Saturday, April 17, 2010

Reprise: KICK-ASS: The WATCHMEN of the Myspace Generation?

A sequel to Watchmen? No, Kick-Ass just seems to be the Watchmen of the Myspace generation...and about just as deep... If the movie poster isn't enough of a tip-off, consider this line from the introduction to the hardcover version, written by...um...Rob Liefield:

"It used to be that you had to be grim and gritty in order to grab everyone's attention. Now you most definitely have to Kick-Ass."
Ya know...it would be easier for me just to call it as it is: nihilistic trash. Still, an in-depth look does provide me with an opportunity to discuss a larger point, so let's have at it...

"My plan, actually, was to create a generation of superhero comics, the same way that Stan [Lee] did back in the 60s. He created a whole universe of characters entirely different from the DC stuff of the Thirties and Forties, and I wanted to do some now that were just as different again from that. And what I'm finding out, almost by accident, is that people want three-dimensional superheroes. Each generational shift is slightly more realistic and radical than the previous. So Dave Lizewski, the hero of Kick-Ass, follows that lineage, back through Peter Parker to Clark Kent." –Mark Millar

"Almost by accident?" Read Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto. If you get that far, you'll know that real heroes are nothing like the ones Millar claims to write, and, far from being some kind of innovator, Rand has his number long before he was even born.

But first, let's talk about the Watchmen connection. The common theme is the idea that if superheroes existed in the real world, they wouldn't be noble, but psycho and/or fascist. And throughout Kick-Ass is the motif that "this is why there are no superheroes," only villains and regular people, and that to even attempt to become a superhero is a path to destruction. Now, when Millar says "superheroes," you might think he means "super-powered heroes," and who'd argue? But no, he means "heroes." What emerges at the end of the story is not a underdog triumphant, but a transformation of the everyman into a monster.

As much as I disagree with Alan Moore and Watchmen's take on heroism, he is a thoughtful writer, and he does know his craft. Kick-Ass isn't even a good imitation of Watchmen. But I do have to comment on the irony that this is the legacy of Watchmen, a book originally intended to end the superhero drama. Even more ironic that Alan Moore has moved on and returned to writing some of the best damn comic books in years, including superhero books. As described in the Alan Moore biography by Lance Parkin, Moore had "created a revolution, then disowned it." He even speculates that Moore wrote Supreme as an "act of atonement" for "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?". What's the story here? Discussing Moore's Jack Kirby-inspired series 1963, Parkin says that it "seen by many critics as a retrograde step by the writer of From Hell," but that "[i]t's now clear that Moore was actually ahead of the curve":

"The pendulum was starting to swing back to allow the return of the more kitsch and camp elements into superhero stories. Writers and readers were starting to realize that whatever real-world elements were introduced, superheroes could never be truly 'realistic'. Comics like Flex Mentallo, Astro City, and Powers have come along, stressing how different a world with superheroes would be, rather than trying to imagine how they would operate in ours. Superhero comics have come to embrace the absurdities of their own internal logic, rather than trying to rationalize them. Superheroes are allowed to be entertaining, uplifting, and heroic, rather than 'dark' and 'gritty'."

Parkin's take is something of a back-handed compliment, but I agree with that last part wholeheartedly. What Millar doesn't get, what Watchmen doesn't get, and what the "grim and gritty" school never got, was that the issue is a battle between Naturalism and Romanticism, so let me take the moment to correct Parkin's passage with a better explanation from Ayn Rand. Rand wrote of this phenomenon in The Romantic Manifesto, and while she considered herself a "Romantic Realist," she defended genres (at their best) typically seen as "escapist," popular fiction such as sci-fi, mysteries, and Westerns, not for their vices, but for their virtues: "Philosophically, Romanticism is a crusade to glorify man's existence; psychologically, it is experienced simply as the desire to make life interesting...Detective, adventure, science-fiction novels and Westerns belong, for the most part, to the category of popular fiction...their emphasis is on action, but their heroes and villains are abstract projections, and a loosely generalized view of moral values, of a struggle between good and evil, motivates the action." She describes "thrillers" as a dramatized abstraction of the basic pattern of: choice, goal, conflict, danger, struggle, victory."

