Kick-Ass and Real Life Superheroes

“Kick-Ass” is a new movie that came out last Friday here in the U.S. It’s based on a comic book by the same name that features a high school student who decides to become a superhero in real life by donning a costume and going on patrol to fight crime.

I’m a big fan of superhero movies. I’m also a Real Life Superhero. Naturally, I was eager to check this out. Now, I’m equally eager to talk about it. First, I’ll talk about the movie itself. (Spoiler Alert!) Then, I’ll talk about the implications for the Real Life Superhero movement and society at large.

Kick-Ass was both entertaining and high-quality. I’ll admit when I enjoy a trashy movie purely for it’s entertainment value rather than any artistic or literary qualities. This film, however, did have its moments of glory and ended up being a good movie overall.

For those of you who are still biased against superhero films, allow me to explain.

First of all, I really liked the way it explored the dynamic tension between a realistic and unrealistic portrayal of superheroes in real life. The story as a whole was grounded in a reality-based continuity, but there were two strands pulling it in opposite directions.

The main character, Kick-Ass, was more realistic, and human, and fallible, and vulnerable. His origin story was simple and believable, and he was constantly bringing humanity and realism back into the story by suffering wounds, having doubts, making mistakes, being frustrated, and responding to serious threats by panicking, thinking about loved ones, and wanting to just go back to an ordinary life. This was the most realistic big screen portrayal that I’ve ever seen of an otherwise ordinary person who chooses to put on a costume/uniform and go on crime-fighing patrols.

The “dynamic duo,” Hit Girl and Big Daddy, were about as much like comic book superheroes (anti-heroes?) as they could be in a setting that was committed to a fairly strict realism. Their back story is an interesting, but deeply stereotypical, revenge story straight from the comics. The entire exposition of that story is revealed through an animated comic sequence, which stressed the fact that the back story is intentionally lifted from comic book reality. Their fascinating but bizarre relationship, their fanatical arsenal, their exceptional martial abilities, and their cold and calculating approach to killing criminals all pull us into viewing this as a comic book story.

Through this dynamic tension, Kick-Ass shows us what the consequences of a fairly realistic approach to being a superhero would be like, while Hit Girl and Big Daddy show us what would happen if we unleashed the madness of ultraviolent comic book reality into an otherwise real world setting.

If a skeptical viewer doesn’t “get” this tension, it may seem like the characters are just a mish-mash of varying degrees of realism, and thus it may seem like any other sloppy action movie plot. But really, the often subtle interplay between these two threads is what really made the movie for me.

As a movie, then, I not only thoroughly enjoyed it, but also thought it was very well-done.

With that said, I have a few comments on the implications of this movie on real life and the Real Life Superhero movement.

First of all, Kick-Ass is not a realistic portrayal of the Real Life Superhero movement. For anyone out there who can’t distinguish between Hollywood and reality, I repeat: Kick-Ass is not a realistic portrayal of the Real Life Superhero movement.

Hit Girl and Big Daddy are obviously extreme comic book characters who have been translated into obviously extreme action movie characters. Hopefully, no sane person is going to go out there and emulate their approach to crimefighting. But even Kick-Ass, who is the anchor of realism among these superheroes, is not quite like what Real Life Superheroes do.

The street patrols are good, and there are some great moments like the training scenes, the lost cat search, and the soda at the convenience store that seemed like real moments in the life of a superhero. But at times Kick-Ass adopts the attitude of a vigilante rather than a more responsible and law-abiding crimefighter.

On the one hand, this attitude is definitely realistic for an inexperienced teenager who is doing this on his own. There are surely some people out there like him who will walk up to criminals and pick a fight with them. Kick-Ass, then, is arguably the first on-screen portrayal of a Real Life Superhero. But if Kick-Ass were on one of the Real Life Superhero message boards, he’d have people advising him to tone down the attitude!

Not all Real Life Superheroes are crimefighters. I, for example, support local community groups and charities and have no plans in the near future to do a neighborhood watch patrol. But the Real Life Superheroes who ARE crimefighters usually act a lot more like neighborhood watch members than vigilantes. They keep an eye out for crime and call the police when they encounter it. Their goal is to avoid and minimize violence rather than go around kicking the asses of criminals. Like anyone else, they have the right to self-defense if they are attacked while conducting a neighborhood watch. Like anyone else, they have the right to defend someone else who is being attacked. In some cities and states, they even have a right (like anyone else) to perform a “citizen’s arrest” and detain an alleged criminal until the police arrive. They do not, however, go out and threaten or beat up criminals. Whenever anyone on the forums I’ve been to starts talking about that kind of behavior, red flags go up, and people start to object.

