“I always wondered why nobody did it before me; I mean, all those comic books, movies, TV shows… you’d think that one eccentric loner would’ve made himself a costume. I mean, is everyday life really so exciting, schools and offices so thrilling that I’m the only one who ever fantasized about this? Come on, be honest with yourself. At some point in our lives, we all wanted to be a superhero.” –Opening of Kick-Ass.
I feel old. Not because I am, but because this is the first article I have written in which I will address the past decade with the following: the turn of the millennium and the early ‘10s, were a fascinating time to be a kid. This was when mass culture noticed that the superhero genre had a level of self-awareness previously unseen; in 2009, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was released, while the same year we saw Kick-Ass, the subject of this article, enter theaters.
I initially viewed Watchmen on Blu-Ray after my brother bought the director’s cut. I enjoyed it. It was dramatic, ironic, and glutted itself on more myth then even the most renegade of semioticians could handle. In a way, Snyder’s film did for the superhero genre what Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers did many years earlier—it subverted established dogma and replaced it with a critically aware understanding of how it, as a text, functioned in late capitalist society.
But despite the pleasure I derived from Watchmen, it could never hold a candle to Kick-Ass.
This probably had to do with simple demographic data—whereas Watchmen was about a bunch of former superheroes pushing into their golden years, Kick-Ass was about a teenager with an amusing delusion. In other words, it was about me.
Kick-Ass, directed by Matthew Vaughan, is based on the comic book written by John Miller and John S. Romito Jr. It tells the story of seventeen year old Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). Dave is a comic-book fan who loves superheroes. One day, he wonders aloud to his two friends—Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters)—why no one has ever dressed up as a superhero; why is it that “millions of people want to be Paris Hilton and no one wants to be Spider-Man?” A juvenile conversation concerning a porn tape ensues before, suddenly, their classmate enters the comic book store: Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), eventual villain and faux-Superhero friend Red Mist; a rich kid with a crime boss for a dad, the villainous Frank D’Amico (Frank Strong).
Later in the story we find out that Frank D’Amico framed famed cop Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) as a drug dealer. As a result, Damon did a stint in prison, where he formulated a convoluted revenge plan—one which involved brainwashing his pre-pubescent daughter, Mindy (Chloё Grace Moretz), into becoming a masked vigilante named Hit-Girl who works alongside his own persona, Big Daddy. First, though, we follow Dave as he descends into his superhero delusion.
In Dave’s own words, his only super-power was “being invisible to girls.” Probably for the best, however, since the romantic desire of his young life, Kati Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), is too shallow to notice him as he presently exists. Instead, Kati is “all about the lame ducks”. If only, if only, there was a way to get a pretty girl to notice you.
Unfortunately, as we all know, we live in a universe where it is not always possible that those whom we are attracted to will notice us in return. So Dave does the next best thing— he creates a superhero persona and starts fighting crime. I feel comfortable enough in suggesting his desire to get Kati’s attention was the major impetus for his move to crime-fighting, even if this is never overtly articulated.
Did I say that Dave ‘fights crime’? Sorry, it is more accurate to say that Dave trains. That is until he encounters two gangsters in a parking lot who proceed to beat him, stab him, and then leave him for dead. After an invasive medical procedure, Dave is back and running as Kick-Ass 2.0.
Now he searches for lost cats. Every superhero has a different modus opernadi when it comes to fighting crime; so to each his own!
While Dave recovers from his beating, Frank D’Amico faces problems of his own; turns out that someone dressed as a discounted Batman is stealing the drugs his organization peddles. Oh, also, the Batman wannabe is systematically murdering everyone on Frank’s payroll. Before long, however, Frank mistakenly comes to the conclusion that Kick-Ass is stealing his dope, after a sensational viral video of him defending a man from a gang attack hits the internet. Frank’s son, and Dave’s classmate, Chris, who does not know of Kick-Ass’s real identity, offers to help lure Kick-Ass into a trap. The trap goes bad and Big Daddy ambushes Frank’s goons and sets fire to Frank’s drug-filled warehouse.