In other words, Romantic fiction presents life "not as it is, but as it might or ought to be":
"The Romanticist did not present a hero as a statistical average, but as an abstraction of man's best and highest potentiality, applicable to and achievable by all men, in various degrees, according to their individual choices...the Romanticists presented heroes as 'larger than life'; now, monsters are presented as 'larger than life'–or, rather, man is presented as 'smaller than life.'"
How else would you explain the difference between the scrawny heroes and mountainous villains of Kick-Ass?

One can say that
Millar is criticizing the genre cliche of "superpowers," but does it wash? Sure, David, at the end, claims a certain victory: "I'd reshaped the world the way I 'd always wanted it, and it doesn't get much better than this." But it's less a matter of what is said, and more of how it's said"; Millar's ending is an ironic juxtaposition for a "post-ironic" Watchmen-shaped world.

But even if I give
Millar the benefit of the doubt, why the ambiguity to begin with? Rand describes the phenomenon as "Bootleg Romanticism." Rand goes a step further, discussing the "parasites" of Romanticism, those who mock the genre and the attempts at heroism in favor of "realism." Rand was dissecting Watchmen and Kick-Ass decades before they were written. Where Parkin justifies the "uplifting" and "heroic" aspects of comics by their "kitsch and absurd" qualities, Rand calls such tongue-in-cheek thrillers cowardice
:
"What are such thrillers laughing at? At values, at man's struggles for values, at man's capacity to achieve his values...at man the hero."

She describes how Hollywood bastardized James Bond, and how the creator of
The Avengers tv show got upset that the audience took the show seriously: "A heroes-seeking people is what they cannot admit into their view of the universe."

But superpowers are unrealistic, you say? While Rand was a "Romantic realist," she understood fantasy as a legitimate form of storytelling, when it served as an abstraction:
"An abstraction has to be 'larger than life'–to encompass any concretes that individual men may be concerned with, each according to the scale of his own values, goals and ambition. The scale varies; the psychological relationships involved remain the same. The obstacles confronting an average man are, to him, as formidable as Bond's adversaries; but what the image of Bond tells him is: 'It can be done.'"
And she exposes the true motivation behind cape-tugging: "Only an arrested-modern mentality would go on protesting that the events portrayed in a thriller are incredible or improbable, that there are no heroes, that 'life is not like that'–all of which is thoroughly irrelevant."
"Nobody takes thrillers literally, nor cares about their specific events, nor harbors any frustrated desire to become a secret agent or a private eye. Thrillers are taken symbolically; they dramatize one of man's widest and most crucial abstractions: the abstraction of moral conflict."
This, I submit (even though he may object), is why Moore disowned his Watchmen revolution to the world of superhero comics. "What people seek in thrillers is the spectacle of man's efficacy: of his ability to fight for his values and to achieve them. What they see is a condensed, simplified pattern, reduced to its essentials: a man fighting for a vital goal–overcoming one obstacle after another–facing terrible dangers and risks–persisting through an excruciating struggle–and winning. Far from suggesting an easy or "unrealistic" view of life, a thriller suggests the necessity of a difficult struggle; if the hero is "larger-than-life," so are the villains and the dangers."

After reading
Kick-Ass, I wish I could say I'm tempted to give Millar the benefit of the doubt, but I'm not, despite quotes from Millar that make me want to, such as "I'm honestly as happy writing Superman Adventures as I am writing Wanted," and, "Likewise, I see no shame in writing Captain America or Wolverine." But I have to ask, after reading Kick-Ass, "Why? So you can destroy it, spit all over it, and throw heroism to the gutter?" The "heroes" of Kick-Ass certainly do overcome one adversity after the other over larger-than-life odds, or, at least larger than their lives. But their heroism is never really defined, and you'd think that would be the first thing on the agenda for someone trying to radically change the superhero landscape. That might be too much for the Myspace generation, it would take more thought and concentration allowed than a Twitter message would allow, beyond the movie's tag-line of "Shut Up. Kick Ass." However it's defined, it's quickly undercut by the cynicism.

