We Have Seen the Superhero, and He Is Us

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.


Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong
Rated: R
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-04-16
UK date: 2010-04-16

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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