Ah, Kick-Ass. Don’t you just love when a comic book thing becomes the hot topic du jour? Well, I don’t, but that’s for another entry.
There are about a billion and one topics I can talk about with Kick-Ass. There’s Hit-Girl and how for some reason, holding a kid at gunpoint or knife point (as seen in numerous films, such as Red Dragon, Dark Knight, etc.) or killing him or her off (e.g. The Searchers, Punisher, Gladiator) to fuel a revenge plot are both completely acceptable plot points and really not even worthy of a sentence, whereas once the kid dares to fight back, society has crumbled. Maybe the paradox is related to the idea that kids are sacred. And if we kill something sacred, well then, we can get really upset at the destruction of the sacred object. After all, Christianity is based around the destruction of the most sacred person and how darn great that was and our culture, for better or for worse, is based very much on Christianity. But whereas Passion of the Christ was adored by many a right-wing nutjob, I am relatively certain that Revenge of the Christ would get the picket-treatment. So yeah, violence and kids is honky-dory as long as the kids are on the receiving end. Got that settled? Cool.
There’s also the use of the gay joke and whether or not the movie flopped. Okay, so aside from the main point of the entry, there are three topics I can write about. But my interest lies in the fact that, upon talking to people, there seems to be a general dissatisfaction or uneasiness around how cartoonish the movie gets towards the end.
Kick-Ass starts with a promise of an uber-realistic to the point of hilarious comic book movie. We get to see what would really happen if someone tried to be a superhero: his costume would look a bit dumb, he would be terrified of jumping from buildings and when he tried to fight crime, he would get the ass kicked out of him. Many fans took this approach as a parody of the mainstream superhero movie genre, or, if I may relabel it, the Marvel movie genre. Indeed, the music often turns into a trope on Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man score and even the first 20 minutes or so are a pretty straightforward parody of the first Spider-Man movie.
But that premise cannot sustain itself. To hold the mirror of reality up to the artificial world of spandex superheroes is an entertaining Saturday Night Live sketch or possible even short film, but such an action feature would wear out its welcome fast. How many times could we watch Kick-Ass get beaten up? How many times can he flinch at the edge of a building? A super-hero in the real world movie cannot work because there are no superheroes in the real world. The logic that makes this idea worthy of our attention and allows it to become a satire would be the very same logic that undoes its ability to progress through the necessary three-act plot and reach some narrative resolution. A real Kick-Ass would just be the recipient of knife-points and spend the interim of his hospital stays looking for lost cats.
Thankfully, for the film and the viewer, Kick-Ass is not a parody of the Marvel superhero movie. It’s a parody of the DC superhero film, specifically Watchmen and Nolan’s Batman films. Why these? Just because I didn’t like them? Nah, were that the case, I would have included the Fantastic Four movies and X3 in there. I say this because Kick-Ass is not a parody of the “mainstream” superhero film; it is a satire of the “realistic” superhero film.
The first twenty minutes may be giving us a fantasy-free variety of Spider-Man, but they are also delivering the promises of Nolan or Snyder with abundance. Nolan strove to give us a real urban hero: a Batmobile that “made sense” for city streets, a believable training background for the protagonist, and villains that reflect the problems of society today and use knives as weapons instead of freeze-rays and killer plants.
However, ultimately, as I pointed out two years ago when tearing Dark Knight a new one, Batman is not realistic. A billionaire secreting financing his own one-man war on crime after secretly training decades around the world is only a miniscule bit more believable than webslinging across Times Square. In fact, people should not fear the man in a giant rubber Batsuit, but mock him. And that reaction is the one of the first “villains” in Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass is a crazy person, a nerd, a loser, an idiot in a playsuit. He does the best one can do with the resources accessible to an actual superhero. And it’s funny.
Such a parody makes sense, after all. Why expose the stupidity of a real-life superhero to a series of films that have genetically altered arachnids, weather controlling mutants, and Jessica Alba trying to act? It mocks a genre for not having something it never pretended to possess. However, to go after a subgenre by giving all that it promised but failed to deliver is to have a more worthy target.
