Yes, I know it’s been a while since Kick-Ass played the theaters. But I only just caught it on Blu-Ray, and it led me to think long and hard about superhero movies — thoughts I felt worth sharing with you. Here’s why I didn’t like Kick-Ass and why I generally don’t like superhero movies:
As you probably already know, Kick-Ass is a film about a ragtag group of would-be superheroes who circumvent the legal system and dish out just-rewards. Roger Ebert called the film, “morally reprehensible.” Peter Travers dismissed Ebert and others who were bothered by the film’s tone as “prudes” and “moralists,” strangely blaming its failure on their criticism.
The depiction of violence in film doesn’t really bother me. When I was 11 years old, I sculpted various dismembered body parts out of Sculpey clay, complete with blood and jutting bones. I entered them in a local “everyone gets accepted” art show and got rejected, disturbing the judge so much that he met with me and my mother to vent his “concerns.” I couldn’t understand where he was coming from. I thought the pieces just looked cool.
What does bother me is tone — how the elements of sound, editing, lighting, and acting can come together to infuse violence (or anything) with a hardy stamp of approval. And the message that Kick-Ass delivered to me is that it’s ok to deal with your problems with a sharp sword. Don’t be afraid. Don’t take shit. Administer punishment. Regret nothing. Escape consequences.
11 year old Hit Girl slices through a band of drug dealers with gleeful abandon, apparently smug in her own authority as judge, jury, and executioner. Never mind that the drug dealers were mostly inner city African Americans and that Hit Girl was a white, middle-class, heavily-sheltered little girl. That’s an entire book of essays in itself. More to the point is her complete lack of empathy, her immense feelings of superiority, her profound sense of injustice, and her compulsion to make things right by any means necessary. Folks, that’s the description of a psychopath. You could say the same of Eric Harris, Idi Amin, and Chairman Mao. The difference is that we’re meant to root for Hit Girl, hang her poster on our wall.
Well, it’s satire, isn’t it? But what exactly is it satirizing? Is the meta-within-meta-within-meta flying straight over my head? Travers says the filmmakers were, “neatly subverting the comic book genre, letting fantasy bleed into reality.” If that was their intentions, then they failed miserably. Fantasy bled into fantasy. The filmmakers got quite a lot right about reality (enough to counter any “this is cartoon violence” arguments), but they got a few details glaringly wrong: guilt, remorse, consequences. Death has weight.*
I wonder if the filmmakers have ever had a brush with death. Roger Ebert definitely has. There was a moment just a few years ago when I was sure I was experiencing my last few moments of life, that I wouldn’t be alive when the ambulance arrived. And the experience completely altered the way I view everything. It isn’t prudishness that informs Ebert’s appraisal of Kick-Ass; it’s his first-hand experience that life is fragile, impermanent, and precious.**
Excessive violence can work in a film when the violence serves something. Battle Royale is a book and film about high school students who are forced to kill each other for national sport. It’s every bit as gory as Kick-Ass, but Battle Royale works because the satire is on point and we’re never meant to believe the killing is an easy moral choice for the protagonists. (The book was better than the film, and I can’t help but feel there’s a stronger adaptation waiting to be made.)
Kick-Ass‘s amoral tone is hardly the only rip in its hull. The film is clunky and sophomoric. The script (which Travers calls intelligent) begins with the favorite technique of the amateur scriptwriter: an opening narration by the main character, the gist of which is always: “Hi, my name is (insert name of unpopular schmo). That’s (spoken wistfully, insert name of impossibly beautiful girl with no other qualities). She doesn’t know I exist!”
But I’m drifting away from my provocative title. Why don’t I like most superhero movies? Watching Kick-Ass crystallized it for me. Superhero movies (with some exceptions) glorify and pedestal-ize the heroes, who are by their very nature morally-suspect. In the case of movies like Kick-Ass, the heroes circumvent the system, chucking the long, hard, and boring path to justice for a dash of danger and a blind eye to pesky repercussions. One terrible act should be punished with another, and by virtue of freakish super power, scientific genius, or monumental ego, our hero is just the man for the job! These heroes are the cinematic equivalent of that douchebag who flew past you on the highway at 100 miles an hour.
On the other extreme, there are the superhero movies which tell us we are helpless, huddled masses who can’t function without a sleepless sentinel. We are incapable of coming together and solving our own problems. Theses heroes are our methadone, and woe be to us when the supply runs out. (I’m starting to sound like the supporting villain.)
There there are the ones which mask a societal problem through metaphor. Perhaps they are based on 60s comics which, because of prevailing opinion or censorship, had to deal with such issues in code. That may have been necessary at the time, but not today. It’s far braver to make a commentary that puts a mirror to our faces. Tell the African American actor that you’re passing him up for the lead in your sweeping criticism on racism in America today in favor of a quirky, rich white guy in one-piece leotard.
Most superhero films are guilty of one, two, or all three of these critiques. The Dark Knight is the exception I can think of at the moment. Bale’s Batman is certainly guilty of my first two criticisms, but director Christopher Nolan doesn’t ask us to ride shotgun. I don’t feel the lighting, editing, and musical score are cloying at me to actually like the hero. We are mere observers who watch the protagonist struggle (and nearly drown) in his own set of moral codes.
So again, I suppose it comes down to tone. Is the message one of propaganda, fetishism, or something deeper? Or is any given popcorn flick just that — a popcorn flick — so obvious in its fantasy world that only a hoity-toity art critic would takes offense from what really, “just looks cool.”
*Here are some examples of how fantasy meets actual reality. To the drug dealer he approaches in the clip, Dark Guardian is about as intimidating as a circus clown. (Ok, circus clowns ARE intimidating. Bad example.)
**Don’t get me wrong: Having a near-death experience gives one no special authority. Nor am I suggestion that everyone who has one will necessarily agree with me. I am merely trying to describe something that informs my perspective.
Tony Youngblood is the current Foursquare Mayor of the Belcourt Theatre, a film and music snob, and producer of the experimental improv music blog and podcast Theatre Intangible. His favorite films include Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Abbass Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap.