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Irresponsible Citizen

We watched Kick-Ass last Sunday. Like Wanted, it’s based on a comic book that seeks to overturn the superhero archetype, but it both chooses a higher class of source material and remains (I am told) truer to the source material. (I say “I am told,” because Eileene was dead set against me reading that comic. After reading Wanted, the comic, I have to say “well done, there” on that movie’s utter infidelity.)

Dave Lizewski is an ordinary high school student tired of mediocrity. Though he has no superpowers beyond a slightly above-average tolerance for pain, he decides to rise above the crowd by donning a wetsuit and going out to fight crime under the name “Kick-Ass.” After several humiliations, other spandex-clad characters and gangsters begin coming out of the woodwork, and soon he’s deep in something closely resembling an actual superheroic life.

This transition forces me to doubt the sincerity of the film’s effort to subvert the superhero. Yes, his first several superheroic adventures are botched, accidental, and/or fail to end in his death only by virtue of outside intervention. Yes, his sudden fame is rooted as much in YouTube mockery as adulation. Yes, he first gets the girl of his dreams only because she’s decided he’s gay, on the strength of a rumor that he’s been raped by muggers. (Yeah, I know: the girl of his dreams is both stupid and bigoted.) Yes, he manages to get his allies killed. Yes, he’s outdone as a masked vigilante by an eleven-year-old girl.

But despite all this, he does, eventually, get laid by the girlfriend who embraces his idiocy and decides he isn’t gay after all, flies a jetpack, takes out the mob boss, and rescues the real female lead of the film. The episodes of self-doubt aren’t substantially different from, say Peter Parker’s endless self-pity, or Alfred’s frequent reminders that Bruce Wayne’s brain isn’t firing on all cylinders. By the end of the movie, Kick-Ass does indeed become the superhero that the internal monologue continually protests can’t exist. We’re expected not only to buy into the genuine and implausible skills of Hit Girl, but to accept Kick-Ass’s more modest heroic feats, as well. The movie isn’t a satire; it’s just a straight-up superhero tale pretending to be a satire of superhero tales.

I suspect the heaps of mockery, satire, and self-deprecating fourth-wall humor are an attempt to provide intellectual cover for the practiced cynicism of Gen-Xers who would prefer to think themselves above the corny old superhero theme. As long as we can pretend we’re really making fun of superheroes, it’s all right to enter the theater in broad daylight, and if the audience lets its carefully tended intellectual shell slip and gets emotionally involved, well… we’re all friends here, right? Like the awkward posturing between Kick-Ass and Red Mist, the calculatedly aloof target audience should be too busy keeping up appearances to call one another out.

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