Ass Kicking and Kid Sidekicks
A few days ago I watched the DVD releases of Kick-Ass and Batman: Under the Red Hood. Kick-Ass is the big screen adaptation of the comic book series of the same name by Mark Millar, who also did Wanted. Batman: Under the Red Hood is the animated adaptation by DC of the recent comic book storyline about the death and resurrection of one of Batman’s sidekicks, Jason Todd (formerly known as the dead Robin, now known as the Robin gone bad). Of the two movies, Kick-Ass is the better film, with a great script, great cast and great direction by Matthew Vaughn. On the other hand, Red Hood has above-average animation, moody atmosphere, thrilling fight scenes and an excellent voice cast, but the story gets lost in a convoluted series of plot twists and inconsistent character development arcs that fail to build to a satisfying conclusion. Indeed, the story of a mysterious masked figure who arrives in Gotham City to murder several gangsters culminating in a final showdown with Batman that somehow involves the Joker was already done much better in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Of the two titles, Kick-Ass is a vicious parody of superheroes--particularly those of the costumed, non-super powered vigilante variety--that’s not meant to be taken seriously at all. What sets Kick-Ass apart from others of its type is its approach to lampooning its subject matter. While most superhero parodies use the inherently bizarre nature of the superhero genre to provide humor (parodies such as The Tick, Sky High, the upcoming Megamind, etc.), Kick-Ass’s approach reflects the Grand Guignol school of humor, alternating between overtly absurd situations and bloody, nasty violence to heighten the humorous effect.
Of the many superhero clichés and conventions at which Kick-Ass takes aim, the one that steals the spotlight was that of the kid sidekick in the form of Hit Girl. Hit Girl is the 10-year-old sidekick of Big Daddy, a heavily armed vigilante who wears a costume which bears a more than passing resemblance to Batman’s. In keeping with movie’s style of violent humor, Hit Girl is the outrageously deadly sidekick for the outrageously violent world of Kick-Ass: she swears like a sailor, she kills with swift efficiency, and she is loyal to Big Daddy to the bitter end. Many film critics were aghast that Kick-Ass would choose to place a pre-pubescent killing machine in a heroic role, but they were missing the superhero comic book in-joke. Kick-Ass isn’t just a satire of superheroes in general; it’s a satire of the violent, “gritty” superhero narratives that became very popular during the 1980s and have since become a staple of the superhero comic book industry. This post will look at the significance of Kick-Ass and Hit Girl in relation to the character of Robin in the Batman franchise in general and the Red Hood movie in particular. Read on ...
Batman’s kid sidekick Robin was first introduced in 1940. The first of his kind, Robin was included in the Batman comic books as a way to appeal more directly to young readers. The writers reasoned that by introducing a kid sidekick for an adult superhero, the pre-pubescent readers could imagine themselves fighting alongside their favorite superhero and thus make the comic more appealing to that age group. This strategy worked: Not only was Robin the first of many kid sidekicks to appear in superhero comics, but he was still part of the Batman comics long after most of the other kid sidekicks were forgotten. Yet no matter how many fist fights and gun battles they featured, the superhero comics of the 40s, 50s and 60s had a rather whimsical, outlandish style to them; thus, the idea that a kid who isn’t even allowed to drive yet is the partner of an adult masked vigilante such as Batman hardly seemed out of place.
When the 80s arrived, a series of superhero comic book titles appeared that were much more graphically violent than the usual fare that preceded them. Two of these titles were Batman narratives: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore. As a result, Gotham City's criminal element became much more brutal in the post-Dark Knight/Killing Joke era of Batman. Batman’s rogues gallery, which largely consisted of ambitious thieves and thugs with gimmicks, became a who’s who of fierce, criminally insane monsters. This was particularly true of the Joker, who went from being a flamboyant criminal with a clown fetish to a murderous psychopath with a clown fetish. Yet in spite of such an increase in explicit murder, brutality, and other “adult” content in the Batman universe, the Batfans still wanted the kid sidekick Robin to be part of the story.
