Just read Kick-Ass and need to talk about it

Back to cleaning out the drafts. This one was written ten months ago, so “Just read Kick-Ass” is very much incorrect – but I’m surprised I didn’t publish this at the time I wrote it, because it seems basically finished reading it now. A little thin on details perhaps, but whatever; it’s either publish it or delete it, and I really do want to discuss this thing. I may well give it a proper review in the future. For now …

~~~

Kick-Ass, the movie, is a favourite. Yes it fails pretty hard as far as Katie Deauxma is concerned, but other than that it’s funny, snappy and just cool. Yet for all that I adore it, and for all that I enjoy the self-reflexivity, Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, when you get right down to it the movie is not too different to many other straight-up superhero narratives. I won’t say it’s an unintelligent film, because it most certainly is intelligent, but it has a very different angle to push than the comic.

It’s directly related to the Katie Deauxma thing, actually, the incredibly creepy and offensive Get The Girl moment (the whole sub-plot really), because in the comic, right from the start, Dave is stalking her. The first time we see her is because Dave is stalking her, and she tells him where to go.

And then when he does his big reveal, she immediately gets her boyfriend to bash his face in, rather than inviting him back to her place for a ‘sleepover’.

Katie in the comic is not sweet and cute and devoid of personality; it’s easy to dismiss her as a (completely justified) bitch, but that’s part of the point of the story: we only ever see her – and everyone else – from Dave’s perspective; and since the only time Dave interacts with Katie is when he’s lusting after her and/or trying to get into her pants, is it any wonder that all we see of her is how badly she treats him?

Except when he lies about being gay, of course.

And this is because while the film portrays him as a bumbling but well-intentioned teenage dirtbag – and uses it to justify his stalking as an expression of love or whatever – the comic portrays him as a stalker because that’s what he is. And it’s not like he has no redeeming features, but his actions towards Katie are not included in that list. The comic gets that this is not cool and punishes him for doing it. I know this happens in other genres, but when has this ever happened in this genre? Do I just need to read more superhero comics?

And even if this were the only difference, I would have loved the comic to bits, but it’s not. The adaptation is very faithful in most ways, like 80-90% faithful, but much like The Hunger Games it’s all about tone. The film is very self-aware tongue-in-cheek comedy-drama, but the comic is bleak.

For example: Big Daddy’s backstory is all bullshit. He’s an accountant who kidnapped his baby daughter and brainwashed her because he was unhappy in his marriage. The brainwashing angle is creepy as hell in the film anyway; throw this in and suddenly even Nicholas Cage can’t redeem Big Daddy. Not as a person. But as a character he’s awesome.

It’s the same with Dave, because he’s so egocentric, so self-absorbed, so incredibly and unassumingly selfish that he really is just some prick in a costume. He has no heroic motives whatsoever. He’s bored. That’s really about it.

And because of this lack of moral righteousness, both in the character and in the narrative, all of the typical superhero stuff that he goes through the motions of – having a secret identity, his ‘real identity’ being unable to get the attention of the girl he likes, dealing out vigilante justice – takes on a totally different meaning to the film. In the film, it’s basically just Spider-Man if Peter Parker wasn’t bitten by a spider and instead just read a lot of comics, in that he’s not just going through the motions of being a superhero; he is a superhero, just a superhero who nudges the fourth wall and references other established superheroes. The premise may be an exploration of what could happen if somebody tried to ‘be a superhero in real life’, but it ends up just … making him a superhero in real life. Because none of what he does ever has real consequences – and also because he’s driven by the exact same things as every other archetypal superhero in existence. He’s no different to them, except for the fact that he name-drops a lot.

In the comic, though, he does face real consequences. Katie’s rejection of him being the clearest example, and also kind of the defining failure of his superhero narrative, because she won’t excuse his being an asshole just because he’s the hero of the story. Which is awesome. And he also does it for real reasons. True, this is ‘real’ with quotations marks, because so often what is ‘real’ in fiction tends to fall under the ‘darker/edgier’ label and that is just another aesthetic/thematic strategy like any other, and this is no different. But the point is that he’s not some selfless idealist trying to make the world a better place: he’s a lonely and self-absorbed teenage boy who has no ability to see beyond himself, and he doesn’t try. He just acts on his impulse, this random idea that he has one day, and follows through with it to the point of obsession. He does it because it makes him feel like he matters, like he’s important. Most of his anxiety comes from jealousy, such as when Red Mist shows up and gets famous overnight, thrill-seeking, such as when he spends over two months recovering from being stabbed and then run over by a car only to immediately take up vigilantism afterwards, and wanting to get laid, as when he lies to Katie about being gay, or when he goes to hunt down Eddie – who is not Katie’s ex-boyfriend in this version, just the ex-boyfriend of some random woman he hopes might be attracted to him if he takes care of Eddie for her. Wanting to protect the innocent or clean up the streets or do the things the cops aren’t allowed to do never enters his mind, or at least not beyond how it fits with the archetype of being a superhero.

