Monday, May 3, 2010

KICK-ASS the Movie: A Heroism Rorschach Test

I was not initially going to see the Kick-Ass movie, given my reaction to the graphic novel, but some online discussion that claimed the movie was different enough prompted me to see for myself. Well, despite some superficially significant changes (the twist on Big Daddy's origin's was gone, and the hero gets the girl), I think I was right the first time. (And confirmed in an interview with director Matthew Vaughn, who, in the spirit of the book, says that "superheroes are always flawed characters that we can relate to and who you want to be and take you on a journey that gets you out of the mundane life that we all have.")

Now, I've already outlined my issues with the graphic novel's approach to heroism, which is a parody of sorts. I've also noted that writer Mark Millar has shown a willingness to acknowledge the brighter side of superheroes with his book 1985. So, in that spirit, the movie's philosophy is vague enough, on the surface, to be a type of...um...Rorschach test, testing the audience's psychological reaction to heroism in general. Are these characters to be applauded for heroism, or laughed at for dressing funny? Or they bravely stepping up to defend values, or psychotically acting out on sadomasochistically? And so on...

But one thing that stood out in the movie was a picture of the Greek titan Atlas on the wall of the hero's bedroom. This is not accidental, and revealing, considering that in Marvel's Civil War, Millar has Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four reject the notion of the superheroes "shrugging," a la Ayn Rand. This theme carries over into Kick-Ass via a bit of monologue from the teen hero in a homage to Spider-Man:
"With no power, comes no responsibility...except that's not true."

Well, ego prompts me to point out that I've already said this back in October of 2005 on an online forum regarding Spider-Man:

"The opposite is true: With great weakness comes great responsibility, because the weak have to work HARDER to protect that self."

The difference between my reversal and that of the one in Kick-Ass is that the full context of my quote on that forum challenges the altruistic side of Spider-Man's quote: responsibility to whom? The hero in Kick-Ass rightly realizes that responsibility cannot simply be shrugged because one is not a superhero, but, despite the post-modern posturing of Millar and Vaughn, never radically challenges the ethics behind the superhero genre; so much for deconstruction..."plus ca change..."

This goes beyond the world of Kick-Ass in its revelations, however, revealing the bankruptcy of that deconstructionist Watchmen-spawned multi-verse...for years, comics were under the pseudo-intellectual spell of amoralism, relativism, whatever-ism, featuring flawed heroes, anti-heroes, anything BUT heroes...but now, since the election of Barack Obama, heroism is in again, and the cynics are slowly embracing their "inner Romantics." In a way, I see this as a victory for a site subtitled "for heroes in exile;" heroes have been called back home.

But under what banner? Has anything really changed? America has always been a mixed nation of individualism and altruism, a contradiction that has finally caught up with it. The superhero genre has always been a manifestation of this, and, just as capitalism has taken the blame for the statist-altruistic interferences in the economy, so has the individualistic side of superheroes taken the blame for the altruistic failures of the Judeo-Christian influences.

So, even granting the idea that stories like Kick-Ass, in whatever form, are un-ironically welcoming back heroes, they've not grown in understanding, and have nothing to offer than the same old utterance found in the justifications of Superman's quest: "to do what is right...because it is right..." This is not new, or radical; this is the Kantian "moral imperative." And with the conscious choice to put the world back on Atlas's shoulders, the comics community has fully reaffirmed the the self-sacrificial image of the hero.

And so, the hero who stands for the individual still remains in exile...

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