I grew up during this era, and the idea that Batman was a “serious” superhero because he had no super powers and thus was an all-around superior superhero (as opposed to superheroes with powers such as Superman, Wonder Woman and so forth) became the consensus among Batfans. Dark Knight and Killing Joke were considered key narratives of this interpretation of Batman, while the campy 1960s live-action Batman TV series which starred Adam West and Burt Ward was derided as sacrilege. These same Batfans also insisted that Robin should remain a part of Batman’s dark no matter how dark and violent Batman’s world becomes, which always seemed to me to be very out of place. Even stranger were the reasons I’ve heard from such fans as to why Robin should remain, the most silly of which I’ve heard is that Robin’s energy and enthusiasm keep Batman from “falling into the darkness”. If a superhero needs to drag a kid into bone-breaking, bullet-flying action in order to avoid “falling into the darkness”, he probably shouldn’t be around kids at all.
It's not for me to say what superhero fans should or should not like, but I do believe that fictional narratives--be they novels, comic books, movies or TV shows--should maintain a consistent tone and internal logic in order to have the most successful impact, be it dramatic or comedic, on the audience. When narratives don't achieve such consistency, they end up resorting to many absurd, contrived, jump-the-shark moments to justify their conclusion. In fact, this was the key point of superhero satire in the 60s Batman TV show: The writers regularly exploited the straight-laced heroes, the colorful, flamboyant villains, and wildly implausible plots and settings (each in ample supply in superhero comics) as a way of providing half-hour episodes filled with sly, campy humor and inventive visuals. In contrast, the Red Hood movie is an example of when narrative and tonal inconsistencies are relied upon in an attempt to provide a dramatic effect--the end result is even more absurd than the Batman TV show.
Red Hood is based on two Batman story lines from the comics. The first is “A Death in the Family” by Jim Starlin, a story from 1988 about the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, which was originally published around the same time as Dark Knight and Killing Joke. The second is “Under the Hood” by Judd Winick, a story from 2006 where Todd is somehow brought back from the dead. Red Hood is filled with violent, gory scenes: Robin gets beaten severely by the Joker, an assassin has his head exploded, a mob henchman is burned alive, yet another henchman has his eyes gouged out, and so on. Presumably, the violence is supposed to heighten the tension and drama of the story; unfortunately, the plot relies on so many incongruities that the harder it tries to make you take it seriously through its violence, the harder it becomes to take it seriously.
When I speak of Red Hood’s incongruities, I’m not talking about the resurrection of the deceased Jason Todd; as superhero plots go, that’s pretty mundane. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:
* The organized crime syndicates of Gotham City are willing to kill many people to achieve their goals, and they are afraid of Batman. But since Batman won't kill anyone under any circumstances, even for the sake of saving an innocent person's life, then how could these murderous criminals be afraid of Batman once they figure out how determinedly non-lethal he is?
* The Joker is depicted as a notorious mass murderer who kills repeatedly for no specific, discernible reason; with such openly psychotic behavior, it would stand to reason that no one would think that they could trust him to do anything. Yet during the course of the movie, two different villains willingly hire the Joker two different times to do specific work (to distract Batman in the first case and to kill the Red Hood/Jason Todd in the second). In both cases, he defies what he was hired to do and goes on killing sprees anyway. Are the criminals of Gotham City really that dumb and if so, is Batman or any other masked vigilante needed to stop them?
* Under the logic of Red Hood, the criminals of Gotham are murderous and psychotic, thus necessitating the skilled, vigilante justice of Batman. Yet whenever the movie shows flashbacks of a very young Todd as Robin (you know, when he's wearing the "child" Robin suit with the pixie boots and green panties, not the more "mature" Robin suit of red long johns), he's in obviously much less lethal situations, fighting much less lethal criminals such as the Riddler. Does this mean that not all Gotham villains are crazy and violent and that Batman would only take Robin along to fight relatively safe criminals? If so and if Batman really considers having a pre-adolescent/adolescent Robin around as a partner, then the criminals of Gotham mustn't really be that violent and thus would negate the need for a Batman altogether, right?
* When it becomes clear to Batman that Todd is alive and seeking revenge, Batman's trusty butler Alfred tries to reassure him that the resurrected Todd's actions aren't his fault. But wouldn't taking an underage kid along to fight violent psychopaths such as the Joker and immortal megalomaniacs such as Ra's al-Ghul in the first place make it Batman's fault? If Batman really needed a vigilante partner, couldn't he find another adult instead of a kid?
