Settle Down, Nerds

Here’s how nerdy I am: this last weekend, I played D&D on Saturday and Sunday and they weren’t even the same campaign. When something of concern to nerds rears its bespectacled head and roars with the fury of a thousand Simpsons quotes, I take notice. So it was impossible to ignore the collective wailing and gnashing of teeth that greeted the box office failure of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Kick-Ass. To my collective group of friends, this was a great injustice that signaled the death of everything good in the world: kittens would be punched, Seyfried would remain clothed and Michael Bay would direct a series that focused entirely on the Autobot Twins and their aunt Precious. I finally watched both Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass last week and I have an alternate take. Maybe, just maybe, these movies failed because they weren’t that good.

I don’t listen to the radio. That’s not me trying to brag about how the bands I listen to haven’t even formed yet, that’s just laying some groundwork that I’m somewhat insulated from pop music. A couple months ago on youtube, I experienced my first Katy Perry song and my first Ke$ha song back to back. The Katy Perry song was an awful morass of auto-tuning, vapid lyrics and a melody that could most closely be compared to those brain worms in Wrath of Khan. Still, I understand Perry’s appeal. Zooey Deschanel’s head on a porn star’s body? There’s no part of that sentence that’s not awesome. Also, Perry’s a hardcore Christian and we all know what that means. Ke$ha, on the other hand, was like a dumbed down and uglied up version of Katy Perry. I was reminded of Peter Griffin’s brutal deconstruction of Christina Aguilera. She looked like she was covered in a thin glaze of heroin, sex sweat and day old bacon grease. I could smell Ke$ha’s myriad social diseases through the computer screen. While I understood Perry’s appeal, I can’t imagine the soul-crushing dystopia that would embrace a sticky dimestore hooker warbling nursery rhymes.

She looks like she just blew six magicians in the stagnant men’s room of a Reseda-area discothèque. AFTER AIRBRUSHING.

My point is that Scott Pilgrim is Katy Perry and Kick-Ass is Ke$ha.

Now settle down, nerds. I realize I’m going to be attacking a couple sacred cows here. You don’t have to love these things just because they came from comics. Stockholm Syndrome doesn’t have to extend to art.

I didn’t hate Scott Pilgrim. I understand the appeal. It’s slick, it’s shiny, it makes loud noises; it’s the artistic equivalent of jangling a bunch of keys in front of an infant, or, considering the movie’s target audience, a collection of Arcade Fire b-sides. It even has its moments, namely the first evil ex fight, “I have to pee on her,” and anything involving Chris Evans, Kieran Culkin or Aubrey Plaza. On the other hand, it was nearly two full hours and did nothing to justify its running time. The fights quickly grew tedious and the cleverest of all of them was lifted from a mediocre Jet Li movie. Scott’s biggest problem in the world was trying to decide which girl he wanted to fuck. Man, he really has it tough. You really feel for the guy. In a lot of ways I feel like Harvey Pekar screaming at Toby Radloff about Revenge of the Nerds. When my friends like Scott Pilgrim, I want to tell them that this isn’t them. They’re file clerks living in ethnic ghettos! Pilgrim is a guy who gets so much hot hipster ass he probably has a dick shaped like Hello Kitty.

Scott Pilgrim's penis (artist's representation)

Which of course, begs the question, why exactly was he into Ramona? He really can’t find another girl to glower at him from under a Vegas stripper’s wig? To many of my friends, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is sexual unobtainium (this is also the name of my futurepop quartet). They would literally murder thousands of ten-foot smurfs for the chance to count her ribs. I acknowledge that she’s not hard to look at, but nothing in her character or performance suggests the kind of slavish devotion that Scott has for her and the script is far too lazy to look for actual moments of human connection between the two of them.

Far more disturbing, however, is Scott Pilgrim’s deep resentment of women. As a boy, I too resented women. Of course now that I’m a man, I don’t. In Scott Pilgrim, every woman is either a hostile bitch or addled stalker. Every woman except Ramona, that is. She’s an empty vessel to be filled with whatever Scott chooses to shove in there: soulful indie rock, mentos or his penis. Ramona has no agency of her own; she would be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she doesn’t even have the MPDG’s lust for life. In fact, her only distinguishing feature is that having seven exes makes her damaged goods. Seven exes! Someone call the vicar, because there’s a harlot on the loose! And to top it all off, the only reason she doesn’t like Scott Pilgrim is because of a mind control chip on the back of her head. Now, I realize I’m taking this a little far, but this means that Scott could have seduced her at any time if he just donkey-punched her. Was this movie written by the Situation?

He is a published author, after all.

I didn’t hate Scott Pilgrim (although I kind of hated Scott Pilgrim, if you follow me), but I did hate Kick-Ass. Based on the comic written by the sublimely untalented Mark Millar, Kick-Ass is a film that has no fucking idea of what it wants to be. It starts life as an alleged comedy about what it would really like to be a superhero. In short, you’d get your ass royally kicked. It loses interest in this plot fairly quickly since writing something like that, to paraphrase Scott Pilgrim, would be haaaaaaard. Instead, it abruptly turns into a bizarre cross between Oldboy and Kindergarten Cop as directed by Dick Cheney’s withered prostate.

