As Cole Abaius pointed out late last week, a hyperbolic debate has occurred regarding the alleged potential of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass to “kill” the superhero movie by subverting its conventions, or whether or not such subversions and the very existence of this film stand as evidence that audiences have tired of the conventional superhero film, or the superhero film as a whole. This post attempts to answer such questions by briefly examining Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction and applying it to genre film theory and, specifically, Kick-Ass.
Linguistics and Genre Theory
Several ambitious projects have taken place within film theory to attempt a connection between the meaning-generating role of language to the meaning-generating role of cinema, or, put more simply, the attempt to understand what the language of film is. In the 60s and 70s Christian Metz tried to assemble the Grand Syntagmatique, positing that a series of shots are the filmic equivalent of a sentence and arguing that certain juxtapositions can be understood in the same fashion as words in human language; but Metz admitted that this was a project without discernable end, and sure enough the Grand Syntagmatique was abandoned as cinema proved to be too complex and particular to identify a uniform, unchallenged formal language within.
But Metz’s marriage of semiotics to film has proven fruitful for later critical development, as genre theory has benefitted from a stronger relationship with a structural analysis of language than did the formal elements of montage. In his landmark 1984 essay “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to film Genre,” Rick Altman details how genre can be understood in terms of variations, conflicts, and tensions within syntax and semantics. A genre’s syntax are those elements –narrative, thematic, iconic –that identify the genre, while its semantics entail the ideological function of the genre per its specific utilization of the syntactic elements therein.
Deconstruction, Difference, Derrida
Jacques Derrida’s influential 1966 lecture “Structure, Sign, and Play” laid the ground for theories of deconstruction in the relationship of language to meaning. In this text, Derrida argues how the criticism of a body of meaning is always problematically posed in the terms that give such a body meaning in the first place, because the way something is understood enables the only language with which it can be critiqued. In summation, Derrida’s point here is not that the center doesn’t hold but rather that the center is arbitrary and our perception of it only exists for our convenience. The necessity a perceived “center” involves “an ethic of nostalgia for origins” and the desire for hierarchy of manufactured difference enabled by a “neutralization of time and history.”
“The center is not the center. The concept of a centered structure…is contradictorily coherent. And, as always, coherence in contradiction expresses the force of desire.”
The center doesn’t exist naturally, but rather because we need it to in order to make sense of the world around us – however, according to Derrida, this need for and perception of a center doesn’t necessarily mean that center exists.
Kick-Ass and the Superhero Genre
The entire weight behind the concept of genre requires a perceived center, a center typically referred to as a genre’s classical form. The classical forms of a genre are often conflated with its conventions, those recognizable identifying tropes – be it through narrative, themes, or iconography – that created and later defined the genre into solidification. In this understanding of how genre operates, the classical genre form must permeate within cultural discourse to the point of easy identification by the casual consumer/spectator in order for alterations on that formula to take place.
The solidification of the classical form make up the details for which Altman’s theory of a syntactic/semantic exchange between like-genre films to operate. But Altman’s ideas depend on an accepted notion of a genre’s center, those solidified classical elements that ready a context for later departure, rather than questioning whether we simply manifest a center to conveniently satisfy a desire for understanding that entity we perceive to be genre. Kick-Ass, rather unintentionally, proves the nebulous nature of a genre’s center in its very attempt to deconstruct that center.
The central conceit of Kick-Ass, of course, is an interest of what would happen if regular people tried to become superheroes in an environment where superheroes don’t physically exist. Thus, the characters of this superhero film exist in an environment where the myth of the superhero – in comics and, of course, films – already exists. The existence of the superhero here involves general knowledge of the classical conceit of the superhero genre amongst the characters of Kick-Ass, which requires the perception and acceptance of a perceived center governing the identifying qualities of this genre. Kick-Ass functions as a deliberate, overt subversion of the genre by incorporating signs familiar to it (the caped costume, the origin story, the iconic villain) and tweaking our expectations (giving the protagonists guns instead of superpowers, making the superheroes hardly super or heroic, the amalgamation of adult themes and content with a genre typically geared towards the young, and showing how the hero operates, manipulates, and is determined by the media), thus creating a distinct marker of difference separating itself from the genre’s classical form. Kick-Ass, it can be said, actively and purposefully de-centers the center.
Except it doesn’t. In its act of genre deconstruction, Kick-Ass reveals (intentionally or not) the façade of the perceived center that it is attempting to deconstruct. As Dave Lizewski explains that one doesn’t need a happenstance encounter with a situation that permits super powers (a la Spider-Man) or a traumatic event in one’s life (a reference to Batman and the like) in order to become a superhero, his very thesis is proven wrong when he and his company need exactly that in order to continue a career of crime fighting throughout the film (Lizewski’s Kick-Ass develops surgically-based superpowers of his own through the reconstruction of his nervous system, and Big Daddy and Hit Girl are motivated by a traumatic incident). Even when Dave and his pals try to define exactly what a superhero is early in the film, they’re posed with an intimidating list of contradictions to any given definition (taking the popular triumvirate of superheroes: Batman, for instance, isn’t “super,” superpowers operate through quite a different structure of rules and expectations in Superman and Spider-Man, and Superman himself, the prototypical model of a definitive superhero, contains a host of contradictions starting with his supposed embodiment of the American Dream via an alien figure).
And finally, although Kick-Ass aims to be a superhero film marked by parameters of difference from its classical form, by its third act it becomes indistinguishable from what is thought of as the classical model. The end of Kick-Ass features all that one would expect from the finale of the conventional superhero film: closure, a climactic end battle with the highest stakes, the triumph of the protagonists, and the vanquishing of the enemy. True genre deconstruction, as Kick-Ass proves, can not really exist, as that would require straying far enough from the genre to reject those generic tenets that make it recognizable in the first place. To parade as a subversion of genre, a film like Kick-Ass must, at some point, sincerely embrace the ideas behind it lest it lose connection with genre and prove how tenuous the grounds that define its center truly are.
“It is the question of putting expressly and systematically the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself”
The act of, and the means used within, deconstruction gives weight to the construction itself. The act of deconstruction doesn’t destroy the idea of genre, but provides a paradigm of difference that further convinces us not only of its existence, but the perceived center necessary for it. A given film’s act of deconstructing a genre can only operate within the language of that genre itself, and thus providing an arbitrary oppositional hierarchy (in the case of Kick-Ass, “classical style/subversive style”) which only further cements the original idea necessary to enable an opposition in the first place. The paradox, however, is that genre operates on difference, not sameness, and on historical hindsight, not an actual creative moment of stylistic inception. Genre films are variations on a perceived norm (or center), but if all we have as evidence of genre are variations, then where, exactly, is the center?