I hope you don’t mind if a steal a line from a movie here, but it’s one that rings very true: we all wear masks. Plus, if you let me appropriate and modify a quote from a different movie, no-one cares who we are until we put them on. The fake-it-until-you-make-it mantra is popular with people because we’re attracted to the idea of leading a double life. Modern society, after all, enforces blending in or adopting personas in order to be more appealing to employers, friends, colleagues, and potential lovers.
It’s for this reason (and others) that we’re attracted to costumed vigilantism and superheroes. If society were to dictate that we have to have a Work Mask, a Social Mask, and a Private Mask, then we’re led to fantasize about other Masks we could wear. Often, we envision a Mask that should be worn to protect (or terrorize) the Average Joe, one associated with thrills, adventures, and death-defying feats. This is a fantasy we’ve entertained since the days of Spring-Heeled Jack and The Scarlet Pimpernel, and one we want to see realized.
Now, people have tried to become superheroes in real life with very mixed results. Most Real Superheroes are nothing more than fancy neighbourhood watchdogs, promoting safety and going around making criminals laugh rather than intimidating them, with the few who do decide to take justice in their own hands ending up arrested. It’s always fun to dream, though, but never forget that behind all good dreams is a terrifying nightmare.
Two films that explore that dream are James Gunn’s bleak-‘em-up black comedy/psychological horror film Super, and Matthew Vaughn’s superior adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic cruel and unusual Kick-Ass. We are going to talk about them now. Strap in.
1. Why We Fight
Why become a costumed vigilante, anyway? Is it because you believe in truth and justice, or is it simply to satiate some vile desire? According to Kick-Ass and Super, the answer is “both.” It’s all just a question of how that justification is portrayed.
In Kick-Ass, costumed super-heroism is synonymous with altruism. To paraphrase the film: everyone wants to be Paris Hilton but nobody wants to be Spider-Man. Now, if this sentiment on its own was to be taken figuratively, then I would agree wholeheartedly. Rather than build a world based on mediocrity, excess, and consumerism, we should promote fairness, intelligence, compassion, and a healthy sense of humour about ourselves. However, our bullied comic nerd lead David Lizewski is speaking literally. He sees injustice out in a world where evil succeeds because good stays silent and wants to do something about it. And by ‘doing something about it,’ I mean putting on a gimp suit and introducing his batons to muggers’ jaws, because that always goes over well.
With Super, the literal interpretation of masked vigilantism is one associated more with insanity. Anyone who puts on a mask and goes around beating up wrongdoers must be out of their tree. Someone who really wants to do good in the world would do so by volunteering, or working in the public sector, or training to become a teacher. This is not so in regards to Super’s protagonist Frank Darbo. Inspired by a psychotic episode and reruns of Bibleman parody The Holy Avenger, Frank adopts the Crimson Bolt persona so he can rain hell on anyone he thinks has wronged society. This is, however, more of a violent reaction to his ex-junkie wife eloping with the drug-peddling gangster lothario Jacques, hinting at the fact that this is more of an excuse to vent his frustration than anything else.
This is the big difference between the two leads. Dave’s anger is at the exploitation of decent people, leading him down the road of self-discovery and liberation as he finds his feet in a complex world. Frank’s on a quest for revenge, with the scenes of him beating up muggers and kiddy-fiddlers feels more like a training montage preparing him for the end fight, but this revenge is not just directed at bad guys, but at society in general. He’s a lone madman rejected and trod on by a world that hates and fears him, and when he puts on the mask the road takes madder twists. Dave’s story is one we can relate to; Frank’s is the one we’re afraid of living through.
2. Lady Killers
We can’t go into superhero territory without hitting some familiar notes. Now, both films deal with our heroes squaring off against crime-lords instead of the usual costumed nemeses, although Red Mist was a nice parody of one himself. This, in itself, is a nice nod to caped crusaders like The Shadow and Batman who almost always fought the mob but two bigger staples of the superhero world that need to be discussed are the presence and portrayal of ladies.
With the love interests, I’m just going to say that Katie Deaumax was just pandering to juvenile teen-boy fantasies of getting with the American-as-apple-pie super-popular cheerleader – which is funny, because in my experience geek boys (and one-tenth of geek girls) tend to prefer a girl they can enjoy a Babylon 5 marathon with. Meanwhile, Sarah in Super was a play on the damsel-in-distress idea, but throughout the film we learn she’s a recovering drug addict with a tumultuous life, easily charmed by seedy guys in fancy cars and lots of crank. Plus, unlike the fairy tales, she’s unable to be saved – at least not by men like Frank.
There’s more to say about the femme fatales in these movies, though. Representing Kick-Ass is Mindy Macready AKA ‘Hit-Girl.’ Trained from a young age by her ex-cop (or bored maniac if you follow the comics [and why would you do that]) father Damon to become a killing machine, she’s a human weapon designed to take down evildoers. She’s crass, vicious, and, in true Hollywood fashion, a loveable murderer with a heart of gold, making her an unhinged and deadly Grrl Power ambassador.
