Writing Lessons From Kick-Ass: How NOT to write a Hero.
In today’s blog, I will be using a piece of popular culture to emphasize a point on writing, specifically writing heroes. I bring this up because of the release of Kick-Ass 2, the adaptation of the comic sequel to the comic/film Kick-Ass. Now, for those of you who might be fans of this series, I want to make clear I don’t think either the film or comic are examples of bad writing. The premise is solid, the story is solid, and I enjoy it’s more realistic take on people becoming superheroes. However, watching the film left me with mixed feelings, and I have had little interest in either medium’s version since. The reason for this is very simple- Kick-Ass is a superhero movie that simply doesn’t have any heroes in it. And while writers certainly don’t have to focus on heroic characters, they need to understand them when they do, or anything they’re trying to say with them gets lost. So why does Kick-Ass fail in the department? Here are three reasons why (note; I will only be using the first film as an example, as I have not seen the sequel at the time of this writing).
#3 The Villain is a Better Father then the Hero
Two of Kick-Ass’s most memorable characters are Big Daddy and Hit Girl, two makeshift heroes seeking revenge against gangster Frank D’amico, for falsely imprisoning Big Daddy and causing his wife (Hit Girl’s mother) to commit suicide. This is a classic revenge story, and the audience should easily be able to root for this father daughter duo. But instead, D’amico is portrayed as a more watchful and better parent to his son Chris. How? D’amico consistently puts down his son’s attempts to join organized crime, wanting him to find a better, more honest life then his father.
“But Dad, why can’t I help you at work?”
“Because you’re not missing Harvard to dump some bodies in the East River
Big Daddy, upon release from prison, immediately set his revenge scheme into motion, training his daughter to be a brutal fighter, training her in guns, weapons, and various fighting techniques from an extremely young age (she is 11 when the film introduces her). As a result, she is desensitized to violence, focuses only on ‘the mission,’ and is basically a grizzled, hardened fighter in the body of an 11 year old. However, we are supposed to root for her and Big Daddy, who has turned his only child into an instrument of his own revenge (since we get the impression Hit-Girl was very young when her mother died, possibly too young to have many strong memories) and rewards her for her violent work.
“Daddy, can you tell me about Mom?”
“You cripple that gangster there and I’ll see if I can tell you what color her hair was.”
Yet Big Daddy places all the blame on D’amico, even in one scene claiming that D’amico, not him, stole his daughter’s childhood. While revenge-fueled, murderous heroes like the Punisher have thrived for decades, such heroes generally work alone and do not drag others down with them. By dragging his daughter into his own revenger, Big Daddy loses any sympathy from the reader and his actions fail to have any sense of justice, because he is a lesser person then the villain he rails against. Which brings us to the next point…
#2 All the Heroes Are Driven By Revenge Or A Desire to Be Cool
Hit Girl and Big Daddy are clearly driven by their desire for revenge, but rather than using that to build them, they are limited and wasted by it. Their desire to be heroes is purely driven by personal reasons, and there is no sense they have any desire to help anyone else. They brutally go after D’amico and his henchmen, steal his money, and repeat the effort over and over, without any widening of the scope. It is totally believable that once D’amico dies, both characters would simply take his money, hang up their capes, and retire to the Bahamas, because sating their revenge is all that matters in their crusade ( In fact, that is almost what happens in the film). The same idea had Batman fans raging over the ending of the Dark Knight Rises, and it has the same problem here- it makes the characters look selfish and small minded.
“Yeah, so I spent two years being Batman, eight years sulking, ruined my company, and left after taking down one supervillian. Least I got my parents murderer first.”
On the flip side, the movie ends with Kickass’s actions sparking a wave of other makeshift heroes flooding the streets, ready to fight crime. Except none of them cared enough to do something before, but now that there’s a popular, Youtube promoted hero, they suddenly decided to put on costumes and go out to fight. These people are superhero ‘whiggers’- they are simply following a trend without truly understanding it, which most likely means they will stumble along, stopping some minor crimes, until they are either eliminated by the criminals or arrested by the police. And all of it can be laid at Kickass’s feet, who is worse then either side because he managed to be them both. He begins with some altruistic notions, but is basically a kid living out his superhero fantasy to feel cool. And by the end, when he is predictably beaten and tortured for his actions, he joins up with Hit-Girl, commits violent acts of revenge, and then promptly retires, leaving a whole generation of untrained heroes to tackle the villains that tortured them and slaughtered their loved ones.
“Look, I’m sorry your brother, father, sister, uncle, and cousin were all violently murdered. I didn’t tell them to put on a suit and fight crime…”
#1 There is No Moral Code
All of the violence and selfish behavior in this film are truly symptoms of one major problem- there is absolutely no moral code. The villains are expectedly brutal and psychopathic, but the heroes are the same way. The only difference is that the heroes put on costumes and convince themselves they’re the good guys because they were wronged or they have some misguided thoughts on doing the right thing. But it never justifies mutilating henchmen or putting a child in harm’s way for your own revenge. This movie is basically watching two groups of psychos slaughter each other, and we are told to feel bad for ones in costumes. But their motivations fail because simply put, they make the Punisher, a cold-blooded killer that condones things by going after criminals, a better hero, since he works alone and goes after more criminals then just the ones that personally wronged him. And worst of all, they take the greatest misconception about superheroes and prove it true. We’ve all seen the scene where the police chief or someone in power argues that ‘vigilantes cannot be tolerated, because they’re so dangerous.” Real heroes prove them wrong, but Kick Ass and his group ARE those vigilantes we’re warned about- people who take the law into their own hands and don’t care about the consequences. And there is no greater failure for a hero then that.
“Can we trust you?”
“Good, cause this guy’s a real problem.”