Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Renegade April: Kick-Ass (2010)

My review of Kick-Ass can be found at BlogCritics. It's lukewarm, but that doesn't stop me from digging some interesting themes out of the psychedelic storyline. Below, a meditation on Kick-Ass in terms of exhibitionism and representation, and how they undermine the more obvious message of "superheroism" splashed across the movie's surface.

Kick-Ass's motives: an exhibitionist spectacle, disguised as a noble pursuit. There's an undeniable tension between Dave Lizewski's speeches about truly wanting to help people, and his implied lust for fame and public recognition. Like most desires for attention, this initially stems from Dave's sense of his own invisibility. At the beginning of Kick-Ass, there are certain indicators of this invisibility, most notably the ability of the hot chicks on either side of his locker to talk right through him. He also mentions that among his friends, he's "not even the funny one," exhibiting some minor jealousy for Marty's sarcastic charisma. He spends a significant amount of time playing Star Wars Kid in front of a mirror in his room, and it looks like fun... in fact, it's a very honest alternative to the "training montage" that would normally represent the character's development. It shows us a kid who feels below notice, and who would like to find a way to represent himself.

This "exhibition" theme develops significantly during the first half of the film. After his requisite beat-down by a couple street thugs, Dave is willing to sacrifice his own personal public image in order to protect his Kick-Ass persona, going so far as to strip naked before emergency services arrive. This sacrifice is actually wide-ranging: Katie, his crush, takes the cue from the strange circumstances of his rescue and assumes he's gay, rendering Dave Lizewski invisible sexually, as well as socially. Kick-Ass the costumed hero, on the other hand, is highly visible, drawing a massive following on MySpace and a world-record number of hits on YouTube. The green wet-suit is a dramatic, self-conscious representation, a personality built from the ground up with "looking cool" as a primary motivation. Lizewski / Kick-Ass isn't lying about his desire to help people, but his exhibitionist impulse is plain, especially in his debut speech to an entourage of thugs in a diner parking lot, where he can't, in good conscience, explain his motivations without pointing out "all those people watching." Here, it becomes clear: for Kick-Ass, altruism is tied into public image, and "doing good" and "looking good" are rooted in common soil. And while Kick-Ass's public image thrives, Dave becomes less and less visible, eventually confessing his despair at not having anybody he can talk to. We, the audience, become his only confidantes, at least until he unmasks himself in Katie's bedroom.

It's a stretch, but it's even worth considering that Kick-Ass's first fight, when he's beaten and stabbed by a pair of thugs, is such a failure because there's nobody there to watch. Maybe the presence of an audience would have empowered Kick-Ass enough to avoid those punches and that knife blade. In the drug dealer's apartment, Kick-Ass is an abject failure, and it's worth noting that this apartment is a secret lair, far away from snooping cell-phone cameras, where none of the thugs even know who he is (really? After becoming a world-renowned viral personality?) Can Kick-Ass ever be victorious without making a spectacle of himself? Perhaps, but it certainly doesn't happen in this movie.

In fact, Kick-Ass's image gets so big that it starts to get away from him. He gets noticed by some bad people... as one hapless impersonator discovers... and when Big Daddy and Hit-Girl start taking out Frankie's mafioso, Kick-Ass is automatically blamed, being the superhero with the visibility. For his character, the most interesting moment isn't a stupid-ass scene with a bazooka. Rather, it's a tense torture scene broadcast live on the web, in which Frankie, stereotypical crime boss extraordinaire, uses Kick-Ass's visibility as a way to reinforce his own power structure. If Kick-Ass is an idea, born in the throes of the capricious public sphere, then Frank D'Amico knows that the only way to kill an idea is in its birthplace (yes, The Internet is the Mount Doom of Kick-Ass)... the only place where an image can be killed is in plain sight.

If Kick-Ass is motivated by an ambiguous mix of image-mongering and altruism, Red Mist is a fair mirror image (being red instead of green should be your first clue). He, too, is struggling with issues of invisibility, being protected from his peers by a big-ass bodyguard, and being generally dismissed and ignored by his father, the crime boss. He compensates by creating a tricked-out, self-involved, action-figure-worthy persona and making himself as visible as possible, ostensibly as a way to draw Kick-Ass's gaze... though he obviously doesn't mind the attention from a voyeuristic public eye, either. However, for him, the image-mongering is mixed with a healthy dose of family loyalty and betrayal, the counterpoint to Kick-Ass's altruism.

In terms of motivation, Kick-Ass also contrasts with Big Daddy / Damon and Hit-Girl / Mindy, who are driven by rage and resentment over their wife/mother's death. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl don't feel the need to draw attention to themselves, so they can stay in the background while Kick-Ass distracts the rest of the world. The film makes some specific nods to their clandestine nature: they have multiple safe-houses, they mock Kick-Ass when he asks how to contact them, and they "kill" security cameras when they drop in on their targets. This is obviously a good idea, because as it turns out, Big-Daddy's appearance on Red Mist's teddy bear camera is what turns him into a target. However inept Red Mist is as a villain, he turns out to be good at capturing the image of a ghost. The eventual result is that Big Daddy is tied up, placed in front of a webcam, and becomes completely helpless; Hit-Girl has to take out the lights so she can do her standard fuck-shit-up routine. Their visibility is their weakness, and they can only get shit done from the shadows.

Despite Damon and Mindy's lack of narcissism, they have selfish motives for their supposedly heroic quest. Their revenge fantasy, as common as it is in action movies and superhero comics, isn't much more noble than Kick-Ass's exhibitionism -- Damon's fixation is obsessive enough that he sacrifices his daughter's mental health and livelihood to the cause, and although the movie doesn't call him out as being an abusive monster, it's not an unfair judgment to make about his character.

So beyond all the themes of self-representation, image, and narcissism, what does this say about being a superhero? Maybe it says that to do this kind of work -- to dress up in something ridiculous with the intention of staging a violent confrontation with evil forces -- you have to have some other issues going on. You have to be desperate for validation, like Kick-Ass and Red Mist, or you have to be nursing a poisonous agenda, like Damon / Big Daddy... or you have to be the victim of such an agenda, like Mindy / Hit-Girl. You have to be doing it for the cameras, or for the image in the panel of a comic book, or just for the picture-show in your own head. If you're just a good kid, a Peter Parker with a heart of gold, you probably won't be interested in kicking any ass. You'll probably use your super-strength to help people out of emergency situations. You'll probably pick a real global problem and become an advocate for it. You won't cut peoples' legs off and shit.

Being a Renegade looks cool, though. And as Kick-Ass discovers, when he finally lets his real identity and his superhero persona intersect... at least it can get you laid.

Renegade Profile

A kid with a love for comic books decides to rebel against his mundane life and become a masked avenger, and after getting fucked up once or twice, he stumbles upon worldwide Internet fame and inspires a spate of superheroes committed to bringing down a New York City crime boss.
  • Destruction of property
  • Manslaughter
  • Assault, Second-degree murder
  • Fornication


Anonymous said...

"and although the movie doesn't call him out as being an abusive monster, it's not an unfair judgment to make about his character."

Well, Damon (the cop partner) does call him out on it, saying "You owe Mindy a childhood" - Big Daddy responds by saying that D'Amico owes her a childhood.

In other words, Damon is a well-intentioned extremist.

Anonymous said...

Whups, I meant...

"Well, Marcus (the cop partner) does call him out on"