Monday, 24 May 2010

In Search of Lost Real Time

I just watched the 24 series finale. And I feel odd.

I feel sad, wistful, old, regretful, youthful, and invigorated. Which is probably a bit too many emotions to feel over the end of a pulpy television show with a one-torture-per-three-episodes requirement.

One night, a few years ago, I met up with an ex in a pub in London. We had been broken up for a year and the breakup was anything but amicable. A venom-filled root canal may be a more apt description. We talked, we drank, we reflected, we caught up, and we parted ways. A brief spark of what had once been there definitely showed, but it had to shine past the very evident ways we had grown apart and indeed always were not all that much on the same side. I noticed the bad haircut and the big teeth, the annoying jokes and the stupid opinions more than I ever did in our time together. Nostalgia and comfort lost to age and wisdom.

As I watched the recap of the season, with its bombastic DRAMA!, stilted acting, and exposition-heavy dialogue, I thought this memory was an apt comparison. Relationships end for a reason. 24 may have its fun moments, but I stopped watching it very voluntarily (I literally had Fox on and turned it off). Season 6 was painfully bad and indicative of how you can only up the stakes so many times before you are up in LalaLand. I knew at one time this stuff made me all hot and bothered, but now I was above this schlock. I watched Sopranos and Mad Men and appreciated the slow burn.

Then Jack Bauer held a CTU officer at gunpoint and threatened to go to town on his body if he did not comply.

I have also slept with an ex. This might be more apt of a comparison.

By the end of the experience, I was jumping, screaming, panting, and red in the face. I was thrilled like I had not been in a long time. And after it all, I let myself lie placidly in the afterglow of the move that 24 was such an expert in. One that I had forgotten about, dulled down in my memory, unappreciated when I got it every week (and maybe not meant for every week every year), but one that still hit me in the right spot the exact same way it did when I was 14. (Okay, so maybe I lost my Bauer-virginity years before my other one.)

In truth, I do think I enjoyed this finale in a way more because I had not had to labor through the past two seasons of 24. I have not heard good things and keeping up a thrill consistently is nigh-impossible. Furthermore, upon reflection, the finale was really just a jumble of the ends of seasons 4 and 5. They had run out of original ideas, but at least I had not had to see 22 other episodes of recycling…and at least they were borrowing from the best (or 2 of the 3 best, since season 1's finale still gives me shivers).

This end was the one I wanted. One that gave me everything I had loved about 24 without giving me too much to lament its death or my abandonment of it. One that showed my beloved had not changed in our time apart, a good and a bad thing. A lovely final fling with a show with which I had a meaningful relationship.

And this break provided one more benefit. I was not watching the last episode of a series or a season; I was revisiting an old friend. And so often, the oldest memories come first. I was in freshmen year of high school, reading recaps on TWOP in computer applications class with Nick because we finished the assignments before everyone else. Or I was eating baked ziti during a horrible heatwave in the second to last week of April, watching the scene where Jack jumps over a fence and Mason just walks around it. I was in sophomore year, trying to get my mom to stop asking questions so I could hear Jack’s heartfelt conversation with Kim as he faced what he assumed to be his coming death. I still had my old phone with speed dials and would call Nick on commercials. I was desperately trying to watch that damn four-hour premiere for season four in January of a hectic senior year. I had to keep track of those damn VHSes. I was back in my living room after a year of college, jumping up and down as Jack finally took down Logan and exposed his crimes.

I blocked out most sophomore year memories. Date #3 with the pub ex actually was an early episode of season 6 (not Curtis Jack! HOW COULD YOU?!), but who wants to remember the bad times? By the end of that year, I was conducting an affair with Heroes (which also has met the TV reaper). Those two hours on my couch (and floor) acted like a Proustian madeleine, though you are spared a 2,000 page blog entry.

With the end of 24, I feel some tie to the past gone. When I stopped watching Alias or Smallville or Lost (granted, that was after 12 episodes) or 24, still seeing them advertised was a type of reassurance. It let me know that TV has not changed too much since my high school years. Eventually, it began to mean since my college years. I may not have watched Lost or Heroes or 24 this year, but them on the air assured me that not too much time had passed since Luke, Justin, a bunch of other people and I gathered in Bush Hall’s lobby to watch 24 or Jim, Justin, and I engaged in a fierce Heroes/Lost debate. Now that’s not the case.

Stop here if such a maudlin outpouring over a Fox show has already proved too much for you.

