Bright Lights Film Journal

“A Walking Childish Id”: Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass

“Superheroes live best in their own world — a preadolescent world. While an interesting experiment, it’s probably not a good idea to shoehorn too much ‘reality’ into the fantasy realm of the superhero. Ever since Stan Lee introduced anxiety into superheroes — no, earlier, since Harvey Kurtzman first trained a satiric eye on them in Mad — the question, ‘What would superheroes be like in the real world?’ has bedeviled succeeding generations of comics creators . . . Once a depiction veers toward realism, each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of genre. The more ‘realistic’ superheroes become, the less believable they are. ~ David Mazzucchelli, comic book artist and illustrator of Batman: Year One

Whether literary types like it or not, Batman may very well be the most popular character in American fiction, at least in terms of revenue earned, fan loyalty, and longevity. Superman is more iconic, more “super,” but Batman has more street cred, more versatility, and has survived seventy years of near constant reinterpretation. While Superman has undergone little more than minor updates to his political context since he first became popular in the 1930s (anti-Fascism swapped out for anti-communism, then that for anti-terrorism and so forth), Batman has been rewritten every decade or so, with the resulting Batmen ranging wildly from pun-spouting Saturday morning action goofballs to humorless Freudian anti-heroes. He’s been a part of American pop culture and childhood for four generations now, and the mythology built around the character — his quest to avenge his parents’ murder, his nemesis the Joker, his boy sidekick Robin — is familiar to people who’ve never even opened a comic book. Not even Star Wars can rival the staying power of Batman, who, with seven live-action films and eight animated ones under his belt, has Lucas’s flagship series outnumbered even in the realm of cinema. This just makes it all the more odd that no film has ever directly parodied the Dark Knight. Star Wars was only a few years old when Mel Brooks brilliantly slammed its shameless franchise-mongering in Spaceballs, but, until this year’s release of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, the closest to a film-based satire of Batman ever made was actually the campy and self-referential 1966 Batman, a feature film adaptation of the television series starring Adam West (Andy Warhol’s short Batman Dracula predates it, but no copies are known to exist).

Based on the comic book by Mark Millar (which was written in conjunction with the film, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but released two years earlier), Kick-Ass gently ribs the Spider-Man, Superman, and X-Men franchises, but its main sights are on Batman and, specifically, why being Batman seems like so much fun to a young boy. Unfortunately, Vaughn and Millar make an irreparable misstep in trying to tackle their subject through two mutually exclusive satirical tones: cartoonish hyperbole and ironic realism. Both halves of the film get roughly equal screen time, and the scenes where they collide are the film’s most embarrassing moments, awkward clashes between not just two separate narratives, but two separate universes. In superhero terms, it’s as if Adam West’s Batman were stuck into the same film as Heath Ledger’s Joker, a premise that might appeal to certain comic book enthusiasts who enjoy playing the “what if?” game but that makes for poor storytelling and even poorer satire. The latter can often be forgiven weak narrative and characterization as long as its sense of humor and ultimate satirical point are consistent.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is the film’s realistic counterpoint to Bruce Wayne, particularly the Bruce Wayne of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, who tries to be taken seriously as a realistic character despite being an attractive, wealthy ninja master who spends his nights fighting terrorist clowns in a mask and cape. Dave is neither a billionaire nor a ladies’ man — quite the opposite, in fact, especially in the latter category. His mother dies, but only from a brain hemorrhage, and Dave makes it a point to say that her death wasn’t what made him go into costumed crime-fighting. In fact, if Dave’s narration is to be taken at face value — and, judging by the film’s general two-dimensionality, it is — then the only things motivating him to put on green tights and fight off muggers with sticks wrapped in grip tape are a slight moral naïveté, boredom, and run-of-the-mill teenage insecurity. Vaughn and Millar both seem aware that the genre is inherently silly at the conceptual level, and the utter ordinariness of Dave’s life is the film’s strongest grounding line (even if his and his friends’ “ordinary” whiteness feels dishonest in 21st-century Manhattan). The film’s funniest scene is the moment when both Dave and the audience are forced to confront said silliness head-on: in keeping with Chaplin’s claim that life is a tragedy in close-up and comedy in long shot, Kick-Ass emerges anti-climactically from an alley in broad daylight and full frame, looking positively ridiculous. However, the film quickly abandons this — by the end of the same scene, in fact — in favor of typical dramatically lit medium shots and close-ups, and suffers for it.

