Gabriel Mckee is the author of The Gospel According to Science Fiction and the blog SFGospel.com, where he explores religious ideas in science fiction. He lectured on superheroes, myth, and justice at the 2009 Cornerstone Festival, and is currently at work on a project exploring the theology of Superman.
“Preview audiences love Kick-Ass,” says the voice-over in the latest trailer for what is sure to be the biggest superhero movie of the Spring. By all accounts, it’s the most faithful big-screen adaptation of a comic book in recent memory, and fans and new viewers alike seem to appreciate the results. The cover of the comic’s first issue, which loudly proclaims the arrival of “the greatest super hero comic of all-time,” and most comics fans seem to agree: Newsarama called the original comic series by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. “a fantastic piece of visceral, satirical storytelling.” BleedingCool.com describes it as “a Tarantinoesque parable [about]… what it takes to be a hero.” Everyone seems to agree: Kick-Ass was a great comic, and will surely make a great movie.
So how good is Kick-Ass? How effective a satire is it? And what does it have to say about heroism, super and otherwise? Unfortunately Kick-Ass, despite the enthusiasm that has attended it at every turn, is a hollow exercise, a satire of the superhero genre that completely misses the point about what superheroes are. In short, the comic is not something to be excited about, and the movie is unlikely to be much better.
Kick-Ass is narrated throughout by Dave Lizewski, an average, run-of-the-mill geek. He loves comics and video games, has trouble getting a girlfriend, and is basically the definitive social outcast. He’s the type of character that comics fans have been identifying with since Superman first put on Clark Kent’s glasses. But do we want to identify with him? We spend a lot of time reading Dave’s thoughts in the story’s captions, and they’re not the thoughts of a nice person: he’s petty, selfish, arrogant, and, in his personal life at least, passive. Once he puts on a costume and starts attempting to beat up criminals, does he change, gain a new outlook on life, grow? Not at all. Dave Lizewski in Kick-Ass #8 is the same petty, selfish, arrogant, and, yes, passive jerk he was in Kick-Ass #1. He starts out unlikeable, and stays that way. The character has no arc to speak of: the only change he goes through is when he puts on the costume for the first time, and that happens within the first 30 pages of the story.
Some interesting things do happen with other characters. There are a couple legitimately surprising turns involving meta-heroes Big Daddy and the Red Mist, and the prepubescent vigilante Hit-Girl undergoes some extreme changes in the story’s conclusion. But that’s all strictly B-story. It’s problematic for a story’s central character to remain so unchanged in the course of a narrative. If anything, Lizewski is even less likable at the end of issue 8, and as a result the whole story feels inconsequential.
But lack of an arc isn’t the only problem with Dave Lizewski. It’s clear from Kick-Ass‘s opening scenes that Dave Lizewski is supposed to be, if not an everyman, at least an everyfanboy. What does it say, then, that the character with whom the readers are so clearly supposed to identify is such an unlikable jerk? It’s as if Kick-Ass is telling superhero fans and comics readers how sad and miserable its author imagines their lives to be. It’s not as bad, in this regard, as Millar’s earlier series Wanted. That story ends with a direct-to-the-reader sermon about “your level on the pathetic-o-meter,” concluding with a splash page of the protagonist’s sneering face beneath the caption “This is my face when I’m fucking you in the ass.” Reading Kick-Ass is a similarly masochistic exercise. The story seems to be saying: “You’re just like this guy. He’s pathetic. You’re still reading? Wow, you are pathetic!” It encourages a cycle of self-loathing that attempts to support the ugly picture of fanboys that Kick-Ass paints-and the more the readers eat it up, the more correct it becomes.
Moreover, Kick-Ass suggests that the entire kind of fantasy that superhero fans enjoy is foolish, that there’s something inherently perverse about both superheroes as characters and the people who enjoy them. This is ultimately worse than Garth Ennis’s widely-documented dislike of superheroes, culminating in his anti-superhero book The Boys, because Ennis made his name in other genres. But Millar wrote, and continues to write, very mainstream superhero comics, many of them quite good. But stories like Kick-Ass imply that he despises the entire imaginative exchange between superhero readers and superhero stories. What else could be the purpose of tearing down the genre’s mythic idealism and so aggressively establishing so-called “real world” rules in its place?
Of course, we’re talking about the comic book here: something else happens in translating this character to the big screen. While it might be fair to assume that the average comic reader is something of a geek (however that term might be described), the same can’t be said about the average cinemagoer. Movies are mass culture with an audience comic companies can only dream of, and, inevitably, that means the audience for a movie is more “average,” more spread-out, and, yes, less geeky. So the intended identification of a reader of the comic with the “geek” character won’t necessarily happen with a watcher of the film. “Me” will turn into “them,” and thus the film will reinforce broader culture’s ostracization of the geek. Geeky readers of the comic may be entering into a cycle of self-loathing, but at least they can be said, in some sense, to be laughing with themselves; Kick-Ass the movie can only laugh at them.
For the moment, though, let’s give Kick-Ass the benefit of the doubt: it’s commenting on superhero fans, because its goal is to critique the superhero genre. Right? Unfortunately, it misdefines that genre, and thus misses its target completely. Peter Coogan’s book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre explores, in great depth, the defining traits of the superhero. And the first and most central trait he identifies isn’t extraordinary abilities, a secret identity, or a cool costume-it’s a sense of mission. What makes superheroes heroes is their sense of “great responsibility,” a driving need to fight injustice. And it’s precisely this trait that Kick-Ass lacks. He has no “trauma” at his origin; as he states himself, “Our origin is we were bored.” But boredom and a costume do not a superhero make, and Kick-Ass‘s apparent belief that it is a superhero story is its biggest failing.
