Wednesday, March 17, 2010

KICK-ASS: The WATCHMEN of the Myspace Generation?

A sequel to Watchmen? No, Kick-Ass just seems to be the Watchmen of the Myspace generation...and about just as deep... If the movie poster isn't enough of a tip-off, consider this line from the introduction to the hardcover version, written by...um...Rob Liefield:

"It used to be that you had to be grim and gritty in order to grab everyone's attention. Now you most definitely have to Kick-Ass."
Ya know...it would be easier for me just to call it as it is: nihilistic trash. Still, an in-depth look does provide me with an opportunity to discuss a larger point, so let's have at it...

"My plan, actually, was to create a generation of superhero comics, the same way that Stan [Lee] did back in the 60s. He created a whole universe of characters entirely different from the DC stuff of the Thirties and Forties, and I wanted to do some now that were just as different again from that. And what I'm finding out, almost by accident, is that people want three-dimensional superheroes. Each generational shift is slightly more realistic and radical than the previous. So Dave Lizewski, the hero of Kick-Ass, follows that lineage, back through Peter Parker to Clark Kent." –Mark Millar

"Almost by accident?" Read Ayn Rand's The Romantic Manifesto. If you get that far, you'll know that real heroes are nothing like the ones Millar claims to write, and, far from being some kind of innovator, Rand has his number long before he was even born.

But first, let's talk about the Watchmen connection. The common theme is the idea that if superheroes existed in the real world, they wouldn't be noble, but psycho and/or fascist. And throughout Kick-Ass is the motif that "this is why there are no superheroes," only villains and regular people, and that to even attempt to become a superhero is a path to destruction. Now, when Millar says "superheroes," you might think he means "super-powered heroes," and who'd argue? But no, he means "heroes." What emerges at the end of the story is not a underdog triumphant, but a transformation of the everyman into a monster.

As much as I disagree with Alan Moore and Watchmen's take on heroism, he is a thoughtful writer, and he does know his craft. Kick-Ass isn't even a good imitation of Watchmen. But I do have to comment on the irony that this is the legacy of Watchmen, a book originally intended to end the superhero drama. Even more ironic that Alan Moore has moved on and returned to writing some of the best damn comic books in years, including superhero books. As described in the Alan Moore biography by Lance Parkin, Moore had "created a revolution, then disowned it." He even speculates that Moore wrote Supreme as an "act of atonement" for "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?". What's the story here? Discussing Moore's Jack Kirby-inspired series 1963, Parkin says that it "seen by many critics as a retrograde step by the writer of From Hell," but that "[i]t's now clear that Moore was actually ahead of the curve":

"The pendulum was starting to swing back to allow the return of the more kitsch and camp elements into superhero stories. Writers and readers were starting to realize that whatever real-world elements were introduced, superheroes could never be truly 'realistic'. Comics like Flex Mentallo, Astro City, and Powers have come along, stressing how different a world with superheroes would be, rather than trying to imagine how they would operate in ours. Superhero comics have come to embrace the absurdities of their own internal logic, rather than trying to rationalize them. Superheroes are allowed to be entertaining, uplifting, and heroic, rather than 'dark' and 'gritty'."

Parkin's take is something of a back-handed compliment, but I agree with that last part wholeheartedly. What Millar doesn't get, what Watchmen doesn't get, and what the "grim and gritty" school never got, was that the issue is a battle between Naturalism and Romanticism, so let me take the moment to correct Parkin's passage with a better explanation from Ayn Rand. Rand wrote of this phenomenon in The Romantic Manifesto, and while she considered herself a "Romantic Realist," she defended genres (at their best) typically seen as "escapist," popular fiction such as sci-fi, mysteries, and Westerns, not for their vices, but for their virtues: "Philosophically, Romanticism is a crusade to glorify man's existence; psychologically, it is experienced simply as the desire to make life interesting...Detective, adventure, science-fiction novels and Westerns belong, for the most part, to the category of popular fiction...their emphasis is on action, but their heroes and villains are abstract projections, and a loosely generalized view of moral values, of a struggle between good and evil, motivates the action." She describes "thrillers" as a dramatized abstraction of the basic pattern of: choice, goal, conflict, danger, struggle, victory."

In other words, Romantic fiction presents life "not as it is, but as it might or ought to be":
"The Romanticist did not present a hero as a statistical average, but as an abstraction of man's best and highest potentiality, applicable to and achievable by all men, in various degrees, according to their individual choices...the Romanticists presented heroes as 'larger than life'; now, monsters are presented as 'larger than life'–or, rather, man is presented as 'smaller than life.'"
How else would you explain the difference between the scrawny heroes and mountainous villains of Kick-Ass?