From here, the film takes some narrative detours but the finale is predictable—Kick-Ass and Big Daddy are captured, Hit Girl rescues them, Big Daddy dies (because Nicolas Cage is an expensive actor to keep around for a sequel), and Hit Girl and Kick-Ass assault the D’Amico penthouse. Frank is killed, Chris swears revenge, and Mindy lives with a friend of her dad’s, while ending up as a student in Dave’s high school. It is a conventional happy, Hollywood style ending which offers resolution while setting-up a sequel.
We might ask ourselves what kind of film Kick-Ass actually is, as opposed to what it pretends to be. I feel this is a valuable question, bringing to mind the criticism that surrounded Watchmen for being a social-critique masked as a superhero film. But if that is the reality for Watchmen, then what’s the reality for Kick-Ass? I feel that it is a coming of age story masked as a superhero tale. But it is a tale rendered through extreme behavior—youth radicalism.
Typically, radicalism is represented in popular culture through some kind of extremist activity: toting around a hammer and sickle, demanding free healthcare, advocating for the abolishment of money. Such are the troika of Hollywood signs for behavior to look out for. The other notable sign is mental health.
The terms ‘mental illness’ and ‘radicalism’ are synonymous in the American popular unconscious—it is the zealous salafi jihadists, murderous Nazis, and idealistic communists who always bring disaster in Hollywood films. You will almost always find some suggestion of mental health problems, some facet of a character’s past or present which psychologically drives their campaign until their devotion to some cause—some insidious ideological Other which exists outside of liberal free market capitalism—is depicted as an act of obsessive mental illness in of itself.
So when we think of a film as light-hearted as Kick-Ass, a text about a teenager who wants to be some force for good in the world such as he finds in comic books, we may not immediately think of this as extreme behavior. But it constitutes itself as such; it is merely not immediately present due to the film’s emphasis on Superheroism.
Once you take a step back, you realize how distorted the characters realities actually are. Hit-Girl has been brainwashed since she was just a few years old into becoming a killing machine. Her father—Damon—is obsessed by revenge to such an extent that he brainwashes his daughter. Chris—AKA Red Mist— so desires his father’s approval that he dresses up in a gaudy, red leather outfit and spends hundreds-of-thousands of dollars while betraying one of his father’s contacts just to lure his teenaged classmate into a trap. Meanwhile, Dave, our spunky protagonist, suits up to win the heart of a young woman whom he does not even know, and who he has never even talked to for more than a few seconds. Though this essay is not focused on Critical Theory, one could have a psychological field day, vis-a-vie Freud or Lacan, concerning the characters and their issues.
So it’s not surprising that the film is actually a coming of age story – Dave, Mindy, and Chris are triangulated whether they like it or not – their efforts to find themselves forcing each character into contact with one another because each is broken in some fashion. Only through this elaborate legitimation of (p)fantasy—a violent eradication of the perceived wrong in the world— are the characters allowed to express their deepest inclinations. But when these inclinations are wrapped up in costumed crime-fighting, they appear to be less authentic than traditional teenage angst. They appear as mentally unbalanced, melancholic.
A scene between Kick-Ass and Red Mist illustrates this melancholy perfectly: these ‘heroes’ sit side-by-side in a luxury car, traveling together to ostentatiously help a woman being stalked. Red Mist, jabbering about his alleged superheroism, smokes pot. All the while, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” plays, the lyrics evoke the film’s tension perfectly: “Who do you think you are? Hahaha bless your soul… I think you’re crazy, like me.” It doesn’t help our protagonist’s presumed mental condition that he is happily dancing in his car seat as the song plays, clearly bemused by his devotee’s “unexpected” personality. Considering that this happens after Big Daddy and Hit Girl intimidated Dave into nearly giving up crime fighting, this scene with Red Mist evokes the idea of a ‘rebound’, in hooking up with another person to quickly raise your spirits and regain some lost confidence after a breakup (the aforementioned intimidation).
