Having undergone the mirthless, witless, and generally worthless Iron Man 2 recently, I attempted to write short pieces on it a few times. But I found myself overwhelmed by the staggering pointlessness of the film, and moreover somewhat disinclined to contribute to the inevitable 'debate' on its values (or conspicuous lack thereof). Suffice to say therefore that IM2 is typical of the very worst kind of contradictory, redundant Hollywood franchise, with Mickey Rourke's effortless charisma the only thing even approximating a redeeming feature.
This post however is less about my obviously pointless criticism of the summer's biggest superhero film, and more about a roundup of recent links to clever images and mash-up clips. The niftiest superhero-related post I came across in a while is Chris Sims' Periodic Table of Superhero Elements, which cleverly sums up the generic powers and origin stories into an elegant overview of elements. (Just for the record: Superman breaks down as OAFSISpVxVhSn...)
In the ongoing series of witty mash-up videos, Iron Man has been by far the most-repeated figure, as a quick look at the most recent posts on this blog will attest. But although they all play up the hilariously inappropriate homoerotic subtext the films work so hard to avoid, none managed to be quite as ridiculous (and weirdly fitting) as the latest one, which pits Tony Stark against Ivan Drago in Rocky IV and that manages to throw in Jim Carrey, James Brown, Apollo Creed, Vanilla Ice, and -so help me- the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for good measure.
Meanwhile, the upcoming reboot of the Spider-Man film franchise gave occasion to a fast-paced short that puts Spidey on the operating table, with his surgeon calling for a 'gritty reboot.' To illustrate the success rate of the proposed procedure, an image on the wall briefly flashes by with stills from Batman Begins, Hulk, Casino Royale and Star Trek.
Finally, the Joker may no longer be the ubiquitous video mash-up figure he was two years ago, but that didn't keep one person from getting creative with the trailer for The Dark Knight. In this mash-up, images from the two first Toy Story movies are edited together with the audio from that intensely familiar to amazing effect.
We're now just days away from the much-hyped international premiere of Iron Man 2, the sequel that appears to offer more of the same, but -as per the logic of franchises- bigger, louder, and with more colorful celebrity bad guys. And as 'fanticipation' reaches fever pitch, the video mash-up meme that incorporates Iron Man's CG exoskeleton (along with his signature AC/DC riff) into an iconic movie scene continues to proliferate. Following the well-done appropriation of Hugh Grant getting his ass kicked in Bridget Jones's Diary, the man in red has now also appeared in similarly skillful mash-ups of wonderfully inappropriate scenes from Titanic and Dirty Dancing. What's next, you ask? Hopefully, at some point, Iron Man vs. Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire...
The more time I spend on the subject of superheroes, the more boring my research becomes. As a 21st-century movie trope, nearly every new release seems dedicated to repeating the same old fantasies over and over again without adding anything new to the discussion. But being -or, at the very least, feeling- professionally obliged to sample enough of every new major superhero item that raises its head within the pop-cultural arena, a new comic book adaptation that promised to pull superhero fantasies into 'the real world' was a bit of a no-brainer, especially once it managed to offend Roger Ebert. In spite of Walter Chaw's enthusiasm and Ebert's outrage, I was still expecting Kick-Ass to deliver something decidedly mediocre, especially having just read Mark Millar's smart but strangely depthless comic book. And having so recently ingested the graphic novel's narrative twists and turns, I was looking forward even less to what would surely be not only an annoyingly snarky riff on superhero geekdom, but a boring and predictable one to boot.
Imagine my surprise therefore when Kick-Ass turns out to be not only a smart, literate take on overly familiar themes, but also one hell of a comic book adaptation. Since the release of Sin City in 2006, the prevailing wisdom for Hollywood adaptations of successful comic books has been to recreate the source text's aesthetics as closely as possible, using the comics panels as an insecure, inexperienced director would a prefabricated storyboard. (Zack Snyder and his obsessively slavish adaptations of 300 and Watchmen may perhaps be held most strongly accountable, his films having embalmed rather than adapted their source material.)
