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Without A Sting...Or A Thrill
SINCE he soared into the public popular culture consciousness more than seventy years ago, the superhero has gone through a lot of changes. The hundreds of iterations since the Action Comics debut of Superman have varied mightily in shades of tights and costuming accoutrements and even in terms of personality and motivation. Sincere, uncomplicated, good-guy patriots fell by the wayside as the twentieth century stumbled on. Superheroes became more conflicted and complex, becoming at times almost as sociopathic and psychotic as the über-villains against whom they battled. And the thematic fight has shifted from fascism to communism to imperialism to racism to nuclear and ecological destruction to pandemic disease—and then doubled back again.
It could easily be argued that by the time Christopher Reeve's Superman: The Movie breezed onto the big screen in 1979, the genre had already run its course, and was completely out of steam. Already a pastiche, Superman: The Movie was not, however, the end, but only the beginning of a film trend that expanded with every new blockbuster, every new action toy, and every new development in special effects and CGI.
In the last ten years, the number of comic book, manga, YA series, graphic novel, video game, and toy "superheroes" that have leapt onto the cineplex screens has not abated. Just the opposite. These guys are replicating like cancer cells. Although many have fallen with a thud to Earth, enough have rocketed to the box office and gewgaw marketing stratosphere that the dominance of the superhero gives every indication of persisting beyond the human endurance of any intelligent audience member.
A few years ago (when films like the first Iron Man were released), I thought perhaps this was all some subconscious response to 9/11 and the fear and helplessness engendered in the American Zeitgeist by the so-called "war on terrorism." Now, I think it is simply a matter of the marketplace, and of developing film technologies needing an appropriate showcase. The FX are the tail that wags the mechanical dog, and money is the engine.
So, most of the time, when I read the hype about the coming thrills of a Thor or Green Lantern or Captain America or yet another X-Men flick, I say "Saints Preserve Us," or "Basta!" or any number of other things that would be impolite to reproduce in this distinguished journal.
And yet, I must admit that there is still, at times, a bit of life left in the old formula. So before I address a film that convinced me that the glass is ninety percent empty, let me say a few words about two others, from 2010, that had me visualizing a vessel more on the order of half full.
The first, a semi-indie flick, with its origins in a Mark Millar comic, was Kick-Ass. Although not without fire, explosions, and lots of guns and knives doing (quite graphically) what guns and knives are wont to do, Kick-Ass actually qualifies as a character-driven movie and not a film dominated by its special effects.
The titular character is a teenaged motherless lad named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) who leads a rather aimless and ordinary life, frittering away his non-school hours on comic books, Web surfing, masturbation, hanging with his two equally ordinary buddies, and longing after a gentle and pretty schoolmate named Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca).
For reasons not completely clear, even to himself, Dave decides to send away on the Internet for a suit that makes him look like a cross between an underfed scuba-diving leprechaun and a lucha libre Mexican wrestler. He would like to do something active and positive in his New York nabe and has decided to become a "super-hero" called Kick-Ass, even though he has no super-powers, is of only average intelligence, and knows next to nothing about fighting or weaponry or high-tech gadgets. On his first outing, he decides to intercede in a robbery only to be beaten and stabbed, and later run over by a car.
It's an inauspicious debut as a superhero, to be sure. Yet it is an indicator of Dave's good heart and stubborn will that as soon as his wounds heal, he returns to the mean streets, stopping a gang murder and becoming a Web sensation when other witnesses, who are unwilling to help stop the attack, are more than willing to shoot phone video of his costumed antics and make him a YouTube sensation.
In another part of town, a loving father, Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) amasses weapons and trains his young daughter, Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz) how to take a bullet—in her Kevlar vest—and how to assassinate men literally twice her size. The Macreadys have their own superhero personas, as Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. But they are less interested in general do-gooding than in destroying a local mob boss, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), and all of his goons, whom the pair hold responsible for the death of their wife and mother.
Since mobster D'Amico at first thinks Kick-Ass is the source of his interrupted drug deals and the deaths of an increasing number of his secondary gangsters, he targets our green hero, and before long the fates and interests of Kick-Ass and the much better armed and trained Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are intertwined. With another costumed character, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) thrown in as a double-agent.
Kick-Ass didn't achieve blockbuster success, but it did receive a good bit of attention at the time for the profane and violent actions of young Moretz, who was an age-appropriate actor playing an eleven-year-old girl doing things and saying things that most folk would deem far from appropriate for a female of any age.
Be offended if you like, but Hit-Girl is, in fact, the female superhero we have been waiting and waiting (and waiting) for. Under the tutelage of her loving yet clearly deranged "daddy," she has become fierce, fearless, and capable of dispatching a room full of hulking, armed goons. And, yes, she swears like a sailor; uttering, amongst others, the now infamous line: "Okay, you cunts, let's see what you can do now!"
As expected, controversy followed the film's release. But the shock value of the purple-wigged schoolgirl ninja is one of the highlights of the movie, without doubt. And young Mr. Johnson's eponymous protagonist is also a delight—one of the most believable and endearing "superheroes" to come down the pike in a long time. Funny, violent, and greatly entertaining, Kick-Ass also has real heart, a component sorely missing in most bloated, tech-heavy superhero movies these days. If you haven't seen it, please do.
