“Twenty years ago my parents wouldn’t know who the X-Men were, and now everybody knows that stuff…It means that deconstruction of the superhero is something you can do. All those movies have led to a point where we can finally have ‘Watchmen’ with a Superman character who doesn’t want to save the world and a Batman who has trouble in bed. Essentially, I want to kill the superhero movie because now we can.”—Zach Snyder [from the LA Times]
Watchmen—the original comic series—was the last word of any importance uttered on the phenomenon of the “Super-Hero.” While we are certainly living in the Age of the Superhero in terms of mass exposure and marketablility, until I saw Kick-Ass I wasn’t convinced that the figure still had a great deal of cultural relevance. No one had yet capitalized on the promise made by Watchmen back in 1986—real neurotic people in real spandex suits doing real dumb stuff.
Zach Snyder’s ambitious but pathetic adaptation of Watchmen, the close-but-no-cigar Hancock, and even Batman’s latest and best outing all sought to “deconstruct” the Superhero
mythology, but each one failed for two main reasons.
- With no critical distance they mythologized that which had already become myth and
- None of them were conscious enough of their historical position to comment on their own psychic significance.
In short they all suffer from Saving Private Ryan syndrome: ridiculous stories culled from the pages of pulp fiction mashed with a straight-face and lofty pretensions. Kick-Ass is fascinating precisely because it is hyper-aware of its role as comic-bo0k movie—previous attempts at this sort of satire were trying much too hard to be actual comic books come to life. To use an analogy:
Inglourious Basterds :: Saving Private Ryan as Kick-Ass :: The Dark Knight
Or an even better comparison would be Clint Eastwood’s classic revisionist Western Unforgiven. Like that 1992 horrorshow, Kick-Ass plays fast and loose with genre expectations over the course of a story arc that serves to demythologize its central figure in the first half and then remythologizes it in the second.
When Worlds Collide
Kick-Ass is the story of a high school Everyboy named Dave growing up in a New York City suburb. He’s alienated, talentless, and horny, but he’s also opitimistic and naïve so one day he decides to order a wet suit and fight crime—dubbing himself ‘Kick-Ass’. Along the way he gets beaten, stabbed, and famous, and then he meets the real stars of the movie—the “real” superheros: Damon AKA Big Daddy and Mindy AKA Hit Girl. Big Daddy’s an ex-cop framed by the film’s antagonist, a big-time gangster named Frank D’Amico. When he gets out of jail he trains his daughter like a Navy Seal and strategically deploys her against different aspects of D’Amico’s business. Hit Girl is the most talked about part of the film: she’s the most important character, she has all the best lines, and she absolutely steals the screen for every second she’s on it. By the end of the movie Kick-Ass has saved the day, gotten the girl, and learned a very important lesson, but it’s definitely the image of the purple-haired crime-fighting girl scout from Hell that sticks with you long after the credits roll.
“I always wondered why no one ever did it before me. I mean all those comic books, movies, TV shows…you’d think that one eccentric loner would’ve made himself a costume. I mean, is everday life really so exciting…am I the only one who ever fantasized about this?”
From its opening shots, Kick-Ass fucks with us by blurring the line between fantasy and reality. With the voiceover speaking profoundly and the music swelling, the audience is first invited to identify with the costumed avenger preparing to fly, and then we’re equally invited to laugh at his death a few seconds later. The massive controversy surrounding the film stems in large part from this anarchic attitude towards reality. A film like Kill Bill never leaves its own self-contained alternate universe of filmic tropes, but Kick-Ass takes place somewhere in between the “real” world and the world of comics and superheroes; on one hand this makes Hit Girl’s violence much more disturbing, but on the other, once you recognize her role as a character literally out of a comic, she’s much easier to contexualize.
“With no power comes no responsibility.”
The film’s central narrative about Dave’s coming-of-age is a deconstruction of the generic Superhero. He is
- powerless in every way
- Lacking a vengeance motive
- Conscious of the sociopathic nature of becoming a hero
Basically he’s a real human being trying to just throw on a suit and kick some ass. This part of the story is told extremely realistically, with maximum attention paid to versimillitude, and it has everything that a coming-of-age-story needs: a dead parent, excessive horniness, nerdy friends, a love interest, and the start of a “normal” life at the end. This is the film stripped of its superhero elements.
The scene in which we meet Mindy and her dad Damon falls immediately after Dave gets his wet suit, tries it on, and pulls a Generation-Y version of Taxi Driver in front of his bedroom mirror.
“It is not enough to say that the birds are part of the rational set-up of reality. It is rather as if a foreign dimension intrudes that literally tears apart reality. We humans are not naturally born into reality. In order for us to act as normal people, who interact with other people, who live in the space of social reality many things should happen like we should be properly installed in the symbolic order and so on. When our proper dwelling in a social space is disturbed reality disintergrates.”—Zizek in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema on Hitchcock’s The Birds.
