Posts tagged ‘batman’

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

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Supes and Bats in Bowling Shirts: Dexter’s Dark Avenger

the Dark Defender

the Dark Defender

Dexter, Season 2

Dexter’s season one self-image begins with the smug self-loathing of a monster, aware that only his conditioning allows him any place in society outside a jail cell. Confronted with two like-minded sociopaths he was unable to force into his mold, he began to see himself as a different and better breed of monster, one who may someday be able to genuinely connect with others as he is. He sees the crowd of curious onlookers as cheering fans, with Deb at his side, smiling and sharing in his applause:

Everyone else would probably thank me if they knew I was the one who drained [the ice truck killer] of his life. Deep down, I’m pretty sure they’d appreciate a lot of my work. This is what it must feel like to walk in full sunlight, my shadow self embraced.

While this is a mixed sign in terms of real progress – retreating into fantasy rather than approaching the issues that the second season will stagger through – the immediate effect is to question the modern heroic archetype: the vigilante superhero.

The show does suffer the requisite sophomore slump, abandoning some of the best first-season elements while deepening the concept’s reach and mythology. While the first season mined and transcended a pulpy beach novel, the second too often lived down to the potboiler source material. One plot thread is painfully predictable: OMG Crazy Hot Girl Is The Only One Who Understands Me And Thus We Must Fuck, which segues into OMG Crazy Hot Chick Is Crazy And Hot, In The Sense That She’s Really Into Emotionally Strategic Arson!

Urgh. Even Dexter’s long delayed leap into sexual puberty can’t justify the stretching of this from its one-episode premise through three-quarters of the short season.

A larger issue was the too-convenient resolution of Dexter’s various cliffhangers. Too often, he is a cipher serving only to bring together the awkward thesis and antithesis that independently resolve his crisis. The long-awaited confrontation with Rita about the real reason her abusive ex-husband was found with a heroin needle sticking from his arm (leading to his re-incarceration and fatal shanking) is derailed after Dexter has been forced to confess – when Rita conveniently jumps to the conclusion he must be an addict himself, apparently forgiving him. This leads Dexter to Narcotics Anon, where he is presented with the season arcs of aforementioned batshit insane hot chick and the addiction filter through which to explore his compulsions. The investigation into the Bay Harbor Butcher (ie Dexter) and the personal persecution of Sgt Doakes crash together, leaving Doakes the top suspect with Dexter’s blood sample trophies in his trunk. Doakes again, stashed in a remote cabin that’s about to be found by the FBI’s great white hunter – not to mention made a connection with Dex and nearly convinced him to turn himself in – is found and spontaneously killed by Batshit Crazy Hot Chick. Who then ties off her own loose end by very publicly demonstrating her insanity and fleeing the country, to be killed by Dexter at his leisure.

Dexter’s contribution to his crises and moral quandaries is little more than ethically facile mopping up. Following the insane woman’s version of the NA programme, he spends months attempting to quit his addiction – allowing Rita, Doakes, and Batshit Crazy Woman to believe he is struggling with heroin – and delve into his shadowed past, particularly the grimier aspects of his formerly sainted foster father. He reaches a breaking point when Doakes witnesses him murdering, and Doakes’ sickened reaction forces him to put together two memories he’d previously managed to keep separate: his father’s horror at witnessing Dexter happily dismember a victim picked according to “Harry’s code” and his father’s suicide soon after.

Dexter’s guilt and misery evaporate soon after when he realises God must approve of his actions, having rescued him from capture via a complicated spiderweb of contrivances; sadly, Dexter lacks to self-awareness to consider the possibility of showrunners sparing his viewers from having to make a real judgement on his actions and their own complicity in his actions, their attention literally continuing his existence.

The hints at superhero traits offered in the first season are laid out without subtlety. One local graphic artist has literally made a comic hero of the Bay Harbor Butcher: the Dark Avenger. (Dexter is fascinated by the image but only notes that dark leather would be completely impractical for Miami.) He enters the season thinking that ordinary people would cheer him on and indeed they do, as an abstract concept. When a face – Sgt Doakes’ – is put to the killer, the acclaim disappears.

As Dexter-the-killer, he exposes the childish morality of superheroes who get the bad guys without killing them. Batman and Superman are condoned by the police in their world, delivering criminals to Headquarter’s front door – although you have to wonder how their cases ever went to trial. Much like Dexter, their verdict of ‘guilty’ is the only law. The criminals who have to die for plotty goodness or the satisfaction of a network’s moral code generally cause their own doom, usually by refusing to grab the hand of the person who’s been whaling the life – nearly – out of them for the past several minutes and plunging to their comic-book death.

