Ah, teenagers. Aren’t they charming? We don’t think so. We’ve got a surly bunch of ’em in this Smackdown, and rather than have them bother us hard-working adults, we’ll just let them whine and snap at each other or simply sulk in a corner by themselves. The main character in sci-fi drama Chronicle is a troubled loner dealing with a messed-up family life and a general inability to relate to other kids his age. The not-quite-hero of the darkly funny Kick-Ass is a typical teenage nobody who badly wants to be a somebody, specifically a superhero (you can’t say the kid lacks ambition).
We’ll let these young’uns work out their issues while we do important adult things, like write this Smackdown comparing their various dysfunctions and how well their stories translate to the screen. The kids aren’t all right in either of these movies, which suits us just fine—they’ll provide plenty of material for one of our battles!
Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is every greasy-haired weirdo loner you knew in high school, the kid brooding in the bleachers while the cheerleaders practice. At least he has a hobby, toting around a video camera everywhere he goes. His only friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who makes honest yet doomed attempts to bring him out of his shell. One such effort involves dragging the would-be Scorsese to a rave at a local abandoned factory. During the party, the popular and charismatic Steve (Michael B. Jordan) excitedly convinces Andrew to follow him and Matt to film a wild discovery. Buried in a hole in the ground is some kind of glowing, pulsing, alien crystal, which gives them all pounding headaches and nosebleeds, soon knocking them and the camera out cold.
As usually happens when people are exposed to throbbing alien crystals, the three soon discover that they’ve acquired telekinetic powers. They start by using them for goofy teenage pranks like lifting skirts and hijacking shopping carts, but quickly realize their abilities can be developed and improved for bigger stunts. Before long they’re flying through the air and moving non-small objects, like cars. This starts to take on a dangerous dimension with the troubled Andrew. Already struggling to relate to the outside world, he has an increasingly harder time coping with his mother’s fatal illness and the unhinged anger of his alcoholic, lay-about father. The toxic combination of all of these problems leads him to dangle over the ledge of crazy. And the combination of crazy, telekinesis and teenager isn’t a good one, to put it mildly.
Slightly more charming than the morose Andrew is Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who nevertheless suffers from the same kind of social awkwardness experienced by Hollywood movie teens from James Dean’s causeless rebel to Napoleon Dynamite. A faithful comic book nerd, Dave one day gets the very bad idea to acquire a superhero identity. He orders an ugly green wetsuit, straps a pair of nightsticks to the back and faster than a speeding bullet, he’s… Kick-Ass! But the only ass getting kicked is his own, as during his first crime-fighting attempt he’s beaten into hospitalization by a pair of would-be car thieves. His next tries are, happily, less self-injurious, and before long he becomes a local folk hero.
Meanwhile, vengeful ex-cop Big Daddy (real-life comic book head Nicolas Cage) is doing a little superhero moonlighting of his own, going after crime lord Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). He’s got a great ally in the fight—his eleven-year old daughter Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz), whom he’s honed and trained to be a lethally talented vigilante, appropriately named Hit Girl. One night, the two come to the rescue of Dave, who’s once again about to get ass-kicked by some criminals, and the three effectively join forces. This is a good development, as D’Amico soon makes it a priority to exterminate all “superhero” threats to his organization. The three moonlighting underdogs will need to marshal all their abilities—not to mention Big Daddy’s impressive collection of automatic weapons —if they have even a hope of defeating D’Amico and his horde.
Chronicle treats its material with grim seriousness, tracing Andrew’s journey from sullen loner to power-crazed psychopath. It’s the right approach for the story, and it’s helped by the three main actors, who do a good job convincing us that this wacky stuff is really happening. The movie is well paced and throws in a plot swerve or two that pushes the story in interesting, unpredictable directions. Kick-Ass, on the other hand, is played with a wink and travels a well-stamped path. It’s very much targeted to the snarky comic book crowd, so the proceedings are jokey, with a lot of inside gags and pop references. The many violent sequences, as graphic as they are, have a bit of a cartoonish quality. Overall, the film moves along at a bright, jolly clip and provides plenty of entertainment on the way. Director Matthew Vaughn (working from a script by himself and Jane Goldman, from the comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.) has a sure, steady touch and a good eye, making Kick-Ass a lot of fun to watch.
But Kick-Ass is not different enough to escape the confines of its genre or to really distinguish itself. By the time it came along, audiences were suffering from a glut of comic book movies of every type, from new versions of the classic superhero stories (Captain America, for example), to adaptations of more offbeat, satirical titles like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. While Kick-Ass is very much on target with its tone, humor and visuals, it’s hampered by the big limitations of the genre—flat characters and a general air of predictability. Although they try mightily, Vaughn and company just can’t make Dave an interesting kid or deliver more than the standard bad-guy-gets-what’s-coming-to-him plot arc.
Chronicle’s main character and his cronies aren’t the most fascinating people on the big screen either, but thanks to director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis, at least the events in their lives are freshly imagined and unpredictable at the right moments. Kick-Ass, despite its many qualities, feels like Yet Another Comic Book.
Our teenagers in this battle provide more than the usual parental headache. They blow things up, use psychic powers for evil purposes and even kill people. Having said that, we should nevertheless thank them for providing two entertaining movies to review. Not everything kids do is bad! Like the biased parents we are, though, we have to favor one over the other, and the distinguished offspring in this case is Chronicle.