I give this movie tremendous credit, however, for at least trying to present Kick-Ass’ Real Life Superhero adventure in a realistic manner for most of the movie. The initial stabbing scene shows what is likely to happen if an inexperienced person walks up to petty criminals who are committing a crime and tries to use threats and force to stop them. They will probably get stabbed or shot, and the perps will probably flee to avoid capture. Also, in the fight that won him his fame, I really like the fact that he told the witness to go call 911. He stumbled onto that fight accidentally, and his goal in fighting was clearly just to protect the victim while waiting for the police to arrive. This is very fair — and while Real Life Superheroes thankfully don’t end up in that brutal of a fight very often, there have been times when they’ve had to physically defend people from attackers. As long as they’re not the ones picking the fight, this is generally within the boundaries of the law. I thought that the scene where Kick-Ass stands over the prone body of the victim and says he would die to protect him is one of the most intense and real scenes of genuine superhero bravado that I’ve ever seen in a movie.

So, even the most realistic character, and the one who serves the most as a role model and source of identification for the viewer, has tendencies toward vigilantism rather than responsible neighborhood watch. Even so, I think this exploration of being a Real Life Superhero is definitely worth watching. When he strays into vigilantism, he suffers serious consequences. When he draws the attention of powerful criminals, he suffers serious consequences. And when he encounters ultraviolence, he is horrified. The only real gap in this is his role in the final battle, which he was really only drawn into by the over-the-top comic-book plot arch of Big Daddy and Hit Girl.

Before I end this blog, I do want to mention one more thing about the movie’s portrayal of diversity.

Sadly, the movie succumbs to the almost unavoidable Hollywood perpetuation of “isms” — in this case, sexism, racism, and heterosexism.

Hit Girl is the only developed female character, and she’s a tween who has been turned into a ruthless killer. Her mother is dead, as is Kick-Ass’ mother. The only other female characters who receive any attention are Kick-Ass’ teacher and girlfriend, both of whom mostly exist for his sexual gratification. The girlfriend, at least, has some interesting character twists, but probably wouldn’t stand as a character in her own right. The female characters aren’t necessarily one-dimensional, but with the exception of Hit Girl, I don’t think they make it past two dimensional, and mostly exist for the male characters.

The perpetual portrayal of Italians as mafiosos is not surprising, and a little bit predictable and annoying, but perhaps forgivable since the mafia does in fact exist and is composed of Italians. On the other hand, I didn’t see why the “petty criminals” had to be people of color, and why none of the superheroes were. Either fact in isolation may have seemed okay, but both in conjunction seemed a bit unsettling It felt to me like some of the usual unconscious racism that often appears in the corporate media.

Finally, I was a little uneasy with the whole subplot surrounding rumors that Kick-Ass was gay, and subsequent interactions with his female friend (and eventual girl friend). On the one hand, it definitely fit with the context of how straight teenagers think about and talk about their own and each other’s orientations. On the other hand, since all of the characters are straight, it raises the question without having any real portrayals of a gay or lesbian character to serve as a resolution. Of course, not every movie can tackle every issue — but it’s a point worth noting and talking about.

Since these points are common themes in almost all movies that come out of Hollywood, they didn’t really distract or detract much from my enjoyment or appreciation of the film. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but there it is. I had to at least mention something about them, though, if only to spark thought and discussion on portrayals of gender and race and sexual orientation in the corporate media.

Anyway, this movie response has gone on far too long, and I must sleep. In conclusion, I would say that the movie is entertaining, well-written, and definitely good food for thought in terms of what Real Life Superheroes are (and aren’t) like.

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VILLAIN WATCH: 20 April 2010

Welcome to the first edition of Villain Watch!

Villain Watch is a weekly review of ominous ecological and social justice news stories. Each edition starts with a short introduction followed by several News and Action links. The message of Villain Watch is that each of us has the power to make the world a better place, no matter how grim the situation may be.