* Red Hood/Jason Todd shifts his agenda throughout the movie. First, he seeks to rule all organized crime activity in Gotham City to prove to his former mentor Batman that crime cannot be stopped but only controlled. Todd goes to great lengths to establish his dominance in the criminal underworld, even to the point of beheading several gangsters. However, it is later revealed that his scheme for controlling organized crime was part of a plan to get revenge on the Joker. This raises two questions: Wouldn't it have been easier for Todd to just break the Joker out of prison himself to kill him or just kill the Joker while he's stuck in prison to get revenge, instead of going to the trouble of waging a one-man war to control the mob? Furthermore, the movie credits Todd's resurrection to Ra's al-Ghul; wouldn't he want to get revenge on al-Ghul as well?
(Yes, I know--the original reasons for Todd's death and resurrection in the comics are much more elaborate, so they inserted al-Ghul into the Red Hood narrative cover both plot points to better fit the movie's running time. However, the presence of al-Ghul doesn't make the narratives any less goofy and outlandish than the original versions. In the movie, not only is al-Ghul one of the villains who was dumb enough to hire the Joker, but Batman also seems to know where al-Ghul is and can get information out of him at the moment of his choice. What kind of super-villain is that?)
I could go on and on with all the parts that don't fit within Red Hood that ultimately undermine whatever dramatic impact it is supposed to have. In that sense, Red Hood reflects what DC Comics has been doing since the 1980s: taking Robin, a plot device from the 1940s that was originally designed to appeal to younger, pre-teen readers, and inserting him into violent, exploitative grindhouse-esque narratives for the purpose of creating "adult" drama. The end result of this combination is not really adult material but an exercise in violent absurdity, an absurdity akin to an average episode of the 1960s live-action Batman TV show. The Red Hood movie is just one example of this; the Batman comic books are filled with many, many more.
It is these examples of ridiculously extreme violence among the tights-and-capes community that serve as points of satire for Kick-Ass. For example, the DC comic books stress that Batman has bullet-proof armor built into his suit when facing armed criminals, so it would stand to reason that Robin would have bullet-proof armor in his suit as well. Yet if that were so, then part of Robin's training by Batman would involve him shooting Robin--and shooting him repeatedly with different calibers of guns and bullets--while wearing the armor so that Robin would know what to expect when he is shot and not be taken off guard. You’ll never see such an act of child abuse in a Batman story, in Red Hood and otherwise, yet there's a scene exactly like the aforementioned description in Kick-Ass when Big Daddy is training Hit Girl. In fact, Big Daddy and Hit Girl's open, loving usage of a wide selection of lethal weaponry such as guns and knives is a darkly humorous response to ludicrous narrative caveat that Batman can take on violent, heavily armed criminal syndicates without using a single deadly weapon or taking a single life and still be both victorious and inspire fear among criminals.
Unfortunately, a small moment at the end of Red Hood strongly suggests that in the hands of a better writer, this film could have been something more. During the final confrontation, Todd briefly exhibits a sense of deep, confused pain and betrayal by his mentor and surrogate father figure, Batman, for his ineffectual strategy against the man who took his life, the Joker. It is at this moment where Jensen Ackles' vocal performance as Todd really shines; the raw emotions revealed in this scene would've served as the ideal counterweight to the movie's physical violence, making it a more balanced, complete narrative in spite of its conceptual flaws. Yet this fleeting instance of dramatic depth quickly evaporates when Batman responds by simply stating his moral code--that by killing the Joker would him just as bad as the Joker, no matter how many people the Joker kills(?)--and then turning his back on Todd as if he were just another costumed villain. This empty, dispassionate closing seals Red Hood's status as an empty, dispassionate viewing experience.
Let's face it: I'm a horror movie fan, so I can’t seriously criticize anyone for enjoying creepy, violent grindhouse entertainment. Even Shakespeare himself understood the value of using excessive violence when crafting a gripping drama. I’ve also enjoyed my fair share of superhero stories, no matter how outlandish they may be. But for a violent story to be a truly mature, adult story--particularly a superhero story--it has to be willing to explore the complex and conflicted ugly states of mind that accompany ugly acts of violence; anything less is simply cheap exploitation and nothing more. Batman narratives such as Red Hood don't get this at all and operate under the pretense that graphic violence by itself equals compelling drama, while Kick-Ass understands such ridiculous reasoning and makes it the target of brutal satire. It's at times like this when I really miss Adam West.