If art is a "selective recreation" of one's values, then Millar's choices show us what he truly values by de-emphasizing nobility and virtue while overemphasizing violence and gore. Yes, those things exist, they are real. But so what? Why does the gutter have to be the standard of what's "real?" There's still the issue of a superhero motivated not only by boredom but by an altruistic justification to "help others" to the point of self-sacrifice (pretty much literally; is he reimbursed for the medical bills incurred by the beatings and torture he receives? He's less of a hero and more of a masochist.) Can Millar throw off the Watchmen-influenced deconstruction and the emphasis on violence and profanity as "realism" to portray truly heroic characters? His future development of these characters will reveal whether or not he is sincere or a coward.

Friday, April 9, 2010

"Look at me as you kill me!"

As much criticism as horror often gets for being brainless, it's often been a good source of social commentary. Friday the 13th, et al. was a Reagan-era response to teen promiscuity. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has taken on numerous meanings in its numerous incarnations. Every George Romero film is almost dripping with the stuff. The Saw franchise is no exception.

I've already
spoken at length about the series as a whole, but one of the main plots of the most recent film brings up some very timely points. That being said I want to offer a few disclaimers in reference to the movie's other plots. Almost every Saw movie offers a great deal of retconning, which is somewhat a necessity since the series' main villain died three films ago. However the retcons offered in this film contradict previous retcons. Amanda Young is portrayed as a far better heir to Jigsaw than she was presented as in Saw III, and Hoffman far worse than he was presented in Saw V.

I had another fairly major point of contention with the new film, in that the traps/games seem to revert a bit to Saw I and Saw II in that within these traps sometimes innocent people have to die to complete the game. But this was before I watched it a second time and realized how essential this was to the story's theme.

The basic plot of the main "game" in the movie is that an executive for a health insurance company who has a number of skilled and valued employees is forced into one of Jigsaw's games. This is the man in the position to decide who keeps coverage once a catastrophic illness has taken hold in a patient. He has an entire team of skilled young employees dedicated to finding loopholes to avoid having to pay out for major expenses, and an equally skilled lawyer to protect him from lawsuits for doing just this.

John Kramer (Jigsaw) was one of the customers of this company. When he encountered this executive with the fact that he'd found an effective, though new and controversial, treatment for his type of Cancer he asked for coverage. He was flatly turned down, or as Kramer would call it "slickly" turned down. He was even turned down to the point of being told he would lose his coverage if he paid for the procedure out of his own pocket.

The executive used a formula to determine who would be covered and who wouldn't which Kramer insisted ignored the single most important factor, "the will to survive." He tried confronting this man with the fact that every day he makes decisions about who lives and who dies.

At this point, you might be tempted to view this as an anti-business screed, which to be honest, it very likely was intended as. The problem with that assessment however is, if you replace the word "executive" with "bureaucrat" would this statement apply more or less under health care reform. With care that, somewhere down the line, will have to be rationed, death panels, and an ever expanding list of restrictions both in the use of health care itself and in our private lives which seemingly have nothing to do with our health.

But back to the subject of the game. Every game in the larger "metagame" has one thing in common. For one person to live, at least one other has to die. The first trap is a sort of "breath trap." The executive is hooked up to a machine that monitors his breathing. Connected to an adjoining machine is his company's janitor. The executive is in excellent health while the janitor is a habitual smoker. They are both attached to machines which will crush their torsos just a little bit more with every breath they take, and the only way to survive the trap is for the other person to take their last breath before you do. A
sacrifice is made, the executive survives.

The executive has a set of bracelets which are rigged to explode if the tests aren't completed in a certain length of time, and each trap once completed releases a key.

Every trap from this point on places the executive in the position of making the decision he's made every day of his career with people whom he actually cares for and with full view of the consequences. His next trap is a situation where he has to chose which of his two lowest level employees dies, a secretary with health problems but a loving family, or a healthy young man with his whole life ahead of him but no one to miss him. The executive makes a decision.

He then encounters his lawyer. He has to guide her through a maze with pipes blowing blistering hot steam on her, with his only method of relieving her being to redirect the steam onto him, only to reach the end of the maze and realize that the key to her device is hidden in his body. After all the work he did trying to help her, they still fight to the death.