The problem is that Kick-Ass wants to be a superhero, but his conception of heroism is all wrong. “We only get one life,” he says, “and I wanted mine to be exciting.” He sees the thrills, the violence, but not the underlying sense of moral mission. He says himself that he has no real origin, that “It didn’t take a trauma to make you wear a mask… Just the perfect combination of loneliness and despair.” But Spider-Man or Batman’s trauma isn’t just a throwaway aspect of their stories; it’s the guiding force behind their every action. A hero who begins with nothing but “loneliness and despair,” not an all-consuming moral imperative to improve the world, is by definition a nihilistic figure. Dave Lizewski is really not a superhero at all-in genre classic terms, he’s Peter Parker after the radioactive spider-bite but before the death of Uncle Ben. His actions aren’t altruistic in the least-he continues putting on the costume because he likes to ride the ego wave that comes from his Youtube fame. It would be one thing if Kick-Ass excluded this element to explore what happens to the mythic core of the superhero genre when the sense of mission is removed, but that implies a kind of consciousness that just doesn’t seem to be there. Kick-Ass simply doesn’t feel like a complete story, and it’s largely a result of the character’s lack of any identifiable motivation.
In a recent interview Millar stated that Kick-Ass dons his costume “because it’s the right thing to do. In a weird way, if you push past all the blood and the swearing, it’s quite a moral tale.” But because the character lacks a complete origin, a reason to think that what he’s doing is the right thing, it’s not a moral tale-in fact, it’s a decidedly amoral one. And without the sense of a moral mission, he’s simply not a superhero. Without murdered parents, Batman wouldn’t be a hero; he’d just be a guy who dresses up and punch people-which is basically what Kick-Ass is. In short, the book simply doesn’t understand the genre it purports to be commenting on. Superheroes work in large part because of the heroic myth at their core. In throwing out this central, defining trait of that myth, Kick-Ass loses any resonance it might have otherwise had.
So what happens to a superhero’s sense of justice when that moral mission is removed? Kick-Ass illustrates it pretty well: his first “mission” is an attempt to beat up some graffiti writers. They’re not engaged in a violent crime (until he provokes them, at least). The would-be hero, apparently buying into the widely-debunked “broken windows” theory, enforces white, middle class social order by using violence against the poor and non-white. In short, Kick-Ass‘s first action scene is disturbingly, uncomfortably, and unavoidably a scene in which a white man attempts to beat three black men with a club-while calling them “homos,” no less. That he loses the fight in no way diminishes the inherent problems of racism, classism, and homophobia in the encounter, and, by extension, Kick-Ass’s complete lack of the sense of justice that is the defining trait of the superhero.
Don’t misinterpret me here: I’m not saying Millar is racist, classist, or homophobic. But he does seem to be blind to the undertones of those problems in his narrative. (I do think that Garth Ennis is legitimately homophobic, as exemplified in the anal-sex-joke-obsessed The Boys, but that’s an argument for elsewhere.) And once you’ve noticed the ugly role that race and class play in Kick-Ass, it’s tough to “read around” them. (If you’d like to read more on this point, Erin Polgreen’s detailed exploration of the role in race and gender in Millar’s work goes into far more detail than I do here, and is well worth reading.)
In any event, there’s something very non-heroic about Kick-Ass’s inaugural use of violence. This isn’t Superman righting wrongs and championing the oppressed; it’s strictly authoritarian violence-disproportionate, mistargeted, and utterly unjustifiable. And yet we’re still supposed to think, on some level, that this makes him a hero-and, perhaps worse, that society would view this kind of violence as heroic, since it’s Youtube videos of these first encounters that turn Kick-Ass into a cultural phenomenon. Works like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen propose that superhero violence may be a little bit fascistic, but that kind of questioning doesn’t seem to be going on here. We get the authoritarian violence here-but not a considered critique of that violence.
As if the above weren’t enough, Kick-Ass simply isn’t fun. It aggressively dis-enchants the concept of the superhero, showing the myriad reasons that this particular type of fantasy world could not sustain itself in a “realistic” universe. The first issue opens with a would-be hero falling to his death instead of flying-played in a slapstick style entirely without the pathos that Chris Ware brought to the exact same image in Jimmy Corrigan. Kick-Ass demolishes fantasy and thinks doing so is funny, that somehow an ugly “realistic” world is inherently better than an idealized fantasy world.
What makes it particularly confusing is that Mark Millar also done the exact opposite. His miniseries 1985, written at more or less the same time as Kick-Ass, presents a comic book geek whose “real-world” small town is invaded Marvel supervillains, and he has to travel into their fictional universe to bring back heroes who can defeat them. It’s a beautiful story, one that highlights everything that’s good about superheroes, superhero fans, and the idealism of the fantastic-in short, it’s the total opposite of Kick-Ass, to the extent that it’s difficult to believe they came from the same pen. The setting of that story is telling-Millar had to go to 1985, the year before Watchmen and (especially) The Dark Knight Returns, to find that kind of idealism. Is Kick-Ass-nihilistic, ugly, and utterly anti-mythic-the end result of Frank Miller’s authoritarian take on superheroes? And does the movie adaptation’s inevitable success represent the chickens released by the similarly nihilistic film The Dark Knight coming home to roost?
In any event, between its misunderstanding of the superhero genre, its relentless authoritarian violence, and its apparent intention to instill self-loathing in its readers, reading Kick-Ass is anything but a fun experience. It’s draining to inhabit Millar’s ugly conception of a realistic world, and that is ultimately why I consider Kick-Ass such an unpleasant mess.