One can say that
Millar is criticizing the genre cliche of "superpowers," but does it wash? Sure, David, at the end, claims a certain victory: "I'd reshaped the world the way I 'd always wanted it, and it doesn't get much better than this." But it's less a matter of what is said, and more of how it's said"; Millar's ending is an ironic juxtaposition for a "post-ironic" Watchmen-shaped world.

But even if I give
Millar the benefit of the doubt, why the ambiguity to begin with? Rand describes the phenomenon as "Bootleg Romanticism." Rand goes a step further, discussing the "parasites" of Romanticism, those who mock the genre and the attempts at heroism in favor of "realism." Rand was dissecting Watchmen and Kick-Ass decades before they were written. Where Parkin justifies the "uplifting" and "heroic" aspects of comics by their "kitsch and absurd" qualities, Rand calls such tongue-in-cheek thrillers cowardice
:
"What are such thrillers laughing at? At values, at man's struggles for values, at man's capacity to achieve his values...at man the hero."

She describes how Hollywood bastardized James Bond, and how the creator of
The Avengers tv show got upset that the audience took the show seriously: "A heroes-seeking people is what they cannot admit into their view of the universe."

But superpowers are unrealistic, you say? While Rand was a "Romantic realist," she understood fantasy as a legitimate form of storytelling, when it served as an abstraction:
"An abstraction has to be 'larger than life'–to encompass any concretes that individual men may be concerned with, each according to the scale of his own values, goals and ambition. The scale varies; the psychological relationships involved remain the same. The obstacles confronting an average man are, to him, as formidable as Bond's adversaries; but what the image of Bond tells him is: 'It can be done.'"
And she exposes the true motivation behind cape-tugging: "Only an arrested-modern mentality would go on protesting that the events portrayed in a thriller are incredible or improbable, that there are no heroes, that 'life is not like that'–all of which is thoroughly irrelevant."
"Nobody takes thrillers literally, nor cares about their specific events, nor harbors any frustrated desire to become a secret agent or a private eye. Thrillers are taken symbolically; they dramatize one of man's widest and most crucial abstractions: the abstraction of moral conflict."
This, I submit (even though he may object), is why Moore disowned his Watchmen revolution to the world of superhero comics. "What people seek in thrillers is the spectacle of man's efficacy: of his ability to fight for his values and to achieve them. What they see is a condensed, simplified pattern, reduced to its essentials: a man fighting for a vital goal–overcoming one obstacle after another–facing terrible dangers and risks–persisting through an excruciating struggle–and winning. Far from suggesting an easy or "unrealistic" view of life, a thriller suggests the necessity of a difficult struggle; if the hero is "larger-than-life," so are the villains and the dangers."

After reading
Kick-Ass, I wish I could say I'm tempted to give Millar the benefit of the doubt, but I'm not, despite quotes from Millar that make me want to, such as "I'm honestly as happy writing Superman Adventures as I am writing Wanted," and, "Likewise, I see no shame in writing Captain America or Wolverine." But I have to ask, after reading Kick-Ass, "Why? So you can destroy it, spit all over it, and throw heroism to the gutter?" The "heroes" of Kick-Ass certainly do overcome one adversity after the other over larger-than-life odds, or, at least larger than their lives. But their heroism is never really defined, and you'd think that would be the first thing on the agenda for someone trying to radically change the superhero landscape. That might be too much for the Myspace generation, it would take more thought and concentration allowed than a Twitter message would allow, beyond the movie's tag-line of "Shut Up. Kick Ass." However it's defined, it's quickly undercut by the cynicism.

If art is a "selective recreation" of one's values, then Millar's choices show us what he truly values by de-emphasizing nobility and virtue while overemphasizing violence and gore. Yes, those things exist, they are real. But so what? Why does the gutter have to be the standard of what's "real?" There's still the issue of a superhero motivated not only by boredom but by an altruistic justification to "help others" to the point of self-sacrifice (pretty much literally; is he reimbursed for the medical bills incurred by the beatings and torture he receives? He's less of a hero and more of a masochist.) Can Millar throw off the Watchmen-influenced deconstruction and the emphasis on violence and profanity as "realism" to portray truly heroic characters? His future development of these characters will reveal whether or not he is sincere or a coward.

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