We Have Seen the Superhero, and He Is Us

by Bill Gibron

14 April 2010

While the traditional comic book bad-ass with his x-ray vision and sonic speed gets relegated to a second slot in the cultural conversation, we keep cheering and cheering for the everyday masked vigilante (with exceptions) who look and talks like us - or how we wish we were.
cover art


Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong

US theatrical: 16 Apr 2010
UK theatrical: 16 Apr 2010

Review [16.Apr.2010]

Looking back over the last three decades of superhero movies, it’s interesting to note the successes and failures. Batman (both Burton and Nolan)? Your basic box office gangbusters. The Hulk and Superman? No so much. It seems like, more and more, audiences like to be able to identify with their caped crusader, be it brooding and darkly knighted, or spidery and adolescently geeked. While the traditional comic book bad-ass with his x-ray vision and sonic speed gets relegated to a second slot in the cultural conversation, we keep cheering and cheering for the everyday masked vigilante (with exceptions) who look and talks like us - or how we wish we were.

This week, Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Kick-Ass will unveil yet another layer in this ongoing social saga. The story centers on a young comic nerd named Dave Lizewski who longs to be like his favorite pen and ink crusaders. Deciding that he will be the first “average guy” to actually emulate his obsession, he dons a line green wet suit and christens himself Kick-Ass. A popular MySpace page and one epic fail later, and he is teamed up with the vendetta-driven duo of Big Daddy and his daughter Hit-Girl. Both have taken the notion of homegrown interpersonal justice to decidedly deadly ends. The target of their secret ID wrath? The crime kingpin Frank D’Amico and his entire redolent racketeering organization.

While it waits to be seen if Kick-Ass will light up the turnstiles the same way The Dark Knight did, it’s obvious that such reality-based action efforts are far more popular than those dealing with individuals of outsized and/or exceptional ability. Iron Man? Tony Stark is a suave, sophisticate who has the money to transform his malfunctioning body into a literal weapon of mass destruction. Spider-Man? Peter Parker has a hard time controling his raging hormones, let alone the aftereffects of a radioactive arachnid bite. Even Bruce Wayne is so psychologically disturbed by the events of his youth that he has taken his family fortune and perverted it into a constant stream of payback opportunities.

All three of these human-oriented defenders work because we can see the person behind the power. Stark may have a nuclear fusion device for a ticker, but it is his bravado and swagger that helps sell the street fighting. Similarly, Master Parker may be playing with some newly nuked hemoglobin, but we’re still dealing with the story of a young man learning (and earning) his place in the world. Batman remains the most iconic of all because he tends to come across as both invincible and vulnerable, one step ahead of the evil masterminds he hunts down and defeats, but bloody and beleaguered in the process. Granted, there are always exceptions to the rule (Daredevil, Catwoman) but for the most part people want their heroes flawed and familiar.

Part of the problem with reinventing a character like Superman for the post-modern world is that his original jingoism no longer applies. In Alan Moore’s Watchmen (the exception that avoids and almost rewrites the rule), one character even invokes the Man of Steel when he suggests “the Superman exists, and he is American” (In truth, the individual in question was actually talking about a Supreme Being, not Clark Kent). Indeed, the myth with the massive “S” no longer has a place in the callous cynicism of today. His legendary feats - speed like ammunition, strength like that of a locomotive - no longer hold much sway. Instead, we like individuals who can outsmart and outshine the villain. Pulverizing them with unearthly power just doesn’t seem - cool. It’s squaresville, daddy-o.

It was the X-Men movies that really started this love affair with the physiological eccentric. While Bryan Singer tried to temper his blockbuster bombast with some interpersonal angling, the results still offered people pumped up with otherwise unobtainable abilities. But the key word there is “people”. These weren’t aliens from another planet. They weren’t the oddball offspring of Satan or some Nordic god. Instead, they were what we’d today call “handi-capable” - citizens with special needs who are given (in this case, by Professor Xavier) to chance to live a life as normal as possible. That they occasionally use their supped up skills to ward off Magneto and his equally mutated minions is part of the deal.

Watchmen, as mentioned before, walked the finest of graphic novel lines. It offered both kids of champion - the all powerful and the borderline delusional. Dr. Manhattan can manipulate and fold time, space, energy and matter. Rorschach, on the other hand, is a utterly flawed man who has used his masked vigilante façade to work out all manner of miscreant and malevolent ideas. Buried in between are the rest of the gang, individuals with scientific expertise (Nite Owl) and pure energized sinew (Ozymandias). In essence, author Moore was giving us a cross-section of comic iconography, every type of idol and deity, from the unexplainable to the all too real. Their interrelations drive the narrative, not elephantine battles of epic proportion.

What Kick-Ass hopes to accomplish (and actually does so, brilliantly) is further focus the true nature of what makes these characters popular. Like a rock fan becoming a rock star, or a sports nerd becoming an athletic superstar, the movie manufactures a world where one kid, hoping to gain a bit of guy/girl popularity on campus, takes on the mantle of his favorite funny book and winds up in a world of fame - and hurt. He learns the true nature of being a hero, about the sacrifice and pain the four panel illustrations fail to fully outline. He discovers the inner virtue that led him to want such a life in the first place, the strength to struggle and endure, and he recognizes (with the help of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl) the exact size, shape, and scope of what he’s brazenly bitten off - forget about chewing.

Sure, this film works best when it’s playing the guilty pleasure wish fulfillment game. Nothing is more mesmerizing than watching a giddy grade schooler in ponytails pick apart a room full of bad guys with her amazing (and quite lethal) martial arts and weapons skills. Indeed, Hit-Girl is destined to be the debatable talk point for a hundred unnecessary literary handwringing sessions. Sure, she’s a killer, carving up criminals with a smile and a sublime self-confidence. Yet she was programmed from a very young age to be this kind of cold and calculated assassin, a reflection of her father’s undying need for revenge. Even better, the need for retribution is contained in the most identifiable of human traits - the loss of a loved one. Instead of fighting for truth, justice, and the American way, Hit-Girl is battling to bring her family back. Who can’t relate to that?

For the demographic already predetermined to worship the ground Kick-Ass kicks ass on, the suits don’t need to worry. It’s a masterful entertainment, one of the best post-modern comic book movies ever. What they will have to be wary of is their ambitious upcoming slate of untested Marvel/DC delegates. Will audiences empathize with The Green Lantern? How about Thor, or Captain America? Is it possible that a movie like Kick-Ass renders all other similarly styled efforts obsolete, especially when you factor in the familiarity with both the subject matter and the subjects? Putting it another way, how are you going to sell them a larger than life superhero when they’ve seen themselves on the screen - and apparently, like what they see? The answer remains as personal as the champions we seemingly prefer.

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