The final trap he encounters is his six "best and brightest" on a carousel with a gun pointed at one position. He is offered the chance to save two of the six at the price of his own pain. This trap is notable for the fact that he makes his second and last save with one person left to make the cycle. That person goes through an entire range of emotion waiting for his inevitable death making the bold statement to the executive to "Look at me as you kill me."

At this point, he's made it through all of his traps into the final one: a series of cages, one containing his wife, the second the executive, and, in the third, the wife and son of a man whom he denied coverage to with the power over his life and death.

I think this whole plot is one of the better examples of collectivism I've ever seen. If everything belongs to everyone else, one man's gain is
necessarily another man's loss. Individualism offers a type of freedom that is hard to come by: freedom from each other. Freedom to congratulate each other on good things, and not seeing every good thing that happens to another as having been taken from you. And, above all, the freedom to opt out of a flawed, corrupt system if there is nothing left to gain by staying within its confines. You don't know the meaning of "dog eat dog" until "we're all in this together."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

For All You Bubo Fans...

And for you haters (looking at you, Jake Sully): Bubo is so not lame. How cool is this? (Art by Ben Balistreri.)


Friday, April 2, 2010

CLASH OF THE TITANS: "When the Gods are no more..."

(Reprised for the release of the remake...)


This following exchange from Clash of the Titans exemplifies why the original is one of my all-time favorites. From the novelization by Alan Dean Foster:

(Zeus): "Fortune is ally to the brave and clever. He defeated the Kraken. He defied the power of Thetis. He dared to face the might of the gods and win!"

(Thetis): "It is a dangerous precedent. What if one day, others like him should arise? Humans ready to defy the gods and go their own way?"

(Zeus): "No more sacrifices, no more belief, no more need to depend on us for guidance. We would no longer be needed. Mankind would learn to deal with the universe by himself...You worry too much, my dear. For the moment, at least, there is sufficient cowardice, sloth, and mendacity rampant on Earth to last for some time."

It's an interesting exchange in what it DOESN'T say; it's not what Zeus is implying, but the unsaid is that the gods will one day no longer be needed because of the heroic nature of man, but that the heroic nature of man will be seen as godlike in itself...a double-edged sword, really, if heroic men are simply used by other men in place of gods (kinda like the way Communism replaced religion with the State.) Of course, that's just proof that "cowardice, sloth, and mendacity" are STILL with us...some time, indeed.

To the wisdom of Zeus, and when he is no longer needed...

CLASH OF THE TITANS 2010: "Atlas Flinched"

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." -Friedrich von Schiller

Five minutes into Clash of the Titans, I was already noting the difference between the original and the remake, but decided that it wasn't fair. I love the original, but decided to judge this one on its own merits. But when Perseus pulls a replica of Bubo the Owl out of a chest, and is told to "forget it," well, I was dared to compare it to the original. And at first I was miffed; I liked Bubo! But when I saw why they they did this...far from being arbitrary, I realized that there were thoughtful changes fundamental to the story, and a challenge to the ideas of "the gods themselves." (So I reluctantly let Bubo go...). And for most of the movie, I was about to award victory to the upstart.

If only I had left before the end.

There were hints of disappointment to come, but I wanted to be sure, because, for a time, the remake was impressing me. Not for its CGI excess, which still doesn't compare with the grandeur of the original, neither in acting or in visuals. (I'll put Harry Hamlin's Perseus against Sam Worthington's, or Laurence Olivier's Zeus against Liam Neeson's, any day.) But speaking strictly about the story, about the theme, this was potentially a thoughtful and daring clash between remake and original, a clash foreshadowed in Zeus's final words from the original:
"Fortune is ally to the brave and clever. He defeated the Kraken. He defied the power of Thetis. He dared to face the might of the gods and win!...No more sacrifices, no more belief, no more need to depend on us for guidance. We would no longer be needed. Mankind would learn to deal with the universe by himself...
There's more to that quote, but, for a moment, the remake's Perseus, and the film's creators, seemed to be out to prove this, not just by defying the gods, but defying the need for gods. The story goes so far as to challenge the hero cycle itself, as it's commonly understood through Jungian/Campbellian interpretations. (See my own challenge here.) When Bubo is dismissed from the story, it is not just because he is seen as a "camp" relic...Originally, Bubo was a gift of wisdom from Zeus, via Athena, in addition to a sword and the Aegis of Zeus himself. All of these things are rejected by Perseus, who denies his demigod heritage and chooses to be man...no, make that Man. The rejection of the god's boons are a rejection of the hero myth formula itself, and the film starts to find its stride, and its own identity. A Titan against the Titans, indeed...

