The Mean Season

Winter is a strange time for me and always has been.  A sort of pall descends on me with the cold weather and shortened days.  There is a direct correlation between a chill in the air and a chill in my creativity.  The colder it gets, the less I can organize my thoughts.  To wit: I just spent two weeks working on a blog post and when I went to post it, realized I had already put up an abbreviated version of the same post. 

My dour mood also makes it an inopportune time to watch movies as I come predisposed to hate them.  In service to this, I just burned through several films I had little interest in just to get them out of my queue.  Despite my mood, the majority actually performed quite well.  Two Guns was fun but nothing new, Upstream Color was brilliant but too strange for this time of year so I put it back in my queue for a later date, The East was pretty good for a deep thought movie.  Why do they save depressing films for winter?  Why not push them out in summer when you’re more prepared to handle bad news?  For that matter, we could use popcorn and superhero movies to lift our moods during the gray months.

Anyway, it’s Kick Ass 2 that I want to talk about here.

I wrote previously about rare cases when the movie is better than the book.  In that post, I talked about the difference between Kick Ass the movie and Kick Ass the comic book.  The movie is fun, inventive and noble.  You leave the theater with a sense of tragic uplift.  The comic book is cynical, brutal and cruel.  And more than that, it’s an unrewarding read.  If the payoff for your investment in a literary work is “everything is shit and nothing matters and everyone sucks” I think you can be forgiven for being more than a little pissed at having invested yourself in it to begin with.  But the filmmakers were smart enough to see the potential in Mark Millar’s tiredly downbeat story of losers who lose to the story of losers who manage to win – even if they do so at some cost to themselves. 

There is one horrific scene in that first movie that even I found hard to watch.  But I did watch it because it is absolutely critical to the story.  When I first saw the scene where Big Daddy and Kick Ass are captured and tortured, I kept waiting for the bluebird of happy endings to swoop down and make it all right.  It didn’t happen, of course.  Because it couldn’t happen.  Of course.  Big Daddy has to die to complete the story. 

Good writers, like good gods, love all their creations no matter how annoying they are and therefore take care not to be cruel or dismissive with them.  Any writer (or god) who makes an offhand comment about killing off a character to do something as trivial as raise the stakes or to let the audience know no one is safe is not a good writer (nor a good god).  While it’s true that Shakespeare was probably a genius hack, I don’t for a second doubt that he tried every possible way to let Romeo & Juliette ride off into the sunset offering little more than a stiff middle finger to their acrimonious families on their way out town.  But their story could only end one way and he knew it.  Some deaths are mandatory. 

One of the reasons I break ranks with the Browncoats is that I hate the movie Serenity.  Why?  Well, it’s not very good for one thing but also because of Wash’s pointless death.  It didn’t serve the story.  It wasn’t tragic.  It was a meaningless and inappropriate affectation.  It was the act of a cruel god and I don’t support cruel gods.

All of which brings me to Kick Ass 2.  I was surprised and disappointed when Jim Carrey came out against the movie and refused to join the traveling road show to promote it.  My initial reaction was that he had taken the money to make a movie and was crying foul with his bank account fully flushed so he wouldn’t have to go on the campaign trail to promote it. 

Then I watched the movie and decided he was right.  Not that violence in movies has anything to do with the Sandy Hook tragedy.  He was right because this movie celebrates cruelty.

Whatever strength and acumen the filmmakers used to keep Millar’s cynicism at arm’s length in the first movie is long expired in the second.  Good guys go to bad, humiliating deaths all over the place with the camera leering at the action the whole time.  It’s not a fun movie or a tragic one.  It’s a psychopath’s circle jerk where a bad writer (or a cruel god) tortures and kills his creations just for effect.  Colonel Stars and Stripes’ death isn’t noble or uplifting and it’s certainly not tragic.  It stinks of the offhanded cruelty of a literary sacrifice, a cheap trick never employed in the first film.

Years ago, I watched an interview with Sam Fuller when he was promoting his very personal war film called The Big Red One.  Based on his own experiences in World War II, he said that once you made it past the first few months, your odds of dying in combat went way down.  It was all the new guys being brought up from the rear to fill out the division that took the bullets.  It became so predictable that the senior members of his platoon refused to learn the names of the replacements.  The interviewer had asked him if showing the deaths of the “new guys” in the movie was his way of adding tragedy to the story without killing off any major characters.  His response was something like, “Tragic?  Those deaths weren’t tragic.  We never even knew their names.  To us, they were just statistics.”

The killing of a major character is not to be taken lightly.  The last thing you want is for your audience to spend the remainder of the story wondering why the hell you did that.  Big Daddy’s death is perfectly in line with Kick Ass’s story.  It hurts but it makes sense (and Cage does an excellent job of reminding us he’s an actual actor) but Colonel Stars And Stripes’ death is just cruel and arbitrary.  The whole movie seems to gloat over the triumph of evil to the point where the ending of the film seems to discount the heroes altogether.  It’s almost as if the writers secretly wanted this to be Chris Damico’s movie all along.