The show itself resolves the irresolvable in a similar slight of hand, having Lila (a self-deluding murderer-by-arson who seeks out vulnerable new victims) do the dirty work of killing Doakes (a self-confessed monster who admits to isolating himself for others’ safety). Dexter’s ‘code’ remains intact through others’ actions; while Doakes got a raw deal at the end, his obsessive bullying directly led there.

Dexter’s backstory riffs on two of the oldest comic book heroes, recognisable in any part of the world with any access to visual media. He is a superman hiding in plain sight – like Clark Kent, he is physically and intellectually stronger than most; like Bruce Wayne, he builds his ‘true’ persona with technological preparation and stringent training. His motivations…they are something of a different story, but not from a distant shelf. The motivations of the hero and the serial murderer may only be chapters of the same book.

The foundling is raised by a foster father who knows his beloved son is not like other children, who instils a rigid code and the need to hide his difference above all else. Ostensibly on the side of the angels – he wants his strange son to have something of a normal life, unmolested by authority, while using his abilities to make the world a better, safer place – the impotent father conditions him into a black-and-white worldview to further his own agenda. Isolated from other influences – to keep the dangerous secret of his difference secret, of course – the son sees his father as the ultimate, unquestioned authority and is kept from developing an independent personality and the ability to truly take responsibility for his own actions. When the father has died and the son begins a long-delayed maturation process, he’s initially faced with an either/or: continue following the father’s law to the letter, or reject all morality in favour of showy self destruction.

Or: the boy is orphaned by a gruesome murder that will haunt his psyche through adulthood. As a nemesis could later observe,  he had a bad day, and everything changed – he became a vicious freak, avenging that long-ago trauma on present individuals who are innocent of that crime, if not others. Only a personally enforced code keeps him morally separate from those he hunts.

Unlike Clark or Bruce, Dexter actively reminds himself that he is a monster – usually forcing himself into an emotionless archetype he doesn’t actually fit – despite his code. Those other American heroes cling to their codes as the thing that makes them the opposite of the criminals they use violence and intimidation to apprehend. Dexter knows he would still kill without the veneer of justice. The abilities and the need to use them precede any thirst for justice.

Would Bats and Supes do the same in a more realistic world? Where society – or at least its legal system – demanded that only the police force, with its flawed systems of oversight and restraint, use physical force to “protect” society and remove its worst elements?

mostly not about the Joker

Harvey Dent / Two-Face

Harvey Dent / Two-Face

The Dark Knight

2008

The Dark Knight is a Zizekian study of identity and the nature of corruption, a deconstruction of comic book vigilante v criminal mores, and a damn fine sorry-parents-but-so-not-for-wee’uns summer movie. If Orson Wells had read Alan Moore’s Watchmen at an impressionable age, Citizen Kane would have resembled this billionaire instead of the gently rotting Hearst figure.

2005’s Batman Begins charted wee Bruce Wayne’s diversion from adulthood’s inevitably lost ideals and progression into the Batman, the embodiment of his terrors that would take on the corrupted city that created them. Three years later, he has settled into both roles, both the caped crusader and the airhead heir, and desperately wants to be free of both. Past the novelty and constant progression of establishing himself as a force to be recognised and reckoned with, Gotham’s Dark Knight seeks his own permission to escape the years of grinding danger and compromise ahead and have a normal life…a nebulous conception including his oldest friend by his side and all responsibilities taken up by others.

The Dark Knight begins with “the Batman” (Gotham has not yet accepted him enough to be on a first-name basis) tying up loose ends. He successfully catches the Scarecrow—Cillian Murphy in a surprising but appreciated cameo—and a handful of the city’s last remaining mobsters despite the interference of Batman wannabes: thrillseeking fratboys with hockey padding and machine guns. Batman mopes despite his success: he had hoped to inspire a general laundry of Gotham’s soul, not a new gang of brutal thugs. The possibility that this is the best positive sign the deeply stained Gotham could manifest after only a few years of a nascent law and order does not occur to the man, who is sporting more scars than when we saw him last. The Batman is tired, of both the nightly fighting and the daily fopping, and yearns to dump the burden on someone who will inspire lawful imitators. He is not yet the driven borderline sociopath of the earlier whimsical films, graphic novels, or the animated series, but a man who craves an ordinary life, or at least a good nap.