But unlike Atlas, Perseus doesn't shrug...he flinches.

For reasons not at first fully justified by the plot, Perseus comes to accept his demigod status, first by accepting the help of the Jinn (an unnecessary intrusion of Persian myth into the story as it was), and by his unexplained willingness to accept the help of Pegasus, while rejecting the sword and shield. Originally, Perseus had ample justification to defy the gods, who were responsible for the loss of his human family. But eventually he is persuaded to use the godly gifts to defeat Medusa and the Kraken, and gains audience with Zeus himself. The first time they meet, Perseus states his manhood in no uncertain terms. But the second time, they accept each other: Zeus accepts Perseus, not just as his son, but equal, and Perseus accepts his godhood. Metaphysical issues of supernatural beings arise, but if we accept (within the story's logic) their existence, then this might be acceptable, only it doesn't make sense within the hero's context.

Since this was initially a story about man rejecting fate and servitude to the gods, there's a sense of "bait-and-switch" by what happens after the defeat of the Kraken: Perseus refuses to become a king, which might seem logically consistent for one who defies the gods. And again, this is a rejection of the Jungian hero cycle, where too often, the hero becomes the very tyrant he seeks to dethrone (for an interesting classic tale on this theme in the Greek myth tradition, see Mary Renault's The King Must Die.)

An earlier version of the script reveals that a more consistent ending was planned; compare the completed version with this:
(Zeus): "Do you reproach Zeus?"

(Perseus): "No. I thank you...Father...you have freed me. I will not be a pawn for Men or Gods."

(Zeus): "Does that absolve you suddenly of your responsibilities?"

(Perseus): You've made me understand that my responsibility is to myself. So it is with all of us."
This, I submit, would have made the movie. (It would have made a nice companion piece to Ayn Rand's fairy tale "Kira's Viking": "A viking had lived, who had laughed at Kings, who had held, sacred and inviolable, high over all temples, over all to which men knew how to kneel, his one banner-the sanctity of life.") But this does not make it into the final version; when Perseus is warned that mankind will see him as a god regardless, the alternative is offered in his reasoning that he can serve mankind in other ways. And that's when the film lost me, because all I could think about, at that point, was the way Communism replaced religion with the State, and instead of offering true freedom, merely secularized the tyranny of the gods, and substituted the whims of Olympus with the whims of the masses.

Some might say that the ending was not that specific. Yes, the sacrifice of Andromeda to the Kraken is thwarted, and the men who were willing to sacrifice her for the needs of the many were depicted as less than heroic. Besides, Perseus could have meant anything by that: maybe he meant he would bring science, or reason, or logic to mankind. And maybe horses fly. The problem with that is that words mean things, and in their usage here, the best-case scenario is one of philosophical confusion. When Hades proclaims to Zeus the power of fear and "selfishness," the context is set up to explain the deliberate use of the word "serve." If the plot didn't set up Perseus to find common ground between the gods and Man, that one scene more than explains it, so that instead of "shrugging," man "flinches," and puts the weight of the world squarely back on the shoulders of the heroes, fulfilling the rest of Zeus's quote from the original's end:

"For the moment, at least, there is sufficient cowardice, sloth, and mendacity rampant on Earth to last for some time."

Too true, and too bad...for a moment, I thought that moment might have passed. I thought that this was to be a movie rejected the need for gods, a movie that stood up for mankind as needing no apology for existing. Nope. Nice try, though...you almost had me there. But until that prophecy is fulfilled, I'll stick with the original. And Bubo.

"Until the Gods are no more..."