Cross-examining super-heroism

Kick-Ass
Starring Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Nicholas Cage, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Cop Out
Starring Bruce Willis, Tracey Morgan, Seann William Scott
Directed by Kevin Smith

Repo Men
Starring Jude Law, Forrest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, Alice Braga
Directed by Miguel Sapochnik

According to some critical commentators, these three films are an attempt to replace the tired old “superhero film.” Since there have been so many superhero films over these past 35 years or so (arguably starting with “Superman” in 1978) it’s time to retire the traditional model and nominate some new versions.

But it’s the very fact that there have been so many precedential superhero movies that establishing a replacement to the formula may prove difficult and contentious. There are those who would apply stare decisis and seek to retain what they have come to expect and believe a superhero film should be, while others will want to overturn that history and define the course of the new direction. And, still others may work to oppose and defeat them altogether.

So, how does one seek to influence this new direction given so many differing, contentious perspectives? One sure way is to be as outrageous as possible.

And that is just what these movies do. These nominees to replace the superhero cinematic canon could be described as “radical, wild-haired, foul-mouthed, over-the-top, ultra-violent, ironic, anti-superhero superhero movies.” In so doing, anyone who would object to this new direction would fall right into a trap as fiendishly devious as those devised by a superhero’s super-evil villainous genius: They could be attacked for being an old-fashioned, stuffy, thin-skinned, puritanical, superhero-bigoted, whining fuddy-duddy.

Kind of clever, isn’t it?

If you support these movies, you could be tagged as a radical superhero destroyer; if you oppose them, you could be labeled a superhero bigot. And if you are neutral, you are a superhero sympathizer. Now that’s fiendishness!

And what is even more cleverly mischievous is that these films do not purport to even be superhero films!

Here is a list of heretofore contentious precedents contained in these movies that could become arguable debate fodder for their stepping in as superhero cinematic replacements:

• Super Average Man (and Girl)

All of these films purport to show average people confronting creepy bad guys. Since the super qualities of superheroes are now old hat, they stand for the “new” idea that mere mortals can be just as super as superheroes in vanquishing villains. But then these films do not live up to this super-conceit and instead fall right back into showing people surviving all kinds of nasty physical abuse. In “Cop Out,” the main characters are beaten and shot at, yet they cavalierly and nonchalantly carry on as if ‘tweren’t nothin.’ In “Repo Men,” the main character and his girlfriend endure all kinds of physical torment that would involve massive amounts of blood loss and even death, yet they saunter on. And in “Kick-Ass,” a couple of teenagers (and an under-aged girl) are stabbed, beaten, shot at, slammed onto tables, kicked in the head, and fall onto hard pavement and simply get up and dust themselves off. But point this out and you could be attacked for requiring hyper-realism in what is intended to be entertaining diversions, or, in other words, a kill-joy.

• Under-aged Nastiness

All of these films contain a pre-adolescent character who behaves like an adult (a “superhero” young girl in “Repo Men” performs wincingly painful surgery on a woman’s artificial knee), uses foul language and engages in criminal and violent behavior (in “Cop Out,” a “superhero” young boy steals cars and kicks an adult male in the groin after smarting off with inappropriate language), or viciously and violently butchers countless toughs (a “superhero” young girl in “Kick-Ass” uses knives, guns and fists to dispatch drug dealing thugs). Depending on where you stand on these issues will dictate your reaction to these depictions. Some may find such behavior funny; others may find it reprehensible; still others may be non-plussed as this is the direction films and popular culture are headed anyway. But if you comment on this, you will be labeled as someone who just doesn’t appreciate the humor and the obviously contrived and clearly satirical messages.

• Torture

Nothing beats torture to update a tired old film genre. And these films are indeed tortuous! In “Cop Out” a man is tied to a chair in a batting cage and subjected to a pummeling of batted baseballs while another man is chained to the rear bumper of a car and dragged around on a gravel surface — and in true “superhero” fashion, both survive unscathed. In “Repo Men” the main character, who has an artificial heart implanted in his chest, is cut open so that a bar code reader can be jammed in to read and register the organ and whose companion’s artificial organs throughout her body must be similarly accessed — and, in true “superhero” fashion, all without anesthesia. In “Kick-Ass,” two characters are tied to chairs and beaten with baseball bats, brass-knuckles, and whips — and one is doused with gas and set aflame —and, in true “superhero” fashion, one survives. Again, careful how you might react and what you might say as some could attack you as being prissy, or that this is all done for satirical or comedic effect.

• Distracting Situations and Demanding Love Interests

Would-be average Joe and Jane superheroes cannot be preoccupied with just saving lives and vanquishing evildoers. They must also be distracted by mundane reality. This helps keep things grounded, earthy and humorous. In all three films, the “superhero” characters (a cop in “Cop Out,” an organ repossesser in “Repo Men,” and a geeky school kid in “Kick-Ass”) all struggle to maintain relationships with women who do not understand them, do not know their secret identities, or demand more time and attention. In addition, in all three films the “superhero” main characters engage in snappy banter about mundane, domestic matters while they go about pursuing nefarious bad guys. But don’t complain because, you know, this is so funny and so anti-superhero superhero behavior. So, get with the program.

• A Bit of the Ole Ultra Violence

All superhero movies must have some violence otherwise what’s the point. But there’s cartoonish violence and then there’s faux-cartoonish ultra-violence. These films all suggest that their main characters are not superheroes, and yet they defy gravity by running along walls as they dispatch crowded hallways full of bad guys with bullets through their skulls, never miss (especially when aiming for the skull), use knives to hack off limbs and organs, never get hit by bullets or seriously hurt, never get winded or need to seek medical attention, never lose their cool under fire. Again, point this out and you will be told that these are superhero movies, but then again, they aren’t.

Now, don’t cop out, but repossess your prior decisions about supermen, and if anyone challenges your opinion about these films, feel free to kick their ass! After all, we like our superheroes to be just like us, but then again maybe not. Case dismissed.

Doug Young is The Statesman’s superhero, able to turn out creative film reviews under the toughest of conditions.