Be a hero! Act now in defense of our lives, our health, our freedom, and the Earth!

NEWS

Banking on Dirty Energy

One of the biggest environmental disasters in recent history is happening in our own country, and JP Morgan Chase is financing it – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

JP Morgan Chase is the largest US bank financing mountaintop removal coal mining, which literally involves blowing the tops off historic Appalachian Mountains and poisoning drinking water to extract a relatively small amount of dirty coal.

ACTION

Talk to Chase in Your Community

Tell Chase to stop funding destructive mountaintop removal coal mining. Rainforest Action Network is calling for actions to stop Chase’s financing of the destruction of the Appalachian mountains. We are now looking to team with you in pressuring Chase out of the MTR business.

NEWS

Texas Education Board Approves Conservative Curriculum Changes By Far-Right

“A far-right faction of the Texas State Board of Education succeeded in injecting conservative ideals into social studies, history and economics lessons that will be taught to millions of students for the next decade.”

ACTION

Stand Up To The Texas Taliban

Since Texas is one of the largest textbook markets in the country, material written to cater to the Texas curricula will find its way into textbooks across the country unless textbook publishers take a stand.

We can’t allow a small group of extreme ideologues on the Texas State Board of Education to re-write history. Tell textbook publishers to stand up to the Texas Taliban.

ACTION

Study and Teach:
People’s History of the United States [text]
People’s History of the United States [book]

“A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn is a comprehensive overview of United States history from the perspective of everyday people. It covers a great deal of important material left out by most high school and college level history curriculum. It can be used as a textbook or as reference material.

NEWS

Supreme Court Shreds Campaign-Finance Laws, Lifts Corporate Spending Restrictions

In a sweeping 5-4 ruling, the US Supreme Court on Thursday struck down several longstanding prohibitions on corporate political contributions, saying legislative measures to control such spending infringed upon corporate First Amendment free speech rights.

ACTION

Pass Legislation to Get Corporate Money Out of Politics

Sign our petition to President Obama and the Congressional leadership telling them they must enact strong laws to save our democracy from the pernicious influence of corporate money.

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Foundations of Philosophy of Politics

What is philosophy of politics?

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, is the deepening of our understanding of the world. Politics, the practice of citizenship, is the development of relationships between members of a society. Philosophy of politics, then, is the deepening of our understanding of the development of relationships between members of a society.

A purely theoretical and value-neutral approach to philosophy of politics merely seeks to understand what the different types of political relationships and philosophies are and how or why they come into existence. It makes no judgments as to which relationships and philosophies are better or how people can transform political relationships for the better.

I, on the other hand, seek a very practical and normative understanding of philosophy of politics. Yes, we must start by understanding what the different relationships and philosophies are and how and why they come into being. Our inquiry into these questions, though, should be guided by an overarching goal to discover our greatest potential as political beings and develop strategies to make that potential more manifest in the world.

In other words, our primary goal in the study of philosophy of politics should be the creation of a good society.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that there’s only one type of good society, or that we should come up with some abstract idea of what society should be like and hack away at the rough edges of our society until it fits into the box we’ve created for it. It does, however, mean that we can — and must — use our innate capacity for reason and observation to take a step back, take a look at our society, and do our best to understand why it is how it is today and what we can do to make it better.

Human Nature

Philosophy in general addresses many complex and difficult questions. When attempting to develop a “Theory of Everything” that describes the nature of the entire world, it’s hard for anyone to know where to start, where to finish, and what to do along the way.

Luckily, philosophy of politics is a more narrow discipline.

In theory, we still need to answer all of those messy questions about the nature of being, the acquisition of knowledge, and the ascription of value (moral, ethical, aesthetic, or otherwise). In practice, there is one question that usually if not always serves as the foundation for any exploration of the philosophy of politics.

What is human nature?

Once this question is answered, there are many other questions that a political philosopher must answer. Most if not all of these questions, however, have their roots in this one.

(Of course, if we encounter other self-aware creatures with whom we can debate philosophy of politics, we will need to expand this question. In the meantime, since everyone who can read this article is presumably a human being, the question at hand is the nature of human beings.)

