Why Do We Take Superheroes So Damn Seriously?

With Kick-Ass 2's much anticipated release right around the corner, like the last breath before a throat laceration, we look back at the archetype that the sequel aims to deconstruct, and a genre begging for acceptance.

Right now every geek worth their blood soaked katana is taking a deep breath for Kick-Ass 2, like the last sigh before the blade plunges into the jugular. The upcoming sequel to the 2010 action-comedy has lit up the Interwebs for months as fans salivate for Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and Red Mist (appropriately renamed The Motherfucker). It is the week of potty-mouthed characters, plus Jim Carrey (whether he wants to be associated with it or not), in a big screen version of the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. comic book, with all the entrails that entails.

Yet, at the root of these cheeky movies and their even darker, more depressing source material, is a simple question: what would superheroes look like in our world? Truthfully, neither page nor film takes this mystery too seriously. The movies are full of bright colors and Sam Raimi inspired visual trappings while the books are only slightly more muted, if only to turn the violence up to 11. They both feature a pint-sized assassin with the mouth of a sailor and a body count well into the triple digits. But somehow, deep underneath all the carnage candy, there is still a remarkably thoughtful deconstruction of superhero mythology at play.

 With the Kick-Ass character, Millar created a protagonist who mocked his readership by implying that all comic book readers, including Kick-Ass/Dave Lizewski, were high school introverts obsessed with men in spandex because girls would not talk to them. In many ways, Kick-Ass is Millar’s loving middle finger to the Spider-Man archetype of a teenage boy learning responsibility in a coming of age story dressed in superhero garb. Likewise, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are twisted versions of Batman and Robin. The father is a gun-toting wingnut who is so bored with his pathetic existence that he dresses up like Batman and destroys his daughter’s innocence by brainwashing her to be a child soldier. Together, they worship his comic books and conspiracy theories instead of Disney pop stars and celebrity gossip. Millar is not the first to posit what superheroes may look like in our world, but his estimation is one of the snarkiest and most contemptuous of the concept. Conversely, the movie, directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, takes a more light-hearted approach that both mocks and embraces its genre with better style and talent than most of its big budget contemporaries. But at the film’s core, it is the same mean-spirited satire. Dave must be stabbed in the stomach and hit by a car during his first crime fight. After he loses his virginity, he is ready to give it all up for more sex. It is still a culture mirror that revels in unpacking a once-niche concept which has exploded into the pop culture zeitgeist. And yet, it only made $48 million at the U.S. box office. It did not even cross $100 million worldwide. 
 That we are even getting this sequel is a testament to how well it was received by wider audiences on DVD and Blu-ray. If our culture is so gung-ho about men in tights at the moment, why did it struggle financially like almost all other high-minded superhero movies from the end of the last decade? The reason may be the same as why our culture has been devouring them so greedily for over the last 13 years. The idea of “realistic superheroes,” an oxymoron if ever there was one, is nothing new. The comic book industry has been toying with the concept for decades. The first instances of it really taking a hold in the medium date back to two graphic novels from the 1980s. These seminal books changed the tone and tenor of comic books forever and made a whole generation of young, impressionable writers believe the superhero convention had as much depth as any mythological world. The first of these books, released initially as four large issues, was Frank Miller’s long-gestating The Dark Knight Returns. Recruited to DC Comics byBatman Group Editor Dick Giordano, Miller had an impressive reputation due to his run on Marvel’s Daredevil. Giordano recognized Miller could do Batman better than most in the business and the two crafted a story that would eventually become the infamous classic. In this artistic endeavour, Miller took the creative and artistic freedom to publish a stand-alone 4 mega-issue series that was worlds apart from Batman’s fabled comic continuity. It offers a stark vision of the 1980s crafted in surrealism and satire where the DC stable of heroes has been put into permanent retirement by a jealous U.S. government, headed by a hapless caricature of President Ronald Reagan. 