The film’s heartless dismissal of Dave’s mother’s death is characteristic of its overall disregard for human life, but the way Dave’s urban mundanity remains unaffected by it is a somewhat refreshing counterpoint to the melodrama typical of a comic book death. Hardly a story cycle goes by in the Batman universe without the Caped Crusader reliving his parents’ murder in some fashion, and some of the better Batman writers through the years have used this unfathomable stunted adolescence as a lens through which to explore the character. Kick-Ass, rather drily for such a boldly named alter ego, exists simply so Dave can kill time on school nights. It’s no coincidence that, prior to donning his silly green suit, Dave spends most of his spare time masturbating at his computer. Dressing up as Kick-Ass, a walking childish id, is just a more complicated way of playing with himself, just another pointless, mildly exciting activity to occupy his youth until real life comes along and gives him something more important to do. It’s the same impulse that made Benjamin Braddock sleep with his girlfriend’s mother in The Graduate, but as a post-9/11 New York teenager who’s had his sense of novelty dulled by internet porn, something as tame as an affair with an older woman wouldn’t have held him over very long.

As sweet and likeable as Aaron Johnson’s performance is, he’s never quite believable as the bumbling nerd he’s supposed to be. Dave is a nerd in the same sense that Clark Kent is, i.e., his hair is mussed and he wears glasses (appropriately enough, Johnson’s performance frequently feels like a conscious channeling of Christopher Reeve). Johnson is a 20-year-old blue-eyed cutie who, in the wake of High School Musical, would be rolling in girls if he enrolled in Dave’s school, even with Dave’s glasses and messy hair, yet Vaughn expects us to not only believe that this kid is the least cool of his circle of three friends (the other two are both uglier and nerdier), but that he would have to pretend to be gay to get close to a girl. After getting stabbed during his first brawl as Kick-Ass, a rumor spreads around school that Dave’s a gay prostitute, and the girl he has a crush on, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), starts hanging around him after previously ignoring him because she’s always wanted a gay friend. Dave plays along in hopes of winning her over when he tells the truth, which, this being an action comedy striving for blockbuster success, he does — even if she only started tolerating his presence once she saw him as “the gay guy,” it turns out that she really liked him for who he was. Millar’s comic deals with this much more honestly: Katie betrays her shallowness by not only rejecting him, but by sending him cell phone photos of her giving oral sex to another guy. Vaughn, though, is not interested in the superficiality of girls raised on Will & Grace who want gay friends for fashion accessories, and even less so in the gay teenage boys who are dehumanized by their friendship and treated like stress balls. The entire subplot serves only to supply cheap laughs when Dave femmes it up a bit while trying to hide his arousal, plus an entirely needless scene where the underage couple has impromptu sex behind a comic book shop.

The film’s other Batman figure is Big Daddy (played by Nicolas Cage with calculated hamminess, complete with a crude Adam West impression), an ultraviolent vigilante who dominates the darker, far more violent and ludicrous half of the film. Dressed, as several characters say, “like Batman,” Big Daddy is a primal reduction of the character, Batman’s moral qualms and complex sense justice replaced with pure revenge-driven mania. He kills criminals indiscriminately, shooting them in the back as they run away unarmed and crushing them in automobile compactors for no discernible reason, yet the film tries to seriously pass him off as at least a misunderstood anti-hero. Rorschach, the Objectivist vigilante in Alan Moore’s masterful Watchmen, also murdered criminals wherever he found them, and just as gruesomely, but Moore had the sense (and the humanity) to never paint Rorschach as anything but a deplorable madman. Even Zack Snyder’s worthless film adaptation kept Rorschach totally unrelatable and didn’t soften the psychotic brutality of his methods (though he did seem to delight in their execution). As Moore said in an interview about the comic, only a lunatic would dress up in a costume and fight crime, and, despite being a more in-depth commentary on Steve Ditko’s character The Question, Rorschach perfectly embodies exactly why wanting to be Batman can only healthfully be an adolescent fantasy: the closer the superhero gets to the adult world, the more obvious the absurdities of his behavior are, and only madness can rationally explain them. Vaughn understands the box office appeal of Watchmen, and Rorschach in particular, but he doesn’t grasp the darker implications. A scene where Big Daddy slaughters a warehouse full of mafiosi is played straight, a “cool” action scene seemingly designed to distract from rather than point to the fact that Big Daddy is a monstrous psychopath.