But the film extends its satire. It does not simply show what the “realistic” superhero film lacks; it then exaggerates the necessary trajectory of any “realistic” action film. As the film progresses, it descends from this almost hyper-realistic world into a Tarantino-esque Lala-Land. This progression is heralded in by the introduction of Hit-Girl and Big Daddy. These two, in a sense, are the quintessential “real” superhero. Their outfits are dark, they use lethal force, and, unlike Kick-Ass, they deliver a real plot, real conflict, and real results. Yet they are also the most detached from reality itself. Their very costumes and mannerisms evoke the cartoonish. Hit-Girl has purple hair like an anime character and enters to a perky soundtrack that could very well be performed by Puffy Ami Yumi. Big Daddy talks like Adam West’s Batman, everything from which Nolan strived to detach himself. He also paints the areas around his eyes like Joel Schumacher’s Batmen did. Yes, there may be believable reasons for the character’s choices (colorful wigs and weird speech patterns hide identities), but such reasons do not automatically nullify such evocations. Whatever the logic behind such choices is, Hit-Girl looks like a she could join the Sailor Senshi and Big Daddy could say “old chum” any second.
Furthermore, their larger-than-life traits extend beyond their appearances. They take on dozens of henchmen at a time and live. They can catch guns (and even reload them) midair like refugees from The Matrix. In fact, their arsenal itself seems to rival that of the white room in the first Matrix* film. They even own a jetpack because, you know, that’s so much more down-to-earth than just jumping out the window and flying. I know they were stealing money from the drug busts…but could that buy all of those weapons? And wouldn’t someone be able to trace them?
[*In fact, the parallels to The Matrix are quite fascinating. After all, The Matrix attempts to explain the unrealistic, aerial movements of kung-fu action heroes. But how does it do it? By placing everything within an even larger artificial reality, both literally by introducing the Matrix program and by forcing the audience to believe that sentient robots have taken over mankind. I suppose that is more plausible than thinking a man can jump between skyscrapers. I do not know if I was even being sarcastic in that last sentence.]
But these two are very much like Batman or The Minutem – excuse me, Watchmen: cartoon characters running around a real world, trying to pass. But they manage to appear only more cartoonish and their superhuman acts seem more egregiously, ridiculously powerful because they have purported themselves to be below superhuman. In movies such as Spider-Man and X-Men, storytellers introduce a series of rules and mostly adhere to them. We do not question that Magneto can take on a veritable army because he can manipulate metal. Wolverine can take a licking and keep on ticking thanks to a healing factor. Kick-Ass should not be able to endure such punishment. And, in the beginning of the movie, he isn’t. He actually does go to the hospital (a rare locale for a superhero unless he is visiting his aunt or a district attorney) and he seems pretty out of it by the end of his first “victory.” But yet, he goes on to fight another battle immediately after the torture scene. He admits that he hurts and by all means our hero should be returning to the hospital, or at least his bed room. But no, he still manages to take on Red Mist.
This hole is gaping, but upon looking through it, we can see similar instances in Nolan’s films. Batman should show up in the hospital after certain run ins. While amazing, Alfred can only do so much. And his background of service in the British SS seems a bit more ridiculous in a reality where Joker cannot even use laughing gas, so I doubt they would invoke that bit of character history. Or, to return to the prior point, his triumphs over legions of criminals should be directed with the same anime-esque glee that fills Hit-Girl’s assaults, for they should be just as much as blemish on the believability of Chicago-Gotham as Hit-Girl is on Manhattan. The aforementioned jet-pack, the bazooka that ends the movie with an exclamation point (a long line and a dot), and its ilk are all things meant for the funny pages, but so is the contraption Bruce used in his Hong-Kong adventure, his tank of a Batmobile, and even his Batarangs.
In short, the very act of promising reality in a comic book movie only makes it more cartoonish and unreal than a typical comic book movie. We may not believe people can shoot beams out of their eyes, but once we buy into that fact (one no one would ever question Cyclops when watching X-Men), we can believe that the ability to shoot beams out of one’s eyes makes one a one-man army. But we know there are limits to what the human body can do, even if aided by intense training and the best weapons that money can secretly buy. Kick-Ass more blatantly does what Rorschach, Ozymandius, and Batman have already done: made the human superhuman while still trying to pass them off as human. A girl with a sword must be just as competent as Superman, which is even less plausible than the concept of Superman himself.
Sure Kick-Ass may appear more cartoonish than Dark Knight or its ilk, but that is only because it so enthusiastically owns its cartoonishness. But in flaunting its own implausibility, it manages to show that art can never be life. Especially when that art involves wearing a cape.
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