As a result of all of this, Kick-Ass isn’t just about deconstructing the ideology inherent in the superhero mythos, but also in analysing and critiquing the inherent hypermasculine codes that are also inherent in the superhero genre, through Dave’s constant failures and expressions of insecurity. Superman, Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker all have their romantic entanglements, and they’re all successful to some degree; they never get turned down on the grounds of attraction at least, not when they’re being themselves. Clark Kent may not get any action, but Kal-El can have his pick; Bruce Wayne may be a dedicated bachelor, but not for lack of opportunity to have it otherwise (and there’s always the will-they-won’t-they dynamic with Selena Kyle for him to fall back on); and Spider-Man has Mary Jane, ’nuff said. They’re all also ripped as hell and never have to face realistic consequences to their actions, unless it’s the core premise of a story-arc, in which case it highlights just how rarely this ever happens.

Which is all hypermasculine as hell. They’re tough and strong and independent; they can have any woman they want; and their principles are unquestionably right, at least as far as the story is concerned. Sure, this all goes for Wonder Woman as well (at least when Gail Simone is writing her), but she’s one of very few female headliners in mainstream consciousness with such privileges, perhaps the most iconic exception to the gender double-standard to ever exist. For dudes it’s kind of a given.

Which is why I love this comic, because all of these codes of gender and power that are tied up in what it means to be a superhero are exposed and laid bare, broken down to show that they exist, that they are there to be seen, and that this is the fuel that superhero narratives run on: hypermasculine, misogynstic male-ego-stroking. And that includes Kick-Ass the movie, because even if its masculinity is repackaged as sensitive new-age geek masculinity, it still relies on getting the girl.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a hero who gets the girl. But there is a problem when you get rewarded for stalking and lying to the girl and then getting her anyway because, well, you just like her so much, it wouldn’t be fair if she didn’t sleep with you, at least out of pity. You deserve something for all of those feelings you have, right?

There is nothing wrong with having a character do things that law officials are not allowed to do for legal and/or ethical reasons, purely on the basis of wanting to make the world a safer place, because we all know that not only are even the most dedicated and ethical law-enforcers not infallible, but that there are also law-enforcers who abuse their power, and that the whole institutions has its limits, not always for good reason. There is nothing wrong with this character being beloved by the people and not only tolerated but relied upon by said law-enforcement agencies, either. But there is a problem when the only ones who think this kind of behaviour is dangerous, reckless or even immoral, not to mention a threat to the stability of society, are straw-men and villains, and their points are never allowed to stand.

There is nothing wrong with a character being selfless and stoic and jacked. But there is a problem when all they need to solve the world’s many grievous injustices is a self-righteous punch to the face of the big obvious villain.

Okay, that last one does at least have the value of being cathartic sometimes, and that’s fine, too. But it’s all part of this hypermasculine narrative that is so rarely ever pointed out or even recognised at all; it’s not neutral, and what I love about this comic is that it points this out – it’s not neutral, it’s not invisible, it’s not natural or intuitive or essential. It’s a construct, and while it certainly does have value, it’s important to remember that it is only a tool, because it can be used to justify some pretty awful stuff.

So, ultimately, I prefer the comic to the film, purely for the critical legwork that it does, much like I prefer The Hunger Games in book form for their critical legwork. In fact Kick-Ass and The Hunger Games are quite similar in a lot of ways in that regard.

Oh god … oh god the fan-fic ideas …

And it’s not like the comic doesn’t have issues. The way Katie deals with Dave’s big reveal in that he isn’t gay and just wanted to get into her pants by having her boyfriend beat him up – her boyfriend is black, this is the only time he features in the story at all, and his only contribution is to enact physical violence against a physically frail white person, who is also the main character. It employs a racist stereotype in order to further the narrative and moral agenda of a story that is, ultimately, all about a white guy, and the stereotype is deployed for the benefit of that white guy, in that it is an act of karmic recompense. I mean yeah, it could have been worse, but that doesn’t make it good.

Katie then also sends Dave a picture of her giving her boyfriend a blowjob, just to rub salt in the wound I assume – this seems sexist for the same reason the violent boyfriend/enforcer seems racist: Katie has just given Dave pornographic material of herself. The context is revenge; the reality is that now he is in the perfect position to release the image as revenge-porn.

So rather than the violent black thug stereotype and the woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon stereotype, it probably would have been better if the boyfriend had been introduced as an actual character before this point, and if Katie had kicked Dave in the balls and made him throw up and piss himself in front of everybody in school instead of sending him porn or having her boyfriend beat him up. The same general point would have gotten across, while the specifics would have been a lot less problematic.

But if I can like The Princess Bride, I can certainly like Kick-Ass, and I do. I still like the film, too, even though in comparison it suddenly comes off as rather uncomfortably male-ego-stroking, like it’s compensating for the male-ego-stroking that the comic did not provide.

Now to read the sequel, which I hear is incredibly dark. Having seen the film adaptation, I can safely say that it would have to be very problematic indeed to drop the ball quite that hard.

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