Meanwhile, Super’s Libby AKA ‘Boltie’ is another kind of crazy. Libby is a damaged comic store clerk who gets inspired by the main character’s rampages to don a costume of her own and join him. Possessing all of the mental problems but none of the heart, however, Boltie is a ruthless sadist who only cares about breaking people who have wronged her and Frank, from the gangsters he chases to someone she merely suspects keyed her friend’s car.
It’s important to note that both of these girls are completely out of their tree. Regardless of whether or not Chloe Grace-Moretz’s more positive portrayal of a mad person was seen as a victory by mental health Social Justice Warriors while Libby’s (and Frank’s) brand of nuts would be seen as considerably more damning, we can all agree that they’re both crazy. Let us not forget, however, that these characters also form strong bonds with the male leads. For Dave, Mindy is a role model, someone capable who is always prepared and driven to get the job done. For Frank, Libby is a mirror – he is her, and she’s him: a broken and horrible human being with violent tendencies and a need to get things done one way or another. He’s just never seen it from the outside before.
When these girls enter our boys’ lives, they evolve. With Dave, he becomes a better crime-fighter, unafraid to take out people who are bigger and stronger than him. By the end, he’s transformed into a true superhero, and he has Mindy to thank for it. Back in Super, Frank and Libby’s partnership leads to Frank becoming a worse person. In a troubled relationship worthy of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, she feeds into his violence, forces him to destroy public property and steal cars, loads him up with weapons, and even straight-up rapes him before releasing him into the wild like a rabid panther.
Can you guess what I’m leading up to?
3. Violence Is Golden
The rationales for our heroes’ decisions to become spectre of justice and their own personal mental landscapes set the tone for the films, and reflects the sort of “justice” they stand for deep-down. Because Dave is a teenager with teenaged dreams and a skewed view of the world, the violence in Kick-Ass is colourful and fun, set to exciting music and demonstrating that the human body is actually held together with pipe-cleaners and paper. Fighting is not anything to dread, but enjoy – unless you’re a drug dealing gangster, of course.
Super, meanwhile, understands that violence is a problem-solving method employed by children, psychopaths, and the emotionally stunted. Frank Darbo is all three; a simpleton from an abusive household with an unchecked mental condition and a child-like view of the world. He applies cartoon logic to reality, with terrible implications. The violence of Super, therefore, is not fun, nor should it be. It’s visceral and cruel, like anyone who’s ever actually been in a fight or came home from a war can contest. There’s no clever choreography in the real world, no catchy songs to trade blows to; just pure, unadulterated brutality.
The type of violence both films try to convey gets better realized as they progress, too. Kick-Ass’ fights begin realistically enough, and then tilts significantly after Dave’s second outing as a hero. By the halfway point, we’re treated to an eight-year-old in a fright wig carving up a room full adults, and get an ending involving the main character soaring up to a penthouse strapped to a jet-pack. Meanwhile, Super’s humorous style fades when Frank assaults someone for cutting in line at a movie theatre. From there, the black comedy becomes a bleak tragedy as Frank and Libby begin their reign of terror, pitilessly crippling and murdering everyone who stands in their way until Frank is shooting men who are begging for their lives.
Even their names reflect this. “Kick-Ass” is an expression for something great and for the action of kicking ass, something you can shout at the screen while Dave’s beating up gangsters outside a diner. “Crimson Bolt” is called so because he has a screw loose, and is trying to “fix” society – hence the wrench he wields. Plus, crimson is associated with blood, which he spills in order to get what he wants.
4. Identity Crisis
It would be inane for me to say that these films are only about superheroes. Not even superheroes themselves are about superheroes. Rather, Kick-Ass and Super are both about life, and about society, or rather the sides of it we want to acknowledge as far as masked men are concerned. Kick-Ass tells us that anyone can be a hero, sends the message that gumption and bright-eyed wonder lies in us all, and that we have to answer the siren’s call of our desires to become the person we want to be. Super, meanwhile, is a reflection of America’s violence subculture and our fascination with macabre imagery. It’s about marrying the real world with the four-colour one, and the consequences of being “super.”
Moreover, both films have a lot to say about being an outcast. We who face troubles fitting in to normal society do whatever we can to try and fit in somewhere. Many of us become characters, or rather caricatures of actual people, rather than grow up and become normal. We fear loneliness, persecution at the hands of our peers, and so we adopt identities that are aggressive and brusque, flighty and childish, or stoic and cool-headed, because we want people to love us. For Kick-Ass, this is desirable, saying that we will be loved if we adopt a persona, and that it will do wonders for our sense of self-worth. Super, however, tells us this is a terrible idea. Spend enough time as another person, and you start to believe that you are them, with little hope for recovery. Stare into the abyss long enough, and it will stare back through the eye-slits in a domino mask.
In conclusion, Super is a better Watchmen movie than the actual Watchmen movie.
See you next time,