This isn’t odd, considering most of what Millar writes has weirdly fascist (and ass-related) overtones. All of Mark Millar’s work can be summed up thus: horrible people doing horrible things for horrible reasons. Mark Millar is what would happen if Garth Ennis lost the capacity for joy. Mark Millar hates his characters so much he probably thinks they’re trying to get him free medical care. Mark Millar respects his readers the way the Catholic Church respects your child’s personal bubble.

Okay, I think it’s all out of my system now.

Every Kick-Ass apologist I have spoken to immediately dismisses Kick-Ass, the film’s ostensible hero and a character that somehow makes Michael Cera look like Lee Marvin. They say that they prefer Hit-Girl’s movie. They are entirely correct in identifying Hit-Girl as existing in her own film – she’s a Torgo.  Her introduction to Kick-Ass takes place as she goes all Jason Voorhees on a roomful of petty criminals. For this to be a reasonable reaction, the city needs to be built up as an urban hellscape in which rape and murder are the consequences of leaving one’s graffiti-and-gore-covered home. Death Wish and Robocop managed to do this. Because Kick-Ass is mostly grounded in reality, Hit-Girl comes off as a chibi psychopath, although the film is far too stupid to realize this. In fact, it applauds her ultraviolence. Kick-Ass can only be redeemed by emulating her and putting on a jetpack with mounted miniguns. Hey, remember when Kick-Ass was about the real-world consequences of being a vigilante? That’s okay. The movie doesn’t either.

Pictured: realism

A smarter film would have realized that Hit-Girl and Big Daddy are the villains of the piece and acted accordingly. It would be about Kick-Ass being seduced to the dark side and becoming worse than the criminals he terrorizes. Eventually he would have to face his surrogate family and defeat them. Instead, for villains we get McLovin and a kung fu mafia don. No, really.

Why all the love for Hit-Girl? I honestly have no idea. She is shockingly original, as long as we pretend it’s 1996 or we’re in an alternate universe in which South Park doesn’t exist. Maybe she surprised people who had never seen Halloween? Maybe it was Chloe Moretz’s unconvincing delivery of her dialogue that won them over? It’s also possible people wanted to see a little white girl re-enact scenes John Woo directed twenty years ago. Not really sure there. On the upside, Scott Pilgrim would probably try to date her just for the haircut. The guy definitely has a type.

I might forgive Kick-Ass these faults, but it fails in every conceivable way. It’s an unfunny comedy, a boring action film and a thematic mess. It’s two retarded movies sewn together like a human centipede made from tea-partiers. It’s a horrid little trifle that doesn’t even understand how very ugly it is. And the worst part? It has somehow spawned a sequel from the depths of its haunted testes.

The true irony is that the nerds were right, although not in the way they thought. Scott Pilgrim was the better film but did much worse that Kick-Ass, which somehow managed to make money domestically. Neither movie was good, but the less bad one did worse. Any way you slice it, bemoaning either movie’s fortunes is a complete waste of time. Save your energy for something that doesn’t suck.

Like Hobo with a Shotgun.

About Justin

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This entry was posted in Nerd Alert, Projected Pixels and Emulsion, Week in Rage and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Settle Down, Nerds

  1. Clint says:

    Well, you already know I liked both movies (fortunately, my liking them is no more a sign of the downfall of Western Civilization than you hating them), but regardless, if quality were any real factor in a movie’s box office success or failure, Hollywood would have gone broke a long time ago.

    Love or hate, good or bad, I think it still comes down to nerds being not nearly enough of a power bloc as want to think we are in terms of uplifting something we love, or destroying something we despise. When something happens that reminds us of that, we (nerd)rage at the world at large, and if we can’t even find solace amongst fellow nerds, then it is the worst of sins, Little Wooden Boy. BETRAYAL.

    Except it’s not, it’s people with differing opinions on art. I’ve learned to accept I can have fundamental disagreements on my entertainment choices with friends, and it doesn’t make them stupid, or an enemy to be converted or neutralized.

    I make an exception for unironically venerating the Star Wars prequels, though. That’s just Flat Earther talk.

    • Justin says:

      Oh, I completely agree that we can all disagree. I was just utterly baffled by the devotion that both movies caused amongst my friends, hence my bile-filled rant. From my perspective, the box office failure of both films was entirely justified.

  2. Kenny says:

    It’s all purely subjective, of course, but I could go on and on about why, from my subjective point of view, you are completely wrong. You are also wrong about Ke$ha, who is way better than Katy Perry, whose voice, even in processed form, is so horrid and grating that I couldn’t even listen to “Firework” all the way through until Glee covered it. Ke$ha’s deliberately repulsive trashiness, while a gimmick, is also a more interesting gimmick than Perry’s plastic blow-up doll sexiness.