 The only superhero not sent out to pasture (or prison) is Superman, who has become a stooge and hulking muscleman for Reagan’s shady dealings. Bruce Wayne, 10 years into retirement, has aged into an overweight misanthrope with a drinking problem. He spent the last decade of his life “looking for a good death” and has grown only more dispirited by the rise of inner-city violence and street gangs. Obviously a reflection of Miller’s own nihilistic vision of a crumbling American society, he plants Batman and Superman squarely in his dark understanding of the world. But they are no super-friends. Miller went out of his way to psychoanalyze the Batman and explain his most bizarre nighttime hobby. This over-the-hill Batman is not a champion for law and order, but a fascist looking to recreate society in his own image. His need to fight crime is not to save the world, but to control it like a man-child still lashing out from being unable to stop the death of his parents. Robin is also no longer a good chum or partner, but a child he manipulates into the dangerous weapon he wishes he could have been when his parents died. Even making the new sidekick a girl adds an uncomfortable subtext when she hugs him while he is in a state of undress. Once he finally does return from suffocating retirement, it is not to liberate the citizens of Gotham from criminals, but from their weak and idiotic selves. After Superman’s involvement in the Cold War causes an EMP to detonate above the East Coast, Batman overthrows the police force by taking charge of an army of street hoods who worship him. He does not care if these drugged out psychotics were murdering people only a week ago. They obey HIM. And he would use them to bring the rest of the city to heel. 
 Miller proposes a more “honest” scenario, where the Batman would be a well-intentioned tyrant bent on claiming power and Superman is a subservient tool of the government who hides his atrocities behind the shield of realpolitik. These dark reinterpretations are unsurprising from a man whose writing has for decades since veered towards a pro-authoritarian slant. But in 1986, it was a startling vision. One that The New York Times wrote off as a convoluted dirge that got away from the KA-POW! fun of the superhero art form. History obviously proved the paper’s flippancy wrong, but so did the even more influential work of the same year. Alan Moore is a total opposite personality type from Frank Miller. A large, eccentric Englishman with a beard worthy of the 19th century, Moore spent the 1980s as a member of the British Underground. If Miller celebrated order and control over the weak and stupid dregs of humanity, Moore was an anarchist in the U.K. His V For Vendetta series, which began publication in 1982, was about a heroic terrorist who saved Britain from a Thatcher-like 1990s dictatorship. The one thing Moore did have in common with Miller though is that he viewed superheroes as very disturbed individuals. In 1986, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons began their legendary 12-issue run of Watchmen. For Moore’s dalliance with what he views as an American perversity, he took the superhero genre to task. 
 Moore and Gibbons created a garishly colorful reflection of the American 20th century. Since superheroes are a product of American culture, particularly post-World War II, the creators made an unnatural, alternate history where superheroes really did pop up full of hope and promise in the 1930s and ‘40s. They represented American optimism and belief in the individual overcoming all odds. But as they became entrenched in the American dream of a post-superpower world, they grew despondent, deviant and delusional. The Comedian, Moore’s Captain America and already an unpunished rapist, became a war criminal in Vietnam where he murdered his pregnant girlfriend. Rorschach, Moore’s version of Batman, existed as a deeply in denial anti-social paranoid schizophrenic who excuses his violence with a shield of self-righteous absolutism that can only lead to death. And lest utilitarianism get a free pass, brilliant-minded Ozymandias (Tony Stark crossed with Reed Richards), comes to the conclusion that the only way to prevent a nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviets is by tricking both parties into fearing a combined threat; he succeeds at this by murdering everyone in Manhattan with a fake monster. All these men who feel that they have the right to enforce morality upon others are mentally disturbed nutjobs in creepy costumes. The only person with true superpowers in Moore’s world is Doctor Manhattan, a one-time puppet of a U.S. government he need not fear. He wins the Vietnam War for Nixon, but the former all-American hero loses touch with humanity as his powers place him on a level of existence not dissimilar as we are to ants. He lets the world destroy itself because he, like Moore’s view of God, no longer has a reason to care about something as insignificant in the scope of the whole universe as life on Earth. 
