life into the steel crusader. The sequel to ‘Iron Man’ should be out in a couple of months, but for now, ‘Kick-Ass’ brutally lunges the superhero trope to its logical conclusion. What would happen if one of us decides to simply don a damn costume and parade around attempting to fight crime?
Conceived of more or less concurrently with the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr comic that acts as its source material, Matthew Vaughn’s film tells the story of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a painfully normal teenager with a predilection towards comic books. Bored of being boring, he decides to become a superhero, despite having no powers, training or resources. While his initial escapades prove to be near-fatal, his alter-ego gains rapid popularity on the internet. Things get thorny when his misadventures embroil him with the New York mafia, led by Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). However, help arrives in the unlikely form of a mercilessly effective father-daughter vigilante team: Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz).
Vaughn constructs an entirely cynical yet pitch-perfect piece of entertainment. This isn’t the story of a genuine hero rising from the ashes of a tragedy to achieve redemption, or to fulfil his moral duty. Dave’s turn to superherodom is just a sad, desperate attempt to fill the large, gaping hole that (it is insinuated) all teenagers who aren’t at the top of the social pecking order carry around with them. Save from a hilariously convoluted but nonetheless tacked on love story between our protagonist and the beautiful Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), the action-comedy is blissfully free of any sentimentality, and proceeds with the slick, amoral, pop-culture referencing thrust of Tarantino at his most vigorous.
Which of course also means that there’s very little of substance to the whole thing, but its brutal energy can’t be denied. Hit Girl, the cussing, underage killing machine, attracted most of the attention pre-release, inspiring both excitement and ire from various sides of the camp, with the uber-conservative Fox News in America described her depiction as moving society one step closer to the normalisation of paedophilia. But seeing her mow down an entire cadre of low lives to the upbeat sounds of The Dickies provides an undeniable adrenaline rush… just as seeing her get shot point-blank in the chest by Big Daddy, who is training her up to use a bullet-proof vest, makes for a shockingly delicious dose of black humour.
The film knows that we don’t really buy the superhero thing anymore, and Vaughn and co. parade the corpse of genuine heroism and nobility like a hunter’s trophy. While this cynicism is slightly off-putting, there’s a refreshing honesty to the whole thing. Dave’s foolhardy plunge into the world of superheroes reveals a pathological source: “Like every serial killer already knew,” he narrates as braves himself to stop some car thieves, “eventually fantasising just doesn’t do it anymore.”

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