So it is a healthy teenage life, just one almost unrecognizable since it is heavily encoded.
At the risk of having too many threads, though, we need to bring these disparate parts together: Why are the characters ‘crazy,’ why do they have their aforementioned ‘issues’ and unorthodox angst? Let us consider what I feel is the film’s ultimate thesis—that, yes, Kick-Ass is about many things, not the least of which is a youth radicalism encoded as superheroism, an attribute perceived as abnormal by the population at large. But we need to ask why this ‘crazy’ radicalism is so prevalent.
(Stay tuned, because I am about to throw a bunch of theory your way!)
I feel that this ‘craziness’ has to do with neo-postmodernist youth-aesthetics (which, for the purposes of this article, I am choosing to call Neo-Modernism). During the transition from adolescence into young adulthood, youth, but in particular White youth—not to sound like a White Nationalist— have lost any sense of cultural identification. Multi-culturalism has redoubled racism, while neoliberalism has neutered both the self-sufficiency of the working class while suffusing everything else in piles of debt. Under an increasingly harsh austerity joined with economic crisis, society has been transmogrified into a consumerist mono-culture, one based on cultural exploitation—the reification of non-White culture and history into the White Supremacist Ideological State Apparatus— to the extent where the very idea of culture itself has become a novelty. In this scenario, pop culture, that which is made to be consumed, replaces the deep culture of history.
This is what is ‘crazy’ and ‘radical’ about Kick-Ass: it manifests this mono-culture as deep culture.
It is this manifestation that drives the young protagonists to dress up in fancy costumes. It is this articulation of capitalist social-relations which nudges young people’s identities not into the co-mingling of various deep cultures, but of a mono-culture which is redesigned, literally, at the drop of a dime; Dave’s drive to become a superhero is the natural response to a culturally deprived young person whose only identity is found within consumerism. As we shall see, the seriousness of this spectacle is as such, precisely because this mono-cultural mythology is the closest thing to a culture which these young people have experienced.
Deep-culture under late capitalism has become so monstrously reified into a negative chain of signification, that everything has been warped beyond recognition. Postmodernism has to do with this decay—where the idea that there are no metanarratives cannibalizes the metanarrative itself, in this epoch’s death, we see the decay evolve into a twisted parody of itself—Neo-modernism, that which retains whatever is absurd and unlikely but under the mask of the straight-faced gambler. If you will, this is the political moment which everyone is supposed to take seriously, even though it is a façade; but it goes beyond Trump and into the philosophical, into the cultural. Hence, superheroes.
This reality is the actualized materiality of the text; part of Kick-Ass’s rhizomatic nature is thus: youth is positioned melancholically (as coming-of-Age tales tend to be), but as a proactive agent: the melancholy originates from the super-exploited position of youth, alienation in capitalist society, not from the ubiquitous position of ‘crazy’ Coming of Age superheroism in itself (because, it is this encoded superheroism which gives the heroes a new life direction, the ability to surmount alienation). Ultimately, we will see that it is this super-exploitation—this social, perhaps, even, existential emptiness— which gives license for the legitimation of mono-culture into Neo-Modernism.
But in the meantime, we can glean this rise in advance thanks to the soundtrack—two concluding tracks which round out the film as the credits roll and so act as a synecdoche: Mika’s “Kick-Ass” and The Pretty Reckless’s “Make Me Wanna Die”; to fully illustrate, I will contrast and compare these two tracks with scenes from the film.
An original track, Mika’s “Kick Ass”, boasts the following lyrics: “We are young. We are strong. We aren’t looking where we belong. We are cool. We are free. And we’re running with blood on our knees.” Astute readers will notice the dialectic between the Positive and the Negative; how the youth feel empowered—“strong” “free” “cool”—while rejecting the old modernist notions of finding a niche—that which is evoked by “we aren’t looking where we belong.” Such a course of action resulted in these young people “running”, or, pursuing the aspirations and livelihoods, with “blood on their knees”, the violence of the real world—these youth are anything but deluded about the ontological nature of reality; but even so, they are still “running”—living life— all the same.