If you’re still reading, join me in a toast. To a show as much a zeitgeist of the 2000s (which truly began in September 2001) as any gangster movie was of the 30s or bad, paranoid sci-fi was of the 50s. I might dare argue that 24 is, if not the most important show of the decade, perhaps the most emblematic. To a show that truly made us worry for the safety of its characters and probably had a bigger cast-axe rate than Survivor (the only show that may rival 24 for Show of the 2000s). To one of the shows that began what is now seemingly a dramatic standard of non-episodic episodes. And to Jack Bauer, one of the strangest, most confounding guys to ever threaten to stick a towel down a man’s throat.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Kick-Ass's Target: Spider-Man or Batman?

Ah, Kick-Ass. Don’t you just love when a comic book thing becomes the hot topic du jour? Well, I don’t, but that’s for another entry.

There are about a billion and one topics I can talk about with Kick-Ass. There’s Hit-Girl and how for some reason, holding a kid at gunpoint or knife point (as seen in numerous films, such as Red Dragon, Dark Knight, etc.) or killing him or her off (e.g. The Searchers, Punisher, Gladiator) to fuel a revenge plot are both completely acceptable plot points and really not even worthy of a sentence, whereas once the kid dares to fight back, society has crumbled. Maybe the paradox is related to the idea that kids are sacred. And if we kill something sacred, well then, we can get really upset at the destruction of the sacred object. After all, Christianity is based around the destruction of the most sacred person and how darn great that was and our culture, for better or for worse, is based very much on Christianity. But whereas Passion of the Christ was adored by many a right-wing nutjob, I am relatively certain that Revenge of the Christ would get the picket-treatment. So yeah, violence and kids is honky-dory as long as the kids are on the receiving end. Got that settled? Cool.

There’s also the use of the gay joke and whether or not the movie flopped. Okay, so aside from the main point of the entry, there are three topics I can write about. But my interest lies in the fact that, upon talking to people, there seems to be a general dissatisfaction or uneasiness around how cartoonish the movie gets towards the end.

Kick-Ass starts with a promise of an uber-realistic to the point of hilarious comic book movie. We get to see what would really happen if someone tried to be a superhero: his costume would look a bit dumb, he would be terrified of jumping from buildings and when he tried to fight crime, he would get the ass kicked out of him. Many fans took this approach as a parody of the mainstream superhero movie genre, or, if I may relabel it, the Marvel movie genre. Indeed, the music often turns into a trope on Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man score and even the first 20 minutes or so are a pretty straightforward parody of the first Spider-Man movie.

But that premise cannot sustain itself. To hold the mirror of reality up to the artificial world of spandex superheroes is an entertaining Saturday Night Live sketch or possible even short film, but such an action feature would wear out its welcome fast. How many times could we watch Kick-Ass get beaten up? How many times can he flinch at the edge of a building? A super-hero in the real world movie cannot work because there are no superheroes in the real world. The logic that makes this idea worthy of our attention and allows it to become a satire would be the very same logic that undoes its ability to progress through the necessary three-act plot and reach some narrative resolution. A real Kick-Ass would just be the recipient of knife-points and spend the interim of his hospital stays looking for lost cats.

Thankfully, for the film and the viewer, Kick-Ass is not a parody of the Marvel superhero movie. It’s a parody of the DC superhero film, specifically Watchmen and Nolan’s Batman films. Why these? Just because I didn’t like them? Nah, were that the case, I would have included the Fantastic Four movies and X3 in there. I say this because Kick-Ass is not a parody of the “mainstream” superhero film; it is a satire of the “realistic” superhero film.

The first twenty minutes may be giving us a fantasy-free variety of Spider-Man, but they are also delivering the promises of Nolan or Snyder with abundance. Nolan strove to give us a real urban hero: a Batmobile that “made sense” for city streets, a believable training background for the protagonist, and villains that reflect the problems of society today and use knives as weapons instead of freeze-rays and killer plants.

However, ultimately, as I pointed out two years ago when tearing Dark Knight a new one, Batman is not realistic. A billionaire secreting financing his own one-man war on crime after secretly training decades around the world is only a miniscule bit more believable than webslinging across Times Square. In fact, people should not fear the man in a giant rubber Batsuit, but mock him. And that reaction is the one of the first “villains” in Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass is a crazy person, a nerd, a loser, an idiot in a playsuit. He does the best one can do with the resources accessible to an actual superhero. And it’s funny.

Such a parody makes sense, after all. Why expose the stupidity of a real-life superhero to a series of films that have genetically altered arachnids, weather controlling mutants, and Jessica Alba trying to act? It mocks a genre for not having something it never pretended to possess. However, to go after a subgenre by giving all that it promised but failed to deliver is to have a more worthy target.