 These two graphic novels reshaped the way everyone viewed superheroes. Batman was revamped overnight into the dark knight of Miller’s mind (though rarely so cynically grim) and other writers and artists quit the genre all together after Moore ripped it to shreds for more “adult” alternatives. Time Magazine even named Watchmen one of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century. Both books forced writers to think about their characters in a more grounded context. Spider-Man’s New York could no longer be just a daytime soap opera and Superman’s global impact could not only be an unquestioning smirk for “truth, justice and the American way.” Superheroes could have depth, pathos and even personality disorders! This reinvention in many ways informs the superhero cinema craze we are still experiencing today. Yet, it seems to be simultaneously at odds with mainstream expectations. When Zack Snyder ambitiously adapted Watchmen into a 2009 would-be blockbuster, he intended it to be a turning point for a new genre that birthed somewhere between 2000’s X-Men and Spider-Man in 2002. Years later, he still favorably compares his movie to the third most successful film of all time, The Avengers. “It’s a hard-R, deconstruction of the superhero genre, and that’s the fun of it,” says Snyder. “The fun is not, ‘Wow, we’re bad-ass. We’re these superheroes and we’re going to go kick the aliens’ ass or whatever enemy presents itself.’” Whether Snyder got all the literary and philosophical depths of the Moore/Gibbons novel is a discussion I am going to skirt. However, there is no debate that he understood the primary thesis of Watchmen is that the concept of superheroes is very, very silly and dangerous. Putting your faith in other human beings to protect and control you, as Roman poet Juvenal mocked in Satires (which is where the graphic novel’s title comes from) is naïve and self-destructive. In short, who watches the watchmen? 
 As it turns out, not nearly enough people according to the Warner Bros. accountants. WB sank a whopping $130 million into their 3-hour superhero opus. Studio heads even had whacky dreams of franchise-able sequels, according to Snyder. When the movie opened at only $55 million in three days with a total run of $107 million in the U.S., comic book fans were spared those sequel plans, which seriously could have gone down as the worst studio decision since Star Wars prequels. Perhaps it underperformed because of its long running time and dense, literary pacing? Maybe it was just too dark and cerebral? Or just mayhaps, too many teenage boys going to see a superhero movie could not overcome the sight of Doctor Manhattan’s full frontal blue junk? Whatever the reason, audiences, both figuratively and literally, did not like seeing their superheroes with their pants down. The following year came Vaughn’s much more light-hearted and cinematically paced Kick-Ass. While Snyder wanted to recreate the ponderous tone of the Watchmen graphic novel, Vaughn made Kick-Ass’s already-friendly tone even more accessible. After all, creator Mark Millar took a very different view from Moore or Frank Miller on superheroes. In the real world, according to Millar, only lonely teens and shut-ins who read Watchmen too many times, not getting that Rorschach is a parody of American heroism, would dress up like lunatics. Vaughn softened that bitter joke by making Dave a little less desperate and weird, while giving Big Daddy a relatively reasonable motive for going after the mob and training his far less disturbed daughter. Vaughn’s movie is a whacky adventure that feels like Raimi and Tarantino had a baby and named her Hit-Girl. A bug-eyed performance from Nicholas Cage channeling Adam West and a star-making turn from then 11-year-old Chloe Moretz didn’t hurt. 
 Yet, despite the movie receiving mostly rave reviews (Roger Ebert led a small chorus of moral majority whiners), the movie did not find an audience. It did so poorly at the box office that even after tremendous DVD sales, studio Lionsgate passed on the sequel. Indeed, this writer wonders if Universal was not so desperate for superhero franchises if Kick-Ass 2 would even exist. Several other satirical indie flicks came out around this time in an attempt to take the newest Hollywood craze down a peg. Woody Harrelson starred in the little seen Defendor (2009), in which he played a mentally ill man who starts dressing up as a superhero to give meaning to his life. Meanwhile, demented schlock filmmaker James Gunn, writer/director of Slither (2006) and scripter of Zack Snyder’s own Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake, took a crack at the genre. Super, the other 2010 superhero comedy, on paper looks like a quirky indie hit. The Office’s Ranin Wilson plays Frank, an awkward screw-up who works as a fry cook. When his wife (Liv Tyler) leaves him for a drug-dealing hood played by the hammy Kevin Bacon, Frank finds solace in a Christian-themed superhero show starring Nathan Fillion. Convinced it is a message from God to become a masked marvel, Frank transforms into the Crimson Bolt and teams up with local comic book nerd Libby (Ellen Page), who dresses as his kid-sidekick, Boltie. Super is a pitch black comedy in which Wilson’s only power is wielding a very heavy wrench and later a shotgun. Page, fresh off Inception, brings comedic wit as yet another foul-mouthed superheroine who enjoys killing people a little too much. The movie suffers from an uneven tone that flips too often between depressing character study and gratuitously violent slapstick humor. Still, I think its deranged yucks would appeal to contrarians looking for an antidote from blockbuster formula. 
