Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's Satire, But Will They Get It -- Reflections on "Kick-Ass"

Satire (n.) 1. the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc. 2. a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly or vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.
Open on an empty city reservoir. A dweebie-looking man is with his little girl. Suddenly, he pulls out a gun on her and squeezes the trigger. She’s rocked back off her feet and hits the cold, hard concrete floor. When he checks on her, she pulls the slug out of her bulletproof vest. Dad wants to do this a couple more times; then it’s time for bowling and ice cream.

Either this is some sick, fucked up shit, or it’s some sick, fucked up shit with a point. Kick-Ass, a movie based on the graphic novel by Matt Millar and John Romita, Jr., is definitely sick and fucked up, but it also has a pretty powerful point which it hammers home with a really strong punch. This movie is a satire about narcissism, hero worship, and the state of modern parenting.

The basic premise of the movie is simple and effective. A geeky high school kid named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) gets bullied, mugged, and rejected by girls. He spends his free time fantasizing about his well-endowed English teacher, jerking off to National Geographic on-line, and hitting the comic book store with his equally geeky buddies. He’s in love with the girl-next-locker, but she doesn’t notice. After wondering why no one has ever thought to be a real life spandex-clad superhero straight out of the Marvel Universe, he ponies up the cash for a snazzy green suit on-line and turns himself into Kick-Ass, a wannabe hero/vigilante.

Dave enters the world of superheroes willingly and quickly discovers he’s a rank amateur despite his sudden high profile success thanks to YouTube. Other heroes do exist: Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his 11-year old daughter, Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). These two are the real deal, less about helping people and more about killing bad guy drug dealers working for Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). They are true vigilantes, but because they work under the radar, Kick-Ass is the one who gets the attention of D’Amico and his collection of goons.

In terms of plot and character development, there are not many surprises here. This movie intentionally follows the superhero movie formula as a part of its satirical purpose. The surprise comes in how close to home its message hits.

As a society, I would say we are remarkably narcissistic. We’re all very self-aware, aren’t we? Magazines tell us how to dress, music videos show us the type of lifestyle we should desire, movies make us fantasize about what we want to be like. In this film, Kick-Ass isn’t so much into being a hero for the purpose of being heroic as much as he is in it for the style points. He gets off on walking the streets in his silly green outfit, hiding behind his mask, and saying pithy one-liners. Half the time it seems he’s watching himself in the mirror, talking to himself ala Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Dave likes the way being Kick-Ass makes him feel, not so much what it does for society. It’s not until he recognizes the dark side of this narcissism that he considers quitting.

There is quite a dark side here, too. It’s frightening to watch Big Daddy train his little girl, turning her into the perfect sociopath in order to achieve his own vengeful ends. Talk about vanity – he turns his little girl into a fucking killing machine! Yet, the point is clear: we do this to our own kids. We train them to do stupid ass shit all the time. We try to live vicariously through them, regardless of the consequences they suffer in terms of their lost childhoods. For Big Daddy, his daughter is important, but his cause is more important, and it’s that putting of the self first that destroys societies, unleashing total anarchy. That’s exactly what happens, too.

Kick-Ass is the rare action film that actually has something to say. My fear is that its message will be lost in the rivers of blood and gore and the whirlwind of profanity and nudity. My fear will no doubt be realized, though; most people, in my experience, don’t know what the fuck satire is, let alone how to interpret one. For most, they will go to this film, watch it, laugh, say it’s “cool,” then leave to do something else. Many will bring their little kids, like the 5-year old hanging out at my screening. Will they see that it’s them the movie is satirizing?

That’s the point, though.

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