But the film extends its satire. It does not simply show what the “realistic” superhero film lacks; it then exaggerates the necessary trajectory of any “realistic” action film. As the film progresses, it descends from this almost hyper-realistic world into a Tarantino-esque Lala-Land. This progression is heralded in by the introduction of Hit-Girl and Big Daddy. These two, in a sense, are the quintessential “real” superhero. Their outfits are dark, they use lethal force, and, unlike Kick-Ass, they deliver a real plot, real conflict, and real results. Yet they are also the most detached from reality itself. Their very costumes and mannerisms evoke the cartoonish. Hit-Girl has purple hair like an anime character and enters to a perky soundtrack that could very well be performed by Puffy Ami Yumi. Big Daddy talks like Adam West’s Batman, everything from which Nolan strived to detach himself. He also paints the areas around his eyes like Joel Schumacher’s Batmen did. Yes, there may be believable reasons for the character’s choices (colorful wigs and weird speech patterns hide identities), but such reasons do not automatically nullify such evocations. Whatever the logic behind such choices is, Hit-Girl looks like a she could join the Sailor Senshi and Big Daddy could say “old chum” any second.

Furthermore, their larger-than-life traits extend beyond their appearances. They take on dozens of henchmen at a time and live. They can catch guns (and even reload them) midair like refugees from The Matrix. In fact, their arsenal itself seems to rival that of the white room in the first Matrix* film. They even own a jetpack because, you know, that’s so much more down-to-earth than just jumping out the window and flying. I know they were stealing money from the drug busts…but could that buy all of those weapons? And wouldn’t someone be able to trace them?

[*In fact, the parallels to The Matrix are quite fascinating. After all, The Matrix attempts to explain the unrealistic, aerial movements of kung-fu action heroes. But how does it do it? By placing everything within an even larger artificial reality, both literally by introducing the Matrix program and by forcing the audience to believe that sentient robots have taken over mankind. I suppose that is more plausible than thinking a man can jump between skyscrapers. I do not know if I was even being sarcastic in that last sentence.]

But these two are very much like Batman or The Minutem – excuse me, Watchmen: cartoon characters running around a real world, trying to pass. But they manage to appear only more cartoonish and their superhuman acts seem more egregiously, ridiculously powerful because they have purported themselves to be below superhuman. In movies such as Spider-Man and X-Men, storytellers introduce a series of rules and mostly adhere to them. We do not question that Magneto can take on a veritable army because he can manipulate metal. Wolverine can take a licking and keep on ticking thanks to a healing factor. Kick-Ass should not be able to endure such punishment. And, in the beginning of the movie, he isn’t. He actually does go to the hospital (a rare locale for a superhero unless he is visiting his aunt or a district attorney) and he seems pretty out of it by the end of his first “victory.” But yet, he goes on to fight another battle immediately after the torture scene. He admits that he hurts and by all means our hero should be returning to the hospital, or at least his bed room. But no, he still manages to take on Red Mist.

This hole is gaping, but upon looking through it, we can see similar instances in Nolan’s films. Batman should show up in the hospital after certain run ins. While amazing, Alfred can only do so much. And his background of service in the British SS seems a bit more ridiculous in a reality where Joker cannot even use laughing gas, so I doubt they would invoke that bit of character history. Or, to return to the prior point, his triumphs over legions of criminals should be directed with the same anime-esque glee that fills Hit-Girl’s assaults, for they should be just as much as blemish on the believability of Chicago-Gotham as Hit-Girl is on Manhattan. The aforementioned jet-pack, the bazooka that ends the movie with an exclamation point (a long line and a dot), and its ilk are all things meant for the funny pages, but so is the contraption Bruce used in his Hong-Kong adventure, his tank of a Batmobile, and even his Batarangs.

In short, the very act of promising reality in a comic book movie only makes it more cartoonish and unreal than a typical comic book movie. We may not believe people can shoot beams out of their eyes, but once we buy into that fact (one no one would ever question Cyclops when watching X-Men), we can believe that the ability to shoot beams out of one’s eyes makes one a one-man army. But we know there are limits to what the human body can do, even if aided by intense training and the best weapons that money can secretly buy. Kick-Ass more blatantly does what Rorschach, Ozymandius, and Batman have already done: made the human superhuman while still trying to pass them off as human. A girl with a sword must be just as competent as Superman, which is even less plausible than the concept of Superman himself.

Sure Kick-Ass may appear more cartoonish than Dark Knight or its ilk, but that is only because it so enthusiastically owns its cartoonishness. But in flaunting its own implausibility, it manages to show that art can never be life. Especially when that art involves wearing a cape.