By contrast, the most impressive thing by far about Kick-Ass is how director Matthew Vaughn and his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman have taken a text that functions within the serialized context of its comic book medium, and have transformed it into something that lives and breathes as a piece of cinema. Not only have the filmmakers successfully transformed the design of these characters and the version of New York they inhabit into something that feels more of a piece with the superhero movie genre (esp. the past decade's Spider-Man and Batman films), but they have also managed to spin, re-organize and expand the original narrative in interesting and productive ways.
Protagonist Dave Lizewski (an outstanding Aaron Johnson) is here made less of a loner, his generic banter with his limited group of geeky peers a credible and functional expansion of both character development and narration, which is in the film somewhat less dependent on non-stop voice-over. The basic story structure has also been streamlined to fit the three-act setup of classical Hollywood cinema, again making it less reliant on medium-specific end-of-chapter cliffhangers that defined much of the comic book's reading experience. Some of the changes however may be viewed as a bit problematic: I waited in vain for Nicolas Cage (impeccably cast here) to voice the reactionary arch-conservatism of the comic book's Big Daddy character, while his formulaic vengeance-driven motivation is elevated from the realm of psychotic fantasy to a sentimental flashback (although its 'animated comic' presentation is again very cleverly done). Also, the hero winning over the object of his affection so easily was an element I was reluctant to accept, even if it does make more dramatic sense given both the film's resolution and its embodiment of teenage hormone-induced fantasies. The violence meanwhile felt like it had been toned down slightly, but on reflection I suspect that it seems like there's less of it simply because there are more other (and more interesting) narrative components at play here than in the sometimes determinedly gory comics. But mostly, the film's complete grasp of the language of cinema makes it such a kinetic and aesthetically satisfying experience, with director Vaughn demonstrating an uncanny ability to riff on John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, and Sam Raimi all at once. After an increasingly despondent series of big-budget superhero films that have either boringly 'come of age' (Nolan's Batman cycle, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, Ang Lee's Hulk), or that recycle equally boring CGI bonanzas (Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk, the last two X-Men ventures), Kick-Ass thankfully returns the genre to its teenage roots: with the Id represented by that stunning whirling dervish Hit Girl (the instantly iconic Chloe Moretz), a ten-year-old who successfully channels the Kill Bill Vol. 1 incarnation of The Bride, Vaughn's film is all about the unchaining of (pre-)adolescent energies, and the magnetic power of violent fantasies. Misinterpreted by many either as satire or as realism, Kick-Ass operates instead where superheroes have flourished for the past six decades: in the domain of popular myth.
(Speaking of the film's authentic-feeling connection with subversive, angry teen culture, its use of Joan Jett's 'Bad Reputation' at a perfectly chosen moment of cathartic, Tarantinoesque ultra-violence was one of several moments in film that actually gave me goosebumps - and not just because it was previously used so effectively over the opening credits of that best-ever TV narrative of teenage anxiety, Freaks and Geeks.)
While Green Lantern fans hold their breath in anticipation of Ryan Reynolds' much-hyped turn in next year's major superhero blockbuster, the double-R heart-throb has meanwhile appeared as another goofy superhero character: Kieran and Michele Mulroney's Paper Man has been making the rounds at film festivals for a while, without apparently making much of an impact. It stars Jeff Daniels as a troubled, friendless writer whose loneliness is compounded by the fact that he has an imaginary superhero friend, played by Reynolds as a goofy send-up of Superman. The whole thing looks like it suffers from the usual list of indie clichés, but Jeff Daniels may be game enough to pull it off, and despite the obviousness of the ploy, Reynolds looks like fun.
I am a lecturer in Media Studies and English Literature at the University of Amsterdam, where I am currently completing my dissertation on superhero figures in post-9/11 culture (hence this blog's title). I like to think, talk, write, and argue about movies and books, not necessarily in that order.