Martial arts movies have traditionally been about bullied victims learning to develop their own power and defeat the bully.
Life's not as simple as the movies, though, and we've only just begun dissecting the ideals of toxic masculinity that well-intentioned morality story may be teaching. Thankfully, The Art of Self-Defense is a skewering satire of the martial arts bully myth.
Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a 35-year-old accountant who lets his coworkers walk all over him. He has no friends, and nobody but his boss ever calls him. One day, while walking to buy dog food, a motorcycle gang beats Casey until he needs to be hospitalized. Whether it's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin or The Karate Kid, movies tell us that you should learn to fight to defend yourself. So Casey signs up for karate classes.
Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, right) is no Mr. MiyagiBleecker Street
Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and the children's class sensei, Anna (Imogen Poots), take karate very seriously. The tone of The Art of Self-Defense is intensity mixed with sincerity. It's not bravado, which would imply overcompensating. The characters are genuinely skilled and committed, but perhaps take things more seriously than they should. The whole film has a quiet intensity, a form of cringe comedy whereby you're waiting for a tension release that never comes.
Sensei, Anna, and other dojo classmates deliver absurd insults with unwavering deadpan. Sensei tells Casey to think German. It's an absurd philosophy but he means it. They also over-explain things and repeat unnecessary details, including Casey. It's funny in a quirky sort of way. Sensei keeps describing the full circumstances of Grandmaster's death when it's so absurdly specific, nobody is going to forget it.
Sensei Anna (Imogen Poots) hopes she can teach the kids to be better.Bleecker Street
Casey faces a sort of passive-aggressive pressure from everyone he encounters. He considers buying a gun, and when he decides he doesn't need one, the gun shop salesman says, "Well, I hope you don't get attacked by someone with a gun or a knife."
The Art of Self-Defense is a scathing satire about the dangers of empowering the wrong people, or empowering people the wrong way. The show Cobra Kai has also questioned the mythos of The Karate Kid. Namely, in reality, bullies don't just go away when you beat them in a fight, and sometimes bullied kids become abusers themselves when they get a taste of power.
As soon as Casey starts standing up for himself, he immediately overdoes it. He ends up attacking people who are nice to him and making misogynistic comments about their loved ones. We're certainly familiar with a misogynistic component to male empowerment. Self-proclaimed nerds used to enjoy their science-fiction and fantasy movies in private, or at best in small groups found locally. But as soon as they connected with a greater community via social media (and now that they are the number one demographic to whom Hollywood is catering), toxic fans began bullying stars of their favorite fanbases on social media. For instance,The Last Jedi's Kelly Marie Tran and Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown had to delete their accounts just to avoid aggressive trolls.
Power corrupts Casey (Jesse Eisenberg)Bleecker Street
I see a parallel when Casey takes on some misogyny. He learned it from Sensei, who looks down upon Anna. Karate is supposed to be grounded in sportsmanship, at least amongst your own friends in the dojo, and only used for self-defense against attackers. But Casey's martial arts lessons escalate and get brutally violent. Most adults would hopefully have the sense to leave a dojo that draws blood on a regular basis, but, for the sake of satire, it's poignant that Casey gets in so deep. Even if you feel Casey finds redemption in the end, he only obtains it after going so over the top that it's hard not to believe he's permanently corrupted by Sensei.
Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) is just teaching his students how to become bullies.Bleecker Street
The Art of Self-Defense definitely makes a point about mistaking toxic masculinity for empowerment. Depending on who's drawn to martial arts movies these days, the film may be preaching to the choir; but, hopefully the people who need to see it will be lured in by the promise of a modern day Karate Kid story, and hopefully they'll get the point: Sensei is just another bully in a hero's disguise.