Endearing in a more expected way is the animated family feature of a few months back, Megamind. The latest offering of DreamWorks Animation tells an intriguing tale about the symbiotic relationship between a super-hero and a super-villain and, as it twists and turns through plot points that are not, for once, completely predictable, it actually seems to acknowledge the power we have to transform our lives, despite the roles society may assign to us.
All and all, this one is practically a cartoon rumination on the age-old debate of nature versus nurture. It seems that during a cataclysm on another planet, two alien babies were launched toward our blue planet. One fortuitously landed in the mansion of childless millionaires. The other crash-lands in the maximum security prison of a municipality known as Metro City. The two schoolmates develop much differently. One becomes the brawny, preening savior of the city, Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt); the other becomes his dastardly nemesis, the arch-villain Megamind (Will Ferrell).
Every heinous scheme of Megamind—most of which involve the kidnapping of ace TV reporter, Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey)—fails miserably in the face of the fabulousness of Metro Man. That is, until the fateful day when our blue big-headed villain and his faithful assistant, a robot-gorilla with a piranha-in-a-goldfish-bowl "head," Minion (David Cross), successfully blast the superhero to kingdom come.
But becoming the Evil Overlord of his hometown is not as much fun as Megamind expected it to be. He quickly misses the "yin and yang" of his relationship with his noble enemy. So before long, the villain is working to create a new superhero just to keep things exciting in Metro City. Like all his other plans, this one, too, goes very awry.
Although the codependency of the bad guy and the good guy is certainly not an idea exclusive to this particular film, director Tom McGrath and writers Alan Schoolcraft and Brent Simons add a few surprises and lots of bright, bouncy fun to their story. And as is usually the case with post-modern feature cartoons, there are many jokes and bits that would fly right over the heads of most children. For example, when Megamind's "Space Dad" persona tries to train his new superhero protégé, he takes on the form and aspect of Marlon Brando's hilariously bad performance as Jor-El in Superman. It's a witty gag, but one that half the audience probably misses.
Will Ferrell's voice work is as good as you would expect. With his odd accent—perhaps a bit too close to Steve Carell's in Despicable Me, another 2010 animated feature that shares some of the same themes and story elements—Ferrell captures both the loopyness and neediness of his character. It soon becomes clear that this is one blue bully who is actually a vulnerable soul, just looking for a little love.
So, okay, Megamind is not exactly novel as a narrative. But it feels bright and fresh, nonetheless. And this is one case where the 3-D visuals are both well done and really add to the film's pleasures. The same cannot be said for most so-called 3-D movies. In far too many, the 3-D is only poorly and sporadically applied. In these cases, the 3-D hype is just that; a gimmick to get you into the movie seat after paying five or more extra dollars for the dubious privilege.
For an example of this particular rip-off, let me introduce the final film under discussion, The Green Hornet.
Many were delighted at the idea that this radio-bred masked crimefighter, who had languished in Hollywood development for many years, was finally going to see the light of the silver screen. However, some of these same people, myself included, were a bit puzzled by the casting of schlubby slacker Seth Rogen as Britt Reid, the titular playboy hero. Mr. Rogen is, as it turns out, the co-writer (with creative partner, Evan Goldberg) and executive producer for the movie, so it is perhaps not surprising that he landed the plum role, bad casting or not. And it is very bad casting!
Another acting hire that sounds better on paper than it plays on screen is of Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou, as the Hornet's tech-savvy martial artist/mechanic/valet/chauffer and all-around indispensible partner, Kato. Chou is a yummy fellow, but he is no Bruce Lee (who played the TV Kato) in the fighting department. And his English is, at times, incomprehensible.
Incomprehensible dialogue is not, however, a bad thing in a movie like The Green Hornet. For this is one film wherein the screenplay is inane and the characters, with the exception of the totally tricked-out Chrysler Imperial Crown playing the "Black Beauty," grow tedious very quickly. Rogen's Reid, an enthusiastic doofus, is especially grating. At one point, he tries and fails to capture damaging video evidence on a sushi-shaped flash drive. To which my response was "Dude! You are RICH...go for the 4G smartphone!" They could have played his superhero as a clueless Maxwell Smart type, but they didn't. He's not that over-the-top stupid; just stupid enough to be thoroughly annoying.
The film's special effects also completely fail to impress. First, we are introduced to a red-tinted Kato-vision trick that involves slowing things down, then speeding things up, and along the way highlighting every available weapon in a way that telegraphs the action. Yawn! And as the movie progresses, violence and destruction continue to substitute for both plot and character—a common failing in many superhero films, to be sure. In one instance, Britt and Kato finally cement their partnership by trashing Reid's mansion and beating the crap out of one another. (Ah, male bonding!) Plenty more locales are also demolished, including the skyscraper headquarters of the hero's family-owned newspaper, the Daily Sentinel.
There is plenty of mayhem to witness, especially in the film's second half, but none of it makes for a watchable movie. And the paltry 3-D flourishes, barely noticeable outside of the film's spiffy end-credit graphics, made me want to throw my Real 3-D shades at the manager of the movie house.
Seth Rogen can be blamed for much as both star and writer of this unfortunate film. But there is plenty of shame left for the movie's talented director, Michel Gondry. I would have predicted that Gondry was the Next Big Thing in sf filmmaking after seeing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004. But now? Now he is the director of a film that represents the nadir of the superhero film...at least until the next really bad superhero film hits theaters...probably next week.
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