    Back to the movies. Suffice to say that Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim are both movies where, if you like that kind of thing, these are the kind of movies you will LOVE. In both cases, I could tell from the trailers that they were movies I couldn’t wait to see, that they were crossing genre conventions with comedy and tongue-in-cheek comic book action, and they delivered on those promises. If you were able to watch those trailers without being thrilled enough to see those movies right away, then it’s not surprising that you would be less than thrilled when you finally saw them.

  3. Kenny says:

    On Hit Girl: The point, for me at least, isn’t that she’s original. Anyone who’s watched anime or read comics has seen this character before, but it’s rare to see a child perform the kind of graphic action movie violence depicted here in a major live-action American movie. Who WOULDN’T want to see a little white girl re-enact scenes from a classic John Woo movie? That sounds awesome, and in Kick-Ass, it is.

    I think the movie is more self-aware than you think about the moral ambiguity of Hit Girl and Big Daddy. The great pleasure of Kick-Ass is its transgressiveness (a shallow thrill, perhaps, but a potent one when as well-deployed as it is here), not just in its depiction of a little girl who kills people and says “cunt,” but also in its unapologetic embrace of their psychotic behavior. When Hit Girl murders a fleeing, unarmed woman, it’s pretty hard to feel like her behavior is reasonable, but the movie doesn’t lecture us on the evil of vigilantism by making her and Big Daddy the bad guys. They clearly go too far and Big Daddy has obviously damaged his child, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not fun to watch them kill bad guys. It’s up to you to reconcile the vicarious thrill of violence with your own moral compass, and the movie trusts you to do that.

    • Justin says:

      I completely disagree. The film paints their over-the-top ultraviolence as a good thing. At no point does any character call their methods into question, and Kick-Ass can only achieve victory when he embraces it (with the aforementioned miniguns-on-a-jetpack). Thus, the film states that what they are doing is a good thing (and yes, the film trusts you to figure this out, since it’s basically shouting it into your face). As for the thrill of the violence, I suppose if it was thrilling, I might have something to reconcile. As it was, it was completely perfunctory, a joyless scene in a joyless film.

      I’m not suggesting that the film lecture us on the evils of vigilantism. I’m merely suggesting that a nuanced take would be more effective. In fact, Kick-Ass embraces vigilantism, and not just vigilantism, but the serial murder of petty criminals. That’s just as bad as a simple lecture about why vigilantism is wrong. A smarter film would have questioned all sides of the issue (like, say The Dark Knight did), whereas Kick-Ass was tantamount to torture porn.

      And has Big Daddy damaged his kid? I don’t know. Considering that, in the end, when the bullies shake Hit-Girl down for lunch money and the implication is that she will murder the living fuck out of both of them — and that’s played for laughs — makes the film’s thesis clear.

      It’s worth noting that I would have less trouble with the movie’s loathsome worldview had they a) committed to it (as vastly superior right-wing fantasy films, such as Robocop, Death Wish and Hobo with a Shotgun, have) and b) gotten to the point. Kick-Ass wasn’t just a mess; it was a bloated mess, and that I can’t forgive.

      • Kenny says:

        Big Daddy’s former police colleague calls their methods into question, though not in much detail. You’re right that the movie mostly casts Big Daddy and Hit Girl as heroes, and treats their violent triumphs as positive, but I think that’s part of the joke. I read it as tongue-in-cheek, but I like that the movie doesn’t wink too hard about it. Part of the fun is that the movie does go to a fucked-up, irresponsible place, without adding disclaimers. I don’t always enjoy it when filmmakers push shock buttons just for the sake of it — it usually comes off as smug — but in Kick-Ass it doesn’t, at least for me.

        As for whether the action is joyful, we’re on even more subjective ground. I found the Hit Girl set pieces to be tremendously joyful and exhilarating, and the audience in my theater burst into genuine, spontaneous applause after each one (an audience non-geek enough that it had greeted the Scott Pilgrim trailer before the movie with utter apathy). But your mileage may vary.

        I think the overrated-underrated phenomenon ( may be affecting your reaction to these movies, too.

  4. Kenny says:

    Addendum: Just because I think the movie is smart about this doesn’t mean I think Mark Millar is. I agree that his work is often repugnant and think the movie improves on the Kick-Ass comic.

  5. Bryn says:

    But… you LOVE human centipedes!

  6. Justin says:

    Regarding the overrated/underrated phenomenon, yes and no. Many of my friends embraced both Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass, and I happened to watch both films in the same week. While I found Scott Pilgrim to have some redeeming qualities, Kick-Ass had none. It’s a truly wretched piece of work. I probably would not have written this had my friends disliked both films, so there’s an element of the over/under phenomenon. I did, however, go into both movies hoping to like them and being disappointed. On the other hand, I watched Machete — another film most of my friends loved — and ended up loving it as well.

    As for the applause… I imagine people applaud Ke$ha and Katy Perry in concert.

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