 The movie barely could find a distributor. Half the auteurs of the ‘90s and early 2000s can attest that independent studios and prestige divisions do not shy away from excessive violence, even when they probably should (right, Eli Roth?). Yet doing that with superheroes felt…dirty. Star-studded cast or not, it got dumped into theaters and barely earned $327,000 at the box office. Why do these things keep getting made if so few people are seeing them? The need to deconstruct superheroes in the post-post-modern world seems almost reflexive. The first generation of comic book writers to seriously do so grew up in what comic book historians call the Golden and Silver Ages of comics: back when Batman and Superman were the World’s Finest BFFs, Captain America could punch out Hitler, and the eventual evolution of depth pertained to Peter Parker bouncing between Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane. These younger writers felt the need to explore the social impact of these creations and what in American culture made them so popular. Why would someone like Superman be a friend to Batman when they are ideologically opposed? Why would superheroes not dramatically influence the course of geopolitical relations? What if Peter Parker remained haunted by a dead girlfriend? These contemplations allowed adults who have lived with these mythological figures all their lives to continue to do so forevermore. As pop culture grew darker and the lines of good and evil grayed in the national media following Vietnam and Watergate, so did the comic books. It is such anxieties that likely helped make superheroes the fantasy of choice for the millennial generation. If it was musclemen for their parents and John Wayne and Gary Cooper in cowboy hats for the generation before that, it is Tony Stark and The Avengers right now. The one movie that really facilitated this transition in Hollywood came out, fatefully, in May 2002. 
 In the original teaser trailer for Spider-Man, the wall-crawler captures a helicopter full of bad guys in a web between the Twin Towers. That trailer was released in May 2001. Eight months after the incomprehensible horrors of 9/11, seeing Spidey team up with New Yorkers to battle the Green Goblin was cinematic comfort food for a traumatized nation; the kind that we as a culture made part of our annual diet. Even as those harrowing times become more a piece of history and those films an artifact of it, a new generation reared on fears of terrorism cling to their costumed men like Cold War paranoia fed the science fiction and espionage genres for decades. In that context, audiences seem unwilling to deconstruct the fantasy. Surely, Christopher Nolan directly connected these two obsessions of fact and fiction in his massively successful The Dark Knight Trilogy. However, while he served up a vision of the Caped Crusader expertly tailored for the 21st century, he chose to maintain the romantic and heroic view of the character that Frank Miller threw to the wayside in the 1980s. Nolan’s Batman films may have grounded the character in Bush era unease and fearmongering, but he still raised his hero up as the symbol of hope for his fictitious America and his equally troubled American audience. Yet, even the Bush years are finally fading away and audiences flocked far more to Joss Whedon’s bright and shiny Avengers escapism than Nolan’s dreary costumed economic allegory last summer.Audiences want a tale of good triumphing over evil without being told that such a story is only that. Deconstructions of the most popular escapist fantasy of the day, even funny ones, are reminders of the thin illusion. The Western did not truly die until it was popularly deconstructed by film students who rolled their eyes at their parents’ daydreams. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971); Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969); even hilarious comedy classic Blazing Saddles (1974). Only after audiences felt superior to the genre’s conventions and staples did they accept mockery or subversion…which usually precedes a genre’s death. Unlike adults reading comics in the 1980s and wanting something more, movie audiences are not quite ready to part with the simple pleasures of Thor shooting lightning from his hammer or Iron Man making a funny quip before getting the girl. For lovers of the genre, it’s probably for the best, as it keeps producers of superhero content on their toes, such as WB who is reshuffling their DC Cinematic Universe plans after audiences balked at a Superman who would likely kill thousands to win a fistfight in Man of Steel.  Even so, here is to hoping that Kick-Ass 2 does better than its predecessor, which early reviews indicate was far more satirical and fanged project than the more action-y sequel, at winning over a large audience. Three years later, perhaps more people are ready to give the genre a good ribbing, especially if it is done with bright colors like purple, green and copious amounts of red. let up as And if we’re lucky, it may mercilessly beat and curse its own genre to a loving hug. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!