“The Symbolic Order is the realm of language, signs, culture, and law”, and it’s something that we must be “installed” into. Taking our place as father/mother is usually the end of this journey, and our parents are the most important figures in the transition to the Symbolic realm. In Kick-Ass we see early on that Dave’s parents have not prepared him for the world of symbolic interaction. He is “invisible” to girls and seemingly invisible even to his father. Since the death of his mother all he’s learned is that “life just goes on”—an empty platitude devoid of psychological comfort, and he’s so unimpressed by the “rule of law” that he sees vigilante justice as a viable option for social action. He says that, “you can’t just reprogram yourself: what you want, who you are—your purpose in life—it is what it is,” but of course this is exactly what he tries to do—forcefully and at great personal risk. As he tries to assert some control over the world of chaos around him, we watch as he fails over and over again.
Hit Girl bursts into Dave’s life at its lowest point. Up to now the most “successful” he’s been was still allowing a guy to be beaten within an inch of his life. Now he’s confronting a drug dealer that’s been bothering his potential love interest, and true to his form he’s about to be stabbed to death when Hit Girl arrives with the theme song to the popular ’60s children cartoon The Banana Splits roaring behind her. She, an 11-year old girl, absolutely decimates everyone in the room while the chipper retro TV theme jaunces in the background.
That TV theme is crucial, and part of a larger framework of stylistic devices used to designate Hit Girl and Big Daddy as Phantastic projections of Dave’s unconscious.
- the unrealistic nature of having a tiny little girl kill dozens of huge thugs
- the slow motion, controlled camera, and flashy Matrix esque CGI during their (but not Kick Ass’s) fights
- Big Daddy’s self-penned comic version of their life
- the unique-to-them 3D comic book section explaining their origins
- The Kick-Ass comic book we see at the end, penned by Millar—the actual comic’s author
All of these textual devices serve to reinforce what is obvious from even a cursory viewing of Kick-Ass—Hit Girl and Big Daddy have no place in the “real world.” In fact, when confronted with all his dead thugs, D’Amico can’t even believe that one lone figure of any age or gender could take out all those men. No, like all superheroes they’re fantasies projected out of their lonely disaffected reader’s mind.
Just consider Hit Girl and Big Daddy’s origins. Dave makes a point of telling us that “if you’re hoping for some ‘I WILL AVENGE YOU MOTHER!’ You’re out of luck.” So he reassures us that his becoming a superhero has nothing to do with his mother’s death, but then we meet Hit Girl and learn that her mother is also dead.
With Daddy in prison his pregnant wife was all alone and could not cope…out of her death, Mindy was born.
On screen this is visualized literally; the mother’s life-line on the EKG dies, and Mindy’s heartbeat starts from that same dead line. Mindy was borne, literally, out of her mother’s death. In their comic story, it’s almost like Mindy is the living embodiment of Big Daddy’s desire for revenge, but in the larger narrative of Kick-Ass she represent’s Dave’s desire to change the world for the better. Dave’s an extremely noble character, who’s sense of duty is pure. He shows this in the scene where he’d rather die than let three beat up one , and Hit Girl is a little girl partially because his sense of justice is so pure and innocent. That’s why when he pulls on the uniform for the first time he is ignorant to the fact that the results of his superhero game are the kind of murder and mayhem that Hit Girl specializes in.
“Hit Girl and Big Daddy—they were the real deal. Me? I was just a stupid dick in a wet suit.”
The seeming realism of the film’s central fantasy: what would it be like to be a “real-life superhero” —is a great example of the symbolic cancer that is today eating away at our collective imaginations. The point of superheroes was never to inspire real people to go out and act like characters out of sensationalist chapbooks, but to inspire the reader’s imagination into reflecting on ideas like justice, vengeance, honor, and social responsibility.
The relationship between the Superhero and their public is the same as that between Parent and Child. The parent has powers beyond the imagination of the child, the parent establishes the values of justice and social order, the parent has all the answers and knows who the bad-guys are, but the child isn’t supposed to become the parent. For instance a male child does not push the Father out and assume the sexual responsibilities with his mother when he reaches maturity; he isn’t supposed to take the exact same career path as his father either. He goes out and establishes his own place in the social reality. When you’re reading a Golden Age Superhero comic you’re supposed to see the Heroes as role models in a traditional parental sense. These are “people” whose values should become your values, but whose exact actions will not be your actions.
We need superheros because the world is unfair. It shouldn’t be necessary to point this out, but the hand-wringers seem confused on this point. In the real world the good guys don’t actually come out on top. The values your parents give you are a sham. The world runs on greed and lust and lies and it ain’t ever gonna change. More so than Horror, Pornography, or Melodrama, Superhero Fiction is a redemptively cathartic genre that embodies all the repressed angst in our culture. It used to come in Action vehicles with little pretense to comic stylings like Conan, Rambo, and Terminator—all films that portray worlds in which elites control the resources and an underdog outsider just won’t take it anymore; superhero fiction takes it a step further by portraying the heroes correcting specifically societal ills as opposed to the purely personal vendettas of your typical action hero.
Kick-Ass is one of the best films of the 21st Century because it recontextualizes the superhero back into fantasy where it belongs. Movies like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen tried to portray a world in which superheroes “really exist,” but they come across as alternate realities—not the same world that has YouTube, Barack Obama, and Gogurt. There’s a really simple reason for that; as Dave’s friend Todd points out in Kick-Ass, “because it’s fucking impossible.” The solution was to portray the “real world” with real fake superheroes in it. While anyone can see the realism of Dave et al, no one could reasonably argue the realism of Mindy or her dad, and what’s most important—no one would want to.