“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.