What if normal people decided that the way to tackle crime was to put on costumes, assume a silly name and fight crime on a one by one basis? And what if Hollywood, as it is sometimes wont to do, did not one but two films based on that premise, pretty much at exactly the same time? (I’m sure there’s a fancy, latinate word for such occurrences, AKA the Armageddon Effect.) Well, that’s exactly what happened in 2010, with Kick-Ass (based on a Mark Millar comic) and Super – although arguably someone who puts on a costume and becomes a masked vigilante is by definition not quite normal, which both Super and Kick-Ass explore. Neither does it entirely successfully, though, mostly because they give in to the perceived needs of the stories they’re telling and the audience they’re hoping to satisfy.
Kick-Ass was the more successful of the two films according to the main metric that determines a film’s success, namely box-office take – so successful, in fact, that it’s got a bigger-budget sequel coming out later this year. It’s probably more immediately entertaining than Super, playing the situation more for laughs: its protagonist is a geeky teenager who reads too many comics, like a sadder, radioactive-spider-deprived version of Peter Parker who is at least as interested in copious masturbation as he is in fighting crime. More interesting, and more funny for the most part, are the secondary protagonists, though: Big Daddy, an ex-cop turned vigilante, and his adorable moppet of a daughter, Hit Girl. A lot of the film’s laughs come from the incongruous display of Hit Girl effecting maximum carnage as she slices and dices the criminal element of New York City. While the actors (Nicholas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz) make the most of the roles, though, the film does become pretty lazy once it’s discovered its most effective punchline, that of an 11-year old cursing like a sailor while committing acts of hyper-violence, repeating it so often that the movie should almost be renamed The Repetitive Adventures of Hit Girl (introducing Kick-Ass, the Boring Boy Wonder).
More problematic than the lazy comedy, though, is that Kick-Ass only takes its own premise seriously for the first half hour. Our teenage protagonist quite aptly gets his ass kicked – not to mention an ugly knife wound in the abdomen – on his first attempt to fight crime. By the end, though, he’s flying around with a jetpack firing shoulder-mounted gatling guns that, if fired that close to his head, would shred his eardrums in seconds. He dispatches the film’s big bad with a bazooka that’s almost bigger than he is. Kick-Ass‘s initial “What if?” is long forgotten as its eponymous hero commits acts as unbelievable as Hit-Girl’s, and barely any less realistic than those of his super-powered brethren.
Super takes its premise of a socially challenged shlub becoming a masked vigilante more seriously. The film still plays as a comedy, but the humour is decidedly more dark, as the protagonist’s vigilante crusade is shown to be deeply messed up. Sell drugs? Get a spanner to the head. Proposition a child prostitute? Get a spanner to the head. Cut in line at the cinema? Get a spanner to the head. Super‘s wannabe hero characters may in part react to what they see as evil, but what motivates them just as much is the self-righteous power trip they’re on. If the world treats you like a loser, put on a mask and costume and show the world that you’re not a loser by hitting it over the head with a spanner.
While Kick-Ass ends up like a more snarky, hyperviolent version of the stories it sets out to comment on, Super feels more like a grungy, sometimes adolescent take on Taxi Driver. Its protagonist, Frank Darbo AKA The Crimson Bolt, isn’t miles away from Travis Bickle, and just like his ’70s precursor he is torn between seeing bad things in the world and feeling utterly powerless and inadequate (not least when it comes to women). Differently from Taxi Driver, though, Super can’t quite resist buying into the power fantasy. The Crimson Bolt goes on a violent spree not too dissimilar from Travis Bickle’s, and we’re supposed to see it as messed up, but damn, if our clumsy, shlubby loser of a protagonist isn’t suddenly an absolute badass with guns, explosives and inventive movie-hero kills! The film ends up feeling less ambiguous than suffering from ADD, oscillating between, “This is sooo cool! This is sooo messed up! This is sooo cool! This is sooo messed up!”
In the end, when it comes to the messed-up-ness of vigilantes, my go-to hero is still Watchmen‘s Rorschach, himself clearly influenced by Travis Bickle’s philosophy. Doesn’t “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” sound quite a bit like “The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!'” Admittedly, Rorschach may not offer the same kind of snarky giggles as The Crimson Bolt’s escapades or Hit Girl’s adventures, but as so many times before, Alan Moore knows the score. As far as I’m concerned, we’re still waiting for a “What if people really became superheroes?” comedy that actually takes its premise seriously and works as a comedy.