Worse than his murder sprees, though, is his inclusion of his 11-year-old daughter (Chloë Grace Moretz) in his infantile quest for vengeance. Called Hit-Girl, she is essentially Big Daddy’s Robin, and the tired claims that Batman and Robin have a homosexual relationship is tastelessly codified into incestuous subtext. It might be sensationalistic to call Cage’s facial hair in the film a “pedophile mustache,” but I have no doubt it was Vaughn’s intent, especially taken in conjunction with Big Daddy’s creepily professor-like attire and unsettling habit of referring to his daughter as “child” in an incongruous Southern drawl. His wife murdered, Big Daddy fixates on his daughter as the only piece of her left, kidnapping her from her godfather and brainwashing her into being his sidekick, a miniature Amazon who murders as wantonly as her father, often by phallically impaling people with a spear or blade. One of the film’s major action set pieces is supposed to highlight Hit-Girl’s firearms skills as she takes down a room full of goons, but its psychological focus is on Big Daddy, who, burning alive through the whole ordeal, cheers his daughter on with sadomasochistic glee, the orgasmic release of a widower’s sexual frustration. Batman fans rightly lambasted Frank Miller’s comic All Star Batman and Robin for scenes where Batman psychologically abuses and physically imprisons Robin. Yet Kick-Ass features a man who willingly puts his daughter in harm’s way for the sake of his own revenge lust, takes her out of school and away from her friends so she won’t trust anyone but him, and trains her to murder people so he can use her as a personal assassin slave — and Kick-Ass packages him as a troubled man with a good heart. A few passing scenes with Hit-Girl’s godfather, one of Big Daddy’s former cop friends, explicitly address the perversity of their father-daughter relationship, but these scenes are quickly swept aside and Vaughn doesn’t seem any more interested in them than he is in the long-term psychological damage Hit-Girl will inevitably have to live with.

Toward the film’s end, Big Daddy’s violent half consumes Kick-Ass’s fun-loving half, and Millar and Vaughn commit an unforgivable moral transgression by denying their young characters their innocence. Hit-Girl was already lost, having killed dozens of people already, including at least one totally innocent person (an old pothead who was just in the wrong place at the wrong time), but the film’s pathetic denouement completely denies the impact such a life would have on a little girl. Vaughn uses her like a younger, edgier version of Kill Bill‘s Bride, aping Tarantino down to the pop soundtrack and the schoolgirl outfit but, as with Watchmen, missing the emotional core behind the cartoon violence. Kill Bill starts as a woman’s selfish search for revenge not unlike Big Daddy’s, but it metamorphoses into a redemptive struggle to keep her child safe and innocent, and for all the blood Tarantino spilled in that film, he never let the little girl see a drop of it. Kick-Ass starts with a teenage boy playing dress-up and make-believe and ends with him committing actual murder with machine guns and rocket launchers. Even if he designates them as the charming and important characters, Vaughn doesn’t treat Dave and Hit-Girl any less like garbage than he does the nameless thugs they kill without hesitation.

Kick-Ass is the sort of comedy that only appeals to the juvenile mindset it seeks to satirize, the unintended irony of R-rated film that can’t rightly be taken seriously by anyone old enough to see it in theaters. Hit-Girl’s swear words are tailor-made to draw shocked laughs from middle-school students, and since South Park has been on the air for fourteen years, anyone older than that is likely immune. (Incidentally, a 2009 episode of South Park called “The Coon” much more cleverly parodied the inherent childishness of Batman and the misguided grittiness of post-Batman Begins superhero films, and they did it without having to resort to senseless violence). The film’s deepest hypocrisy is that it ostensibly subverts the popularity of superhero movies — rooted, as it is, in stunted adolescence, cheap violence, and masturbatory fantasy — while covertly trying to establish itself as a new commercial franchise to compete with the likes of Iron Man. I’m reminded of Orwell’s pigs, winning the other animals’ trust by denouncing humans’ bipedal movement only to turn around and walk on two legs. The difference is that Kick-Ass‘s success relies on convincing its audience that it’s somehow superior to mainstream superhero stories just because it’s self-aware, a weak metatextual crutch that didn’t make the Coens’ Burn After Reading better than the Sturges films it sent up and helps even less when Kick-Ass sends up Batman. Even if it is a superhero comic that takes itself seriously as mature art, a work like Grant Morrison’s surreal masterpiece Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Eartha Jungian nightmare about Batman’s arrested sexuality — is far more engaging than anything Kick-Ass‘s smart aleck locker-room antics have to offer, either as satire or as genuine attempts to play with the big boys. Dave learns just a few months into his career as Kick-Ass that he can’t have his cake and eat it too, that he has to indulge either his boyhood fantasies (being a superhero) or his more adult ones (having sex with girls). The two come from incompatible mentalities — part of the reason why Batman is notoriously single — and Dave ends up stepping on his own toes when he tries to combine them. It’s too bad Vaughn and Millar never realized the same thing about their shotgun genre tactics, trying to take the piss out of the superhero genre with one hand while shaking it down for pocket change with the other.