South Park Self

and the shame was on the other side

Latest movie club last night, Jo's theme, that being "unsuccessful superheroes" (and, I have to say, supper consisting of superlatively good rolls with rare fillet steak and salad, on the Whole Earth Market principle, and tiramisu, because I felt like making it). We watched Mystery Men and Kick-Ass, which was an extremely interesting experience despite the fact that neither are great movies. Both are highly uneven in tone and effect; both have glorious moments of humour, commentary or heart, and inglorious moments of slapstick, camp, gross-out, or predictable, glossy Hollywood stupidity. They make me realise how much of a steel-boned electric eel the superhero mythos is; how it twists and turns in the film-maker's grasp, and frequently turns to sink its six-inch teeth into the unsuspecting camera's eye.

Mystery Men is actually bearable for a Ben Stiller movie, which from me is something akin to high praise. It has dated rather; I suspect some of its inversions and assaults on heroism would have been fresh at the time, when they seem old hat now. (I can certainly see its influence on Doctor Horrible). It is blessed with a mostly highly accomplished cast who seem to be enjoying themselves to an almost indecent extent, and production values which appear to have consisted of giving the art director a very large budget and a very large supply of very good drugs, and then locking them in a room full of B-movies. I loved the look of it, although it also made me realise that Western civilisation needs to feel very, very embarrassed about disco. And if nothing else, it won my heart by the delirious rightness of a supervillain called Casanova Frankenstein. (Geoffrey Rush, as usual leaving no scenery unchewed).

Kick-Ass is something else entirely; I can now see why there was so much of a furore over it when it came out, although, true to hypocritical type, Western civilisation needs to feel very, very embarrassed about the fact that it got its knickers in a twist about an 11-year-old girl saying "Fuck" a lot when it should really have been chilled to the marrow by the 11-year-old girl merrily and bloodily dismembering people with a dirty great sword. I'm a bit saddened by the way in which this film missed being a very bleak, black, vicious commentary on the nature of violence and moral polarity (what Tarantino could be if he wasn't a dick), copping out instead to a feelgood Hollywood ending which removed most of the teeth from the issues. I am, however, pleased to see that Nic Cage managed to sneak away from Nic Cage's Hair for the duration of the film, and deliver a performance bizarrely able to exist in the same sentence as words such as "nuance" and "restraint". Chloe Moretz was brilliant. Chloe Moretz is always brilliant. We are watching Miss Moretz's career with considerable interest.

To tell stories of superheroes is to grapple with the nature of agency, of individual responsibility, of violence, and no more so than when you attempt to do it ironically. Ironic superheroes lose the glossy, effortless ease of the heroic intervention, and thus deconstruct their own assumptions; they blow apart comic-book innocence to deal, inescapably, with the fact that at base all superheroes are crazed vigilante serial killers. Superhero conflicts dramatise the fact of our own human nature, which is unpleasant. The classic superhero defeats human evil, but it's not so simple when the gaze is ironic. Mystery Men turns that moral spotlight inward to the superheroes, Kick Ass turns it outward to the world, but under both spotlights we have to confront that people are either weaklings or bastards, the world is fucked and needs fixing. The black/white simplicity of the superhero dissolves under the postmodern gaze, and quite right too.

Mystery Men's play with violence is mostly to undercut it playfully (I rather fell for the concept of a "non-lethal tank"), but occasionally to redirect it senselessly - the fate of Captain Amazing was horrible and perfect (and Greg Kinnear is great. Why haven't I run across him before?). Kick-Ass is more interesting: the way in which wrong and right, good and evil, shifted between the characters and the hero/villain axes, was endlessly fascinating. Big Daddy is mild-mannered and says "Darn it!" where his daughter is cheerfully psychotic and says "Fuck", but he's the one who's perverted a child into a killer. The bad guys are murderously amoral druglords except when they're transfixed in front of the Youtube version of superhero violence, in which case they're ordinary guys uncomprehending before the bloodily psychotic. The usual ramifications of identity and masking in the superhero tropes here multiply endlessly out into the world at large: it's no accident that the dweebish central character is playing the Gay Best Friend ploy, it neatly shadows the inherent conflict at the heart of the idea that the immoral becomes moral when you're hiding behind a costume, or a mask, or a label.

Neither film, ultimately, worked particularly well. Mystery Men should have come with a warning label "CONTAINS EXCESSIVE CAMP" on the box; its self-consciously ridiculous extremes too often overcome its heart and humanity. Kick-Ass has the potential to be a genuinely dark and disturbing meditation on violence, our desensitisation to it, and our willingness to accept it under the guise of mythology; it cops out, however, losing conviction and courage to deliver, instead of the warped moral lesson of an eleven-year-old serial killer, a feel-good Hollywood ending. It's a sadly lost opportunity, although I have to admit that any version of the film which remained true to its potential would have been almost unwatchably dark and twisted.

I personally prefer my superheroes unironic; I'd rather be charmed by illusions of agency than horrified by the realities of violence. But these were interesting films, and however flawed, have at least achieved something in that they've made me momentarily ashamed of my investment in the myth.
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1) Nic Cage's hair in Kick-ass was on his upper lip
2) Did you spot the cameo by Tom Waits in mystery men?
3) Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World would have actually fitted the theme. Kind-of.
Nonsense! Nic Cage's hair would never accept a minor supporting role, nor submit to being removed halfway through. That was a stand-in. And I loved the Tom Waits role - considerably more than a cameo, and as an actor he ain't half bad. (My favourite is still him as Renfield in Dracula).

If the Scott Pilgrim movie is anything like the comics, then it's very much a kind-of fit. I don't think its primary thematic focus is the superhero, in any standard sense - I think it's the video game.
Cage's Adam West impersonation was uncanny.

I loved _Kick Ass_ very much. Especially the punked-out version of the Banana Splits themesong.
Good lord, that's why I recognised that song. Yes, in retrospect pleasingly punk.

I very much enjoyed the film, despite my disappointment at the lengths to which it didn't go. On the other hand, the lengths to which it did go were pretty extreme at times.

You have just forced me to google Adam West extensively. I'm not seeing it. To me Cage was channelling wossname, Gary Oldman doing Jim Gordon. With a touch of Clark Kent. The Reeves version.
oh, right, voice rather than visual. Yes, that makes more sense. His voice was very odd when he was in costume, but it kinda worked, and I can see the Batman parallels. (And thank you. I had a blast with all those old clips on YouTube).
Greg Kinnear was BRILLIANT in Little Miss Sunshine, one of my favourite films, and a roadtrip classic. I believe he first got noticed properly in "As Good as It Gets", opposite Jack Nicholson.

I've not seen Kick-Ass, although I'm looking forward to Chloe Moretz in the American version of "Let the Right One In".

Interesting theme. Could you have fitted "Watchmen" in there?
Still haven't seen Little Miss Sunshine, but it's definitely on my to-do list. And, yes, Watchmen would have fitted, although to me it doesn't say anything about superhero tropes that the graphic novel didn't do: I love the movie, but primarily as a visually stunning adaptation.