The Top Five Most ‘Okay’ Superhero Movies: Kick-Ass
The Internet is full of lists on “The Top Five Best Superhero Movies” (anything you saw as a kid) and “The Top Five Worst Superhero Movies” (anything you saw as an adult). But here at Fempop, we know what people really want to know: “What are the superhero movies that are just okay?”
Here’s a special case. You have some people going that Kick-Ass is the greatest thing since sliced bread, while other people are pointing out that sliced bread isn’t that great, it’s not like it ever saved anyone’s life or anything, in fact what was so bad about just ripping off a chunk of bread and putting it in your mouth? Nothing. I don’t mean to come off too harsh on you haters, because I agree with you too. Kick-Ass is a movie that is so bad that even one of its big supporters had to write an article about how, no, it actually did have a theme and a character arc. Not really something that strikes me as the mark of a good movie.
But before we begin our “eh, it wasn’t so bad” and “meh, it’s not so great,” let’s take the time to divorce Kick-Ass from its creator, Mark Millar, who wrote the comic book it’s based on with artist John Romita, Jr. Mark Millar is contentious in comic book fandom because, well, he’s what I can only describe as an anti-writer. He’s tended to do a lot to popularize the Rotten.com-ization of modern comics. He’s sort of the Michael Bay of graphic art, only you get the feeling that Michael Bay actually does think it’s really cool that he’s (doing a shitty job of) directing a movie about giant explosions and robots hitting each other. Mark Millar writes comics aimed at an audience he despises, berating them for reading this tripe even as he puts it out there. It’s genuinely odd, and makes you wonder what the affect it has on a man’s psyche to realize he probably can only make living pumping out sick jokes of writing that lack hearts, minds, or themes.
What’s worse is that Millar’s shameless self-promotion has gotten him a few movie adaptations. They tend to completely bah-lete much of his writing to go off on their own tangent. Wanted was a comic about world-ruling supervillains who war among themselves like crime families, while the movie becomes the story of superhuman assassins who follow the orders of a psychic loom to kill would-be nasties. Being generous, you could say the comic was a satire of its hero, using all the raping and killing he does to set up the eventual reveal that he’s not a cool guy, but the kind of stuck-up jerk who would disdain the kind of person who willingly read about him, and everyone else for that matter. Wanted the movie does away with that and says no, really, this stupid fuck is an honest-to-Campbell hero. Let’s bring back Angelina Jolie for the sequel!
If the Wanted movie is at least “true” to the comic’s subtext and atmosphere, Kick-Ass takes the surface details of its comic and completely abandons the subtext of deconstructing superhero comics to become a reconstruction. But, much like Prometheus being a collaboration between Ridley Scott’s Old Testament view of God and Damon Lindelof’s New-Age vague positivism, the end result is more uneven than interesting. But in both Wanted and Kick-Ass, Millar leads the cheerleading squad on projects that completely eschew whatever thematic point he was trying to make.
But let’s not hold that against Kick-Ass. There’s plenty to hold against it on its own.
The movie starts off with smarmy narration where protagonist Dave makes fun of comic book tropes like him being out to avenge his dead mother. Then it introduces Hit-Girl, who is out to avenge her dead mother. The entire movie is like this.
The point is made that Dave has no superpowers, then he gets metal bones and damaged nerve endings, effectively giving him low-rent superpowers—only these never come into play. During a beatdown, he even narrates “Despite my damaged nerve endings, this really hurt!” So… that was worth spending time on.
I could go on in that vein, but it’s be far more effective to zero in on the movie’s real minus. The story has no idea what it’s doing about Dave. He starts off in a seemingly commendable fashion. Dressed up as a superhero, he tries to stop street crime. When there’s no street crime to be found, he looks for a lost cat (the script has more of this, with him helping small children and carrying groceries, but since it didn’t involve graphic violence or swearing, it was cut). Then when he stumbles across a gang beating someone up, he defends the victim and asks why he’s the crazy one for doing something instead of standing around watching someone being assaulted.
That… doesn’t seem so far out of whack. If he weren’t in a green wetsuit, you’d applaud the sentiment. Then he meets Hit-Girl and Big Daddy (the movie’s timely parody of Batman and Robin; yes, isn’t it ridiculous how Christian Bale and a teen boy in a brightly-colored costume run around fighting Heath Ledger? Wait, that didn’t happen? Huh). The movie falls apart. Dave, our sympathetic everydude, sees a preadolescent girl slashing apart all comers (including a random hooker who’s just trying to glee) and his first reaction is “Cool!”