In this article, I’m going to make some bold assertions about human nature. I believe that these assertions are, where possible, born out by empirical evidence and reasonable conclusions that we can draw based on this evidence. If you disagree with one of these premises, that would certainly be a simple way to dispute the soundness of my overall argument. However, for the sake of argument, here are my assumptions:

  • Humans are social animals. Yes, we can go for long periods of time without human contact, and some humans seem to prefer doing so. Some of us also exhibit decidedly anti-social behavior. However, a human infant would be hard-pressed to survive without the aid of a parent or parents, and our species seems to have put a great deal of evolutionary effort into developing social traits such as speech, empathy, and an almost universal desire for human companionship. Therefore, humans are in general social animals by nature.
  • Humans are individualistic animals. This doesn’t contradict the above statement. It merely reflects the complexity of human nature. As one of the few deeply self-aware animals on Earth, we are uniquely gifted with the capacity to see ourselves as discreet individuals and act in pursuit of our own rational self-interest rather than purely in response to instinctual drives.
  • Humans possess an innate potential to reason. Depending on our age, health, education level, and other factors, our capacity for reason may vary. In general, however, we as a species have the innate potential and frequent tendency to attempt to make sense of the world by considering how we can draw valid conclusions from our observations of the world around us.
  • Humans are political animals. Aristotle famously said as much, and I tend to agree. I see this as a consequence of the above three points. We are social; we are individuals; we think about the world. Therefore, we think and talk about how we as individuals relate to each other in a social environment.
  • Humans possess an innate potential for freewill. We are self-aware and reasoning creatures. These two traits combined empower us to recognize that we are distinct individuals and can act in the manner of our choosing.
  • Humans possess an innate potential for social cooperation. This is not to say that we are destined to live in peace and harmony for the rest of our days. It does, however, mean that on some level, we want to cooperate and have the capacity to develop the social, intellectual, and emotional skills required to do so.
  • Humans possess an innate potential to choose freely to engage in mutually beneficial forms of social cooperation. We can debate until the ends of time whether there is some inherently flawed, sinful, or otherwise unfortunate aspect of human nature that drives us to desire things that are harmful to other people, or that benefit us at the expense of other people. In the end, however, this questions is largely irrelevant. The more important questions is this: can we as human beings choose freely to engage in forms of mutually beneficial forms of social cooperation? I say yes. If I’m wrong, then we’re all locked in a “zero-sum” game where people seek to better their situation at the expense of those around them. If that’s the case, then I see little point in engaging in philosophy of politics, or seeking to create a better society.
  • Humans are adaptive and malleable. All of the above describes the most basic potentials and general tendencies of human nature. They are a fairly predictable and reliable part of our evolutionary heritage. However, we are not ideal forms floating around in some realm of ideal forms. We are also not physical manifestations of ideal forms. We are living organisms — and though we are structured in such a way that most of us tend to share certain innate potentials and behavioral tendencies, there is no cosmic law saying that we will all live up to those potentials, or that those potentials will never change. Individual, social, environmental, genetic, or other forces may result in changes to these potentials and how they manifest in the world. The bad news about this is that potentials and tendencies that we consider desirable can possibly be reduced or eliminated. The good news is that those potentials and tendencies that we consider desirable can also be promoted or maximized. In other words, society in general may one day be better or worse than it is today based on our choices in regards to the evolutionary development of human nature. Do we choose to favor our innate potential for free cooperation, or do we choose to squander it?
  • Human nature, and thus the philosophy of politics, can be fully understood through our nature as human animals. Personally, I have strong spiritual beliefs about human nature and the nature of the world that go far beyond what is outlined above. However, I believe that whatever else we may or may not be, we are in this moment human beings, and human beings are a particular species of animal that possesses the traits described above, among others. Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, the above should serve as an accurate description of several of our crucial innate potentials as human beings. Therefore, it serves as a solid foundation for the philosophy of politics.

Toward a Good Society

As I said earlier, there isn’t just one ideal “Good Society” that all humans should be striving for. There are many good societies, and many bad societies, and all real societies are somewhere in between. The project of philosophy of politics is to understand what the most general traits of a good society are, to discover strands of those traits that already exist in our society, and to encourage the further development of those positive strands for the benefit of both individuals and the society as a whole.

