For Graeme McMillan, it feels like the end. After a decades-long run of popularity, the Superhero Movie as we know it is going to come to a screeching halt, and Kick-Ass is going to kill it.
The money quote from McMillan’s piece on io9 gives a grave diagnosis:
Stripping not only the “heroes” but also the “super” from the genre feels, to me, as if culture is finally tiring of this latest spate of superhero worship.
Of course, like any other editorial foretelling the death of a genre, it’s not really a particular movie killing it; it’s a particular movie that stands as evidence that we are culturally moving beyond what was offered in the past. This movie becomes a signpost in the road for future generations to point to as the moment we all headed off the highway. Fortunately, like any other editorial foretelling the death of a genre, McMillan is wrong.
I highly suggest you read the piece first, but there are two key factors put forth in it. First, that a movie that so strongly deconstructs a genre is proof that we’re tired of the genre. Second, that Kick-Ass will have an active role in making forthcoming Super Hero Movies look cartoonish and silly by comparison.
On the first front, I’d agree completely to all the evidence stacked up, but come to a far different conclusion. The opposite conclusion in fact. It’s not the case that the existence of a deconstruction on a genre proves the genre is lacking, but that there is increased interest in digging deeper into what makes that genre tick. People want to see Superheroes from a different angle. Deconstruction doesn’t mean destruction – just that we are salivating as an audience for new perspectives.
This might mean that the classic way of telling the Super Story is outdated and tired, that we as an audience are done with it and ready to move on. However, I’m not sure the evidence is really there. After all, there have already been several different takes on the genre that didn’t sink it altogether. From the early attempt at mockery of Mystery Men, to the Zucker-style skewering of Superhero Movie, to the dark comedy strike of Hancock – all of these films created a different structure for the Superhero to live inside, and none came close to denting the genre itself. If your argument against these films having a strong impact is their quality or reach (and presumably Kick-Ass will surpass them all (except maybe Hancock) on both counts), I offer up The Incredibles as an excellent example of the genre being turned on its ear – of watching Superheroes living the mundane – that came, conquered, but didn’t kill.
There was also Watchmen last year, which mirrored the issuance of a source material designed by Alan Moore to specifically do exactly what we’re discussing. Not only did the book not kill off the Superhero comic, it gave it a new life. The movie didn’t quite do that, and it didn’t quite find the type of mainstream success that Kick-Ass might, but it was miles and miles away from hurting the genre in any way, and it might be considered as an even more direct, perverse exploration of the lives of Superheroes.
In a way, Kick-Ass owes owes its core question to the original “Watchmen.”
There just isn’t any historical proof of a deconstructive movie killing or hurting a genre. Despite the existence of cycles in popularity, there’s also not any true historical evidence of the Superhero genre struggling through those cycles. We’re seeing a larger amount of Superhero movies (and comic book movies in general), but it’s unfair to say that since Burton’s Batman there’s been dips in popularity. In fact, if this really is the Golden Age (culminated, theoretically, by Marvel’s mere existence as a studio (and a wildly successful one at that)), then there’s a long drop back down to the end of the cycle to come.
As to McMillan’s second point, I turn directly to Batman and Robin. It won’t be Kick-Ass that shows audiences the cartoonish flaws of Superhero movies because we’ve already seen them in this misstep of epic proportions. There is a spectrum of how cartoonish something can be – ranging from the camp of 1960s Batman to The Dark Knight and everything in between. No modern example more displays the mistake of treating comic book and Superhero properties with the cliched and, frankly, stereotypical smirking tone than Batman and Robin. It’s a film made by outsiders who view comic book fans as man-children instead of allowing for the film to rise to the level of art that it’s capable of. If the theory is that Kick-Ass will suddenly reveal how stupid Superhero movies can be, I’m afraid it’s late to the game.
In theory, showing a large audience a deconstructive movie should break the spell. It takes the magic of what we love and shows it from behind the stage where all the doves are safely caged, the dummy is set up ready to be sawed in half, and Hugh Jackman is struggling inside a locked tank of water. Showing the nuts and bolts is supposed to take away the magic.
However, I sincerely doubt that there’s anyone out there that doesn’t firmly grasp the formula of Superheroes and their films already. It’s an extremely rigid story to tell, and we’ve all become fairly well-versed in it. McMillan might have a point about forthcoming films seeming shockingly un-self-aware since they will be playing the genre straight, but something tells me that audiences will watch Iron Man 2 with the same brand of enjoyment that they found in the first (which came out pre-Death of Superhero Films). I firmly believe this because of Kick-Ass and its desire to pull the curtain back to reveal something everyone already knows. There’s a larger discussion here about what will work in Superhero movies going forward, but if anything, Iron Man and The Dark Knight (a deconstruction in its own right) have more to do with that shift than Kick-Ass might.
Kick-Ass isn’t going to kill the genre or signal the end of the genre or revolutionize the genre. It’s going to thrill a certain audience, offend Roger Ebert’s generation, and be totally ignored by others, but the Superhero genre is alive and well and will continue to roll on. Somehow, some way, audiences will muster up the suspension of disbelief necessary to believe that a man can fly even after seeing teenagers who can’t.