If I had to place it, Mika’s track appears in a traditional postmodern lens—a complete rejection of Other-fulfillment (mono-culture as the end in itself), trumping the pain endured from expressing such anti-fulfillment as fulfillment, while one tries to “rule the world” (legitimating mono-culture as deep culture). The closest scene I can match it to in tone is in an early bit in the movie when Kick-Ass (the character) walks to Rahzul’s apartment. In narrative terms, he is there to ward off an abusive suiter from Katie, his crush who thinks him gay. The talk with Rahzul goes bad and a fight breaks out; Kick-Ass is about to have his ass kicked, but at the last minute, he is saved by Hit-Girl.
This is the first appearance of Hit-Girl as a superhero (previously, we only see Hit-Girl’s real life identity, Mindy). Her abrupt appearance rescues the male lead, thus inverting traditional gender-roles; moreover, this is accompanied by an upbeat bubble-gum pop soundtrack set to Hit-Girl brutally slaughtering the street thugs. No doubt about it—this is a microcosm of postmodernism; everything is inverted as the wildest fantasies are brought to life: if certain strands of postmodernism denied historical truth in favor of historical contingency—a series of disjointed points—then this scene is an instance of the mono-cultural equivalent: the history of the superhero genre is denied in favor of a fantastical ‘point’ where all that we previously knew—male leads saving the day, heterosexuality as the driving force—is subverted in favor of a single point, a pre-pubescent girl appropriating the role of hero.
As I have made pains to illustrate, however, postmodernism and Neo-Modernism are at war in this film, so dialectically, each side oscillates as an intensification sharpens. If Mika’s track and its corresponding scene in Rahzul’s apartment is indicative of postmodernism, then The Pretty Reckless track “Make Me Wanna Die” is, alongside Big Daddy’s assault on Frank’s lumber warehouse, indicative of Neo-Modernism: “Take me, I’m alive. Never was a girl with a wig in mind, but everything looks better when the sun goes down.” The sun, in this case, is easily a metaphor for anything which is accepted as normal under postmodern Late Capitalism—this interpretation fits for both the track as well as the film, and my thesis. The reference to a “wig in mind” reinforces the artificiality of postmodernism’s reification—that appropriating moral conventions of the past in service of an identity for the present mono-culture, is useless without that reification believing in itself. The speaker’s identity here is one which rejects this artificial norm for the presumed freedom of proverbial night-life. The very first line—“Take me, I’m alive”—connotes rebellion against the fragmented, post-modern present: pursuit of night-life raises the neo-modern grain, mono-culture as deep culture, and so legitimates the happiness of those elements, or, in other words, ‘makes real’ the affirmation of the mono-cultural artifacts developing into deep culture (Neo-Modernism). Hence the poignancy of the lyrics, “Taste me, drink my soul, show me all the things that I shouldn’t know.” In this case, everything which the speaker “shouldn’t know” is that which comes from outside the postmodernist mono-culture—those radical elements attempting to form a new articulation of a mono-culture meant to be an expression of something deeper than surplus-value realization. This is the articulation of a Neo-Modernist mono-culture.
Readers will notice that there is a more pronounced edge in “Make Me Wanna Die”, that the thesis seems more mature or edgier. This is because, ultimately, the thesis is one of knowledge acquisition, of discovering new worldly ideas even as the old still die. It is the suggestion of a forthcoming revelation which makes Neo-modernism so powerful; as such, this is why Big Daddy’s assault is a filmic high point.