This is no small task. And yet, in our own way, every time we address a political issue, we are working on this task. When we comment or act on an issue of public policy, we are hopefully trying to create a better society. The goal of philosophy of politics is to deepen our understanding of what politics is and how we can engage in it for the mutual benefit of all. This is, of course, an ideal goal that can never be fully realized, especially since there is no one ideal “Good Society” that we are developing toward. However, the process of examining and transforming our political relationships is as close to a utopian society as our complex, organic, dynamic species can achieve.

In my next article, I will explore what I consider to be the qualities of a good society. Once again, there is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all blueprint for creating a good society. Each society needs to develop its own institutions and structures that are rooted in its history, culture, and other particular and highly variable circumstances. However, I believe that there are a few broad qualities that many, most, or perhaps even all good societies will possess. I don’t believe that any one person, or group of people for that matter, is fully qualified to make such an assessment. However, I believe that applying our capacity for reason to the analysis of our political relationships, and working to improve those relationships, is a part of what it means to be political animals who desire to live in a good society. Therefore, I intend to do what I can in this area and hope for the best.

After I’ve described what I see as some of the broadest and most universal qualities of a good society, I intend to write several articles on particular issues that we in the United States of America are currently facing. The arguments that I make in these articles will be rooted in the foundational principles described in this article and the qualities of a good society described in the next article. My goal with these single issue articles, however, will be very practical. There will, of course, be some theoretical discussion of how a “Good Society” would address these issues. However, my main goal in those articles, and in this entire series, is to promote thoughtful and effective action to transform our society for the better. Given that goal, practical arguments about actions that we can take right now as an individual, as communities, and as a society will take precedence over any consideration of what would or could be an “ideal” way of doing things.

I expect that my single-issue articles will draw the most comments. However, in the meantime, your comments on these Foundations of Philosophy of Politics would be greatly appreciated.

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Philosophy of Politics

The political sphere in the U.S. at the moment is full of lively debate. Health care, climate change, same-sex marriage, war, and a variety of other topics are leading to increasingly contentious clashes between various social movements, large economic and political institutions, and various political parties and perspectives. So far, most of my response to this has consisted of scattered piecemeal commentary on single issues as they come up on Facebook or elsewhere. The time has come, however, for a more comprehensive analysis of the situation.

Revolution of One was my first effort at a comprehensive approach to politics. My focus in that book, however, is almost purely practical. The book outlines a simple but powerful strategy that individuals and communities who believe in ecological and social justice can use to empower themselves, improve their communities, and create a better society. Rather than making arguments in favor of that sort of society, it describes personal practices, community organizations, and regional projects that can serve as catalysts in the transformation from here to there.

I still stand by Revolution of One, and I still believe it can be a powerful tool for many people who already have values and sensibilities similar to my own. However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’d like to write a comprehensive explanation of what my political philosophy is and why I believe what I do.

This is no simple or easy task. Really, it is the life’s work of any author who chooses to focus on philosophy of politics. I’ve decided that the best way for me to go about this is by writing a series of individual articles on various components of my philosophy. Who knows — in the long run, I may even tie them together into a book someday.

I’ll be sharing these articles in my blog, in a new section of my website, and on my Facebook and MySpace profiles. I’ll be starting with at least one or two general articles that explore what I consider to be the foundations of the philosophy of politics and my own approach to political philosophy. Then, I’ll be moving on to articles about “single-issue” debates such as health care, climate change, same sex marriage, and war.

To someone who’s not a philosopher or a politician, this may sound a bit dry and dull. But I think it has the potential to be incredibly exciting. Revolutionary thinkers of the past have often developed their philosophies through extensive correspondence and lively political debate. At the time, an outsider may have just seen two philosophers or politicians exchanging letters or having a purely intellectual debate. But in the end, on a good day, these are the sorts of discussions that can shape the course of entire nations.

And that, I dare say, is my goal.

I still have tremendous faith in the power of the written and spoken word to shape the hearts, minds, and actions of the people. I also have faith in the idea that reason, rational discourse, and strategic action in the service of our greatest and deepest potential as human beings is one of our greatest hopes in the struggle for creating a better world.

Rather than looking to “leaders” and “experts” for answers to our philosophical questions and solutions to our political problems, we must look to ourselves and each other. And in that spirit, as time permits, I will press onward with a variety of explorations of philosophy of politics.

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My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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