He immediately sees himself as a phony and wants to emulate the “real deal.” Maybe this is meant to mirror the audience’s reaction, but there’s a complete lack of humanity in it. It’s like someone seeing an African child soldier and thinking how cool they look holding a gun. Any idea that the movie is criticizing how Big Daddy has raised Hit-Girl is undone by the protagonist and narrator saying it’s awesome. The movie’s criticism of Robin the Boy Wonder becomes not “he’s a small child fighting crime,” but “he should swear more and kill people with swords.”
So, is Dave a naïve but well-meaning innocent who becomes corrupted by Big Daddy and Hit-Girl? No again. Him buying into their BS and helping Hit-Girl slaughter scores of thugs is treated as him becoming a true hero. In trying to be both a reconstruction and deconstruction of superheroes, Kick-Ass ends up saying that what’s wrong with superhero fiction is that it isn’t violent or mean-spirited enough—something a quick visit to the comic book shop would be quick to dispel.
What really galls is that it’s not like superhero fiction is beyond criticism, even in this age of realism. There’s this huge debate on sexism that almost defines superhero comics; you hardly ever see a controversy that isn’t over a female character, not that comics’ treatment of minorities or homosexuality is so great either. But Kick-Ass, in positioning itself as a parody of the genre, doesn’t touch on this at all. Aside from Hit-Girl, a wholly sexless character, we have Katie, Lyndsy Fonseca’s character.
She’s Dave’s love interest and the movie basically gives them a teen sex comedy relationship. Through a series of hilarious misunderstandings, she comes to think he’s gay and he goes along with it to be close to her, completely with “so close, yet so far away” vignettes like him helping her apply body lotion. I suppose it’s no different than the relationships in comedies like She’s The Man or Soul Man, where the love interest falls in love with the hero under false pretenses. Usually, though, there’s an ulterior motive. She’s The Man, Amanda Bynes is trying to make a point about soccer. It’s just a coincidence that she falls for Channing Tatum while she’s pretending to be a man. I mean, how could you not?
In Kick-Ass, the whole point of the gay thing is to cozy up to Katie. And there is a big apology after he’s “unmasked,” just like how Amanda Bynes apologized to Channing Tatum, but the movie breezes over the wrongness of what Dave’s done by having Katie hear his apology and immediately decide that, hey, not only is she into him, but she wants to have sex right that minute. Forget the jetpack and the eleven-year-old doing judo, that’s unbelievable. And don’t tell me she’s getting all sexy because he’s Kick-Ass, TV Tropes, because when she thinks he’s going to quit, she’s ecstatic. If she were just into him for the shallow reason of him being a superhero, would that really be her response? No, the movie means for us to see these two as genuinely being into each other.
Katie is just a completely ridiculous character, even by comic standards. I’m not asking for her to dump Dave and then get back at him by sending a photo of her giving a black guy a blowjob (yes, the comic did specify it was an African-American gentleman, because Mark Millar). But is it too much to ask that she be treated as a real character and not just some T&A that gets dangled in Dave’s face, and maybe not go from zero to sexy time in six seconds? I gotta think if I told my editor that this whole column was just to get close to her, the panties would not instantly drop. (Wait, would they? I only ask rhetorically.) (Editor’s Note: They would.) You can’t really scrape the bottom of the barrel for female plotlines and then turn around, point at Lois Lane, Mary Jane Watson, Barbara Gordon, and Wonder Woman, going “Oh, that’s so dumb. A woman immediately having sex with someone who admitted to lying his way into her affections, that’s good writing.”
The thing is, as daft as Mark Millar’s deconstruction of the genre is, the actual reconstruction of the superhero movie works fairly well. It’s a B-movie, and as a straight-up superhero movie it can’t touch films with actually likable characters or menacing villains (while as a deconstruction it runs headlong into Watchmen, and the actual superhero movies themselves tend to send up or delete their more risible canon). But the spectacle of Chloe Moretz flipping around icing dudes, meaningless as it is, is fun. Nic Cage riffs on Adam West, which is even more overdone than mocking Christian Bale’s Batvoice, but still. Nicolas Cage. Adam West. And the Red Mist storyline, where Dave befriends and then antagonizes the villain’s son, is actually a well-done take-off on the Harry Osborn storyline, even with the sympathetic Chris’s first act as a villain being the shooting of an eleven-year-old girl, followed by him pleading for Dave’s life. Seems a bit skewed, that.
Plus, I’ll give points for having Mark Strong as the villain and not making him a sinister Englishman who speaks in a low, malevolent tone like he’s thinking of running for Sheriff of Nottingham.
So, taken as just a dumb superhero movie, works. It’s pretentious, dumb when it thinks it’s sly, and not nearly as incisive as it wants to be, but once you take away the subtext, there’s some there there. Which seems fitting, when it comes to Mark Millar.