In this scene, the audience will notice the fixed camera: Big Daddy appears from no-where and lays waste to Frank D’Amico’s goons. As he does so, the camera is almost rigid; though it does actually move fluidly throughout the scene, these are sudden jumps and the audience hardly notices them. What the audience is focused on is how the camera sticks close to Big Daddy; at moments the camera is glued to his back, at other times, it stays fixed on a specific part of the scene in a wide-shot, only shifting to give the audience a slightly better view of what happens as the action unfolds—like a reluctant voyeur allowing another to share in the desire.
Big Daddy’s killing spree is the logical culmination of adolescent superheroism. The soundtrack to this scene is somber and heavy; though the absurdity of Hit-Girl’s killing spree at Rahzul’s remains, the absurdity has been returned to its genre conventions—an anti-heroic male lead saving the day. If the fight at Rahzul’s was postmodernism in microcosm, then this is certainly Neo-modernism in microcosm: Big Daddy, just as much as a postmodern sign as Hit Girl, symbolizes this microcosm through the complete and total lack of innocence; whereas before, Hit Girl’s rampage had the violence indexing it as something profoundly unsuitable for children—the swelling musical score and uplifting atmosphere delivering it as a postmodern artifact—Big Daddy’s rampage is pure spectacle: gruesome violence, systematic killing, professional detachment. Big Daddy is the superhero crossed with the mercenary and it is what happens to people who truly and wholeheartedly believe in donning the cowl for themselves. In other words, it is that decayed postmodernism (again, Neo-Modernism) believing in itself.
Hit Girl is young. She is still coming into her own and navigating a culture which cares little for her outside of what iota of surplus-value she is able to realize through her teenaged machinations. Hers is a link to postmodernism, but Big Daddy, being the exact opposite of Hit Girl, is the evolution of Hit Girl. Big Daddy is not postmodern; because unlike the earlier scene at Rahzul’s, where everything was taken with a grain of salt and a lot of self-deprecating humor, Big Daddy is a superhero who takes himself very seriously. There is no humor in Big Daddy’s worldview. It is all violence.
If we wanted to look at it semiotically, then some words which would come to mind while watching Big Daddy’s assault would be, yes, signs like ‘systematic’, ‘brutal’, and ‘professional’ but other signs would give away the neo-modern content. Big Daddy is fascist (p)fantasy. He is D.C Comics Batman character taken to the logical conclusion—a mentally unstable psychopath who culls all in his way. Politically, he is a conservative wet-dream; Big Daddy is a vigilante unparalleled and circumvents bureaucratic political correctness by his sheer audacity, his will. In other words, he is the strong-man of this universe’s burgeoning superhero collective. He is the superhero equivalent of Donald Trump.
Big Daddy’s Neo-Modernism is the absurdity of a wilted postmodernism that takes itself too seriously. It is something which does not wait for legitimation but legitimates itself through its own willpower. One can point and laugh at something derived from a postmodern mono-culture—the zaniness of wearing costumes and fighting crime, but the seriousness of Big Daddy, and how the petty delusions of revenge and self-determination—Modernist relics appropriated by postmodernism and reborn through the decay of postmodernism into Neo-modernism—all of which are signs par excellance of the superhero genre, overdetermined the narrative. The mono-culture which emerged from an increasingly ineffective postmodernism finds its true expression through wrestling with its postmodern heritage.
Kick-Ass is not a story about young people organizing to make a change for the better—this is not a story about activism and community organizing. Rather, it is a story of decaying sign regimes and how youth rearticulate themselves to better fit into these regimes. It is, in other words, the siren call of what the conservative pundit calls “extremism”—the audacity to take the world by storm thanks to being armed by a new and exciting political edge.
Is this radicalism? Is it hokey middle class pseudo-culture? Is Gnarls Barkley right? Perhaps this is something which doesn’t need to be over-thought; perhaps this article can end in the clichéd way and allow the text, through Dave’s voiceover from the start of the film, to speak for itself.
“Could I ever have been a superhero? The only thing I was able to offer the world was good intentions and a slightly elevated capacity to take a kicking. With no power comes no responsibility. Except, that wasn’t true.”