Harvey Dent is the man to relieve him of his burdens, he decides: the flashy and dogged District Attorney hero that Gotham needs (but doesn’t deserve). The Batman wilfully ignores the obvious facts: without a moralistic thug in the shadows backing him up, Dent would be doubly handicapped by fighting crime in the light. He must maintain a spotless image for his prosecutions to hold, both in his own actions and what the well connected criminal network is able to concoct, and he must be a target with none of Bruce Wayne’s money or Batman’s physical protections.

Blinded by the potential loss of his oldest friend and bridge to normality to a love rival—Harvey Dent himself—Wayne selfishly insists that the Batman must disappear after propping up Dent in his stead, despite the proof that Gotham’s White Knight can’t prosecute criminals or even continue to live without the city’s other knight, who can break the same rules the criminals do and deliver them into Dent’s jurisdiction. Even the soon-to-be-Commissioner Gordon admits to Dent that his elite crime unit, established in the wake of the Batman’s first housecleaning, is staffed with formerly dirty cops who continue to be deeply enmeshed in the city’s criminal culture. He has to work with what’s available. Both Dent and Gordon need outside back-up, because Gotham’s legitimate authority isn’t ready or able to stand on its own.

Throughout the film, all the major characters save one choose to break into a new identity, sometimes foolishly, and all are forced by chaos and destruction back into their old molds, sometimes tragically. Rachel Dawes suffers in this the most. She has moved on from her childhood friend Bruce, while keeping his dangerous secret, and established a relationship that is nurtured by her career and ideals, not in conflict. Bruce, meanwhile, has come to see her more as a symbol than his friend, as his “last hope for a normal life.” He asks her to wait for him, and she wavers, but chooses instead to marry the man who is more her partner, and is targeted for assassination because of her work and position—not solely for her connection to a male protagonist.

Rachel becomes a Woman in a Refrigerator, but in an interesting way: textually, she refuses to be defined as part of either man’s self-image and chooses her own future, one that abets her own crusade. After all, it certainly would have been easier to live as the wife of a billionaire, protected and wanting for nothing, than to actively face intimidation and assassination (and more immediately, the hours and numbing drudgery) as a prominent civil servant. Her death is her own martyrdom—she is chosen as a victim not because she is Batman’s girlfriend but because she is an effective, and legitimate, prosecutor. She is part of the Joker’s criminals-and-crimefighters paradigm, not a bystander.

In the fallout from her death, however, both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent focus on her not as a victim but as a life taken from them, and make her the motivation to retreat into the black-and-white identities of Batman and Two-Face. The text doesn’t put her in the refrigerator, but the two men she loves do. Textually, this is as much a tragedy as her death: Dent, who grew from a lawful crimefighter to an amoral, self-centred vigilante, is made an icon of Gotham’s legitimate authority, while Dawes, who died in service to the city, is denied a memorial—except as secret motivation for the Batman’s continued vigilantism, which she refused to support in life.

Only Alfred, the most genre-savvy of the gang, knows the truth of Rachel’s life and death, but chooses to leave Wayne with his misunderstood loss. Himself a former enforcer of rough justice, Alfred knows a hero’s mental limitations.

Aside from one, all characters are asking themselves the same two questions: who am I, and by extension, what is Gotham? In nearly all cases, the fight for Gotham’s soul is an excuse for self-serving choices: Dent wants to be the hero, Wayne wants to abandon being the hero, the gangsters want money and power. Gotham itself is deeply entrenched in corruption and will not be affected by the angsty turning points of these individuals, only by generations of effort. Only Lt. Gordon, with his understanding of compromise and canny long view, is rewarded with a better position in which to fight criminals, and his increase in power is immediate: he saves the vulnerable Batman.

That last character, however…he explodes the delusions these characters have that their destinies are ruled by their own whims, along with several buildings and bodies. The Joker, as Alfred observes, is one of the few on the world who want nothing more than to watch it burn, and hopes for himself only to keep flicking the matches.

As an aside: the Joker is referred throughout the film as a terrorist, and the threats he poses feel like terrorist threats, making the citizens of Gotham powerless and reactive. Terrorists, however, are defined by their ends-justify-the-means goals, their manifestos, the twisted lessons they want to impart to the world. Terrorist efforts have a point, if not one the rest of the world would agree justify their actions. The Joker…if he had a point, I missed it while cowering behind the seat in front of me. He sees himself simply as an agent chaos, looking for someone strong and twisted enough to destroy him. His actions are only twisted love notes asking for more of his chosen other half’s attention.

It’s only a side effect that the Joker’s carnage hammers home to the Batman and the legitimate authority that the fight against crime will not be a one-sided victory.He iH