Gilbey on Film: you say you want a revolution

Don't believe the hype about Kick-Ass.

As I wrote in the NS two weeks ago, I was amused and entertained by Kick-Ass, a violent comedy about a wave of DIY superheroes. Parts of the film have been described as shocking, but surely the biggest shock has been the adoration the movie has attracted from some quarters -- especially the Guardian, which described Kick-Ass on its website as "defiantly unconventional" and a "remarkable vision". Then Peter Bradshaw's frothing five-star rave ("thoroughly outrageous . . . fantastically anarchic . . . surrealist . . . monumentally mad and addled . . . a genius for incorrectness and pure provocation . . . . more energy and satire and craziness in its lycra-gloved little finger than other films have everywhere else. . . ") was followed by an approving capsule review in the paper's Saturday supplement, the Guide, which insisted that the movie "doesnt play by the rules".

The truth is that it plays by every rule. It doesn't rip up the rule-book so much as rewrite it in eye-catching neon.

The Financial Times and the Telegraph were scathing about the film, while the Independent and Observer were mercifully level-headed. But feverish approval was not restricted to the Guardian. I had to laugh when I heard the picture being discussed on Radio 4's Saturday Review, where Ekow Eshun delivered possibly my favourite line spoken anywhere, about anything, so far this year. He praised the film for "this desire to go to offensive places and own them as collective spaces". That is definitely what he said: I just went back and checked on the iPlayer. That's not an express ticket to Pseuds' Corner -- it's more like lobbying for a residency there.

But back to Kick-Ass: a good night out, yes, but no revolution. Here are a few reasons why, in addition to the ones I mentioned in my original review. Beware -- here be spoilers.

Fathers and sons. Like virtually every other mainstream movie in the western world, Kick-Ass has no place for women. The hero's mother dies in the first ten minutes or so. The mother of the foul-mouthed, 11-year-old crime-fighter Hit-Girl dies in a comic-strip flashback. (I can't remember if she expired in childbirth but, if not, she may as well have done.) The mother of Red Mist is glimpsed briefly at the breakfast table, then never seen again. Perhaps she died, too. The important thing is: no females, not real ones at any rate. There's something callous about that; you'll notice it everywhere. The makers of the Disney film Chicken Little got to the stage of casting the hero's single mother before deciding that it would be more dramatic to give him a single father instead. If you see that movie, keep an eye out for the character of the (now deceased) mother, consigned to a framed photograph on the mantelpiece. Brutal.

Women. OK, I exaggerated. There are women in Kick-Ass, but they're not real like the men. Hit-Girl isnt really a girl, but an adolescent lad's idea of a cool kid sister, meaner than any boy and with a mouth to match. The hero's love interest is only there to set up a running joke: she thinks he's gay. When she finds out he's not, and leaps straight into bed with him, you may wonder why the writers bothered with the gag anyway, unless the idea of a straight man being mistaken for a gay man is inherently funny. Which it may well be, unless you happen to be looking for a B&B.

Uxoriousness. I did wonder why the camera gazed so lovingly at that billboard of Claudia Schiffer. I didn't realise until I read other people's reviews that she is married to the director, Matthew Vaughn. Now it just looks sinister in the context of the film's insistence elsewhere on keeping its women in their place. What better way than by putting them on billboards in lingerie? (Vaughn began his career as a producer for Guy Ritchie. Ritchie has similar trouble with female characters -- remember Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? You could use your thumbs to count that movie's non-decorative female roles. And you'd still have two thumbs left.)

The catchphrase. "With no power comes no responsibility." A neat line, you might think, and one which fans of the film have celebrated as both a jibe at Spider-Man (cheeky, really, since Kick-Ass steals most of its first 40 minutes from Sam Raimi's nicely judged 2002 adventure) and a symbol of the picture's amorality. What doesn't get mentioned is that the line is followed by the words: "Except that's not quite true . . ." The screenwriters giveth, and the screenwriters taketh away. If it wasn't quite true, why leave the line in? Oh, I see, because it gets a laugh. To which the only response can be: Get thee to a script editor.

You'll notice I haven't even included the highly dubious BBC cross-promotion that allows Jonathan Ross (whose wife, Jane Goldman, co-wrote the script) to plug the film on his Friday-night talk show in an interview with the star, Aaron Johnson. (Ross is also chums with the writer of the Kick-Ass comic-book, Mark Millar, who based a character in an earlier comic on the chat-show host.) And to think that the covers of children's story-books on the CBeebies channel are routinely blanked out to avoid accusations of on-screen advertising!

Why not add some of your reasons why Kick-Ass is nowhere near as subversive as its defenders would have us believe? Together we can own this debate. Maybe we can even take it to a collective place, weather permitting.




Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.