The Hidden S in Phone Booth

The importance of being Kick Ass...

Kick Ass has been out for less than a week but it might end up being the Citizen Kane of superhero movies due to its unique approach to storytelling and the filmmakers understanding of the comic book dynamic.

First off, Kick Ass is the rare comic book film that understands and (more importantly) is unafraid of the neuroses and contradictions of comic books. (Iron Man does start out as a gritty, contemporary Middle Eastern conflict thriller but quickly settles into superior Hollywood genre stuff). Kick Ass lurches back and forth from extreme violence to family drama to teen comedy to action film. Recent high profile superhero films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man have gotten good reviews and are way up there on the IMDB ratings but don’t manage to put this cracked aesthetic across in the course of the narrative .

The filmmakers responsible for Kick Ass understand that comics embrace high and low culture as part of their origins. When Big Daddy takes out the gangsters in the warehouse and sets it aflame; well that is the stuff of grand opera (with Cage/Big Daddy as a redneck lead in Die Flaudermaus). When Cage shoots Mindy McReady (Hit Girl) in her bullet-proof encased, 11-year-old chest the film enters the realm of 70’s exploitation film. When the nerd is rejected by the cutie pie sophomore it calls to mind a million other teen comedies, some good (The Breakfast Club) and some bad (Porky’s).

As for Oscar winner Cage, for years he was associated with several high profile superhero films that didn’t come to fruition (Powers), some that did come to fruition without him (Superman), and some films that did come to fruition with him (Ghost Rider). There was much controversy about the charismatic but not traditionally handsome Cage playing the Man of Steel in the late 90’s (almost as much controversy as Michael Keaton becoming the first modern celluloid Dark Knight). This controversy seems particularly odd now since the very handsome but not particularly charismatic Brandon Routh fell flat as the Man of Steel. Cage’s loony performance here as Big Daddy makes me yearn for his lost performance as the Superman.

Another aspect of Kick Ass that makes it particularly relevant to the comic book form is its embrace of perversity as a storytelling thing. This aspect has been ignored by most contemporary superhero films (there is a hint of this in some of Sam Rami’s work, particularly the Evil Dead films) which treat superhero films as if they are biblical epics (The Dark Knight anyone?). The most obvious part of the film that embraces this perversity is in the character of Hit Girl who is preternaturally great at (cough cough) killing. Did I mention that she is like 11 years old in the film?

The controversy about Chloe Moretz' performance as Hit Girl has driven a lot of the advance publicity of the film; there have even been comparisons to the narrative of the film Lolita. Are these comparisons fair? Of course they are! Big Daddy’s relationship with Hit Girl is particularly unwholesome, but not dysfunctional. Big Daddy and Hit Girl are in perfect sync. Hit Girl is perfectly suited to the life that Big Daddy has fashioned for her. She is not concerned about her ‘lost childhood’ and she seems to completely understand the life that fate has bestowed upon her.

Finally, Kick Ass filters two of the great narratives of superhero lore into the same story: mainly the story of Peter Parker/Spider-man (Kick Ass) and the story of Batman and Robin (Big Daddy and Hit Girl). Cage has been very straightforward in disclosing that his performance as Big Daddy was influenced by the physicality and vocal styling of Adam West. The subtext of sickness in the Batman/Robin dynamic is out in the open here in the Kick Ass film; an adult pushing a kid into a life of violence and vengeance out of a selfish and deluded rationale.

As for the Spider-man connection look no further than the t-shirt worthy quote voiced by Kick Ass alter ego Dave Lizewiski (actor Aaron Johnson) “With no power comes no responsibility.” This is, of course, a warped take on the famous quote associated with Spider-man's Uncle Ben ("With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility"). The Spider-man myth was an early gospel of nerd empowerment that continues to the present day (ever seen an episode of Chuck?) The film (and of course the comic) work hard to merge the Spider Man narrative with the Batman narrative to great success.

Lastly, the film ends with a couple of odd refernces: The Red Mist putting on a hockey mask type of thing saying "Wait 'till they get a load of me" (paraphrasing the Jack Nicholson Joker in the 1989 Batman) and shooting a gratuitous pistol shot at the audience (as in the end of 1903's film The Great Train Robbery where one of the bad guys took a pot shot at the film going audience). What do these references mean? Hard to say? Perhaps the filmmakers are signaling the connection between superhero films and classic cinema?

We may have to wait for Kick Ass 2 to sort it all out...