Jul 8, 2011

Superhero Tropes: Kick Ass

Last week I talked about The Hero's Journey as it appears in Kung Fu Panda. This week I thought I'd talk about another favourite film: Kick Ass.

Kick Ass is interesting because, in addition to having something of a warped Hero's Journey, it is also, despite its premise, a perfect example of a superhero story. Spoilers follow.

When we first meet David, he comments about how his life is completely ordinary. He's just a kid who happens to like comics. He's not very smart, nor is he athletic. Here we have David's Mundane World.

Mundae, geek-filled, world...
The Call to Adventure: David makes a big deal about how the audience is not going to see some traumatic moment that inspires him to become a superhero. We even see his mother die, over breakfast, of a brain aneurysm. No revenge quests here. David just decides one day to buy a wetsuit and turn it into a superhero costume. Which is fine.

But that's not what happens. He and his friend are mugged for their cash, phones and even their comics. David looks up and sees a man watching, who just walks away him his window, doing nothing. This, right here, is David's Call to Adventure. In the superhero model, this is the incident which makes him believe that someone, somewhere, simply has to do something to make things different. Sure, right now it's just the ego trip of a teenage kid, but this has sparked something new in David, as we'll see later.

Supernatural Aid: The costume that David buys for himself becomes his talisman. It is the tool with which he gains the power to fight evil. Like all superheroes, the mask becomes the mark of authority. The symbol that he stands for something better than greedy, everyday behaviour.

On his first time out in the costume, David is stabbed and struck by a car. The driver, like other people who are faced with trouble, turns away. Here's where the movie breaks yet again from its insistence that this is not a typical superhero story, because as a result of his injuries, Dave suffers nerve damage. This nerve damage diminishes his ability to feel pain. We see David's friends joking around with him, hitting him with trays. He has his own superpower, relative to those around him.

Crossing the First Threshold: David's Threshold Guardians are the gang thugs he finds beating up another man outside a convenience store. Despite a terrible beating, and other people just watching, despite being told to call the cops, David keeps getting up, until the thugs realise he's more trouble than he's worth and take off. I love this scene because it echoes the earlier mugging scene, and David's response to the thugs asking what's wrong with him, looking to die for a man he doesn't even know, is beautiful:

"The three assholes, laying into one guy while everybody else watches? And you wanna know what's wrong with me? Yeah, I'd rather die."

Though perhaps without the straddling?
Belly of the Whale: Later, when all seems most bleak, Kick Ass and Big Daddy are prisoners of the mob, being tortured on a live web broadcast. This is David's final separation from his mundane world. He is faced with the worst his enemies can offer, with no hope of rescue. He has gone to the ultimate place the mask would take him. Unbridled violence at the hands of evil.

Rescue from Without: This is one of my favourite scenes in the movie, because it represents Hit-Girl's rise to eclipse her father as a superhero. She battles her way through the mob goons, receiving coded commands from Big Daddy even while he's being burned alive. It's emotional, heartbreaking and invigorating at the same time. It's the pivotal event that makes David realise that the idea of "With no power, comes no responsibility" is not true, and some people have to go and fix things because they're the only ones who can.

The Ultimate Boon: We had to get here, didn't we? This realisation is vital. The understanding that it's the simple act of putting on a mask and standing up to someone makes you responsible for the consequences, for the need to follow through, it what finally turns David from a boy playing dress-up into a superhero. It's the will to see it through that allows David to face off against Red Mist (a draw, in proper superhero tradition) and kill the big boss.

It's at this point that the movie really has become an unashamed love letter to superhero movies. We've had the epic, bombastic music, the steady progression of the protagonist earning the mask, getting the girl, beating the villain. Now, Kick Ass and Hit-Girl literally fly off, into the sunrise, rather than the sunset, with the bright, victorious music sounding their fanfare.

Yeah, nothing at all epic or heroic about this
It's a strange sort of Hero's Journey, because the movie tells us that it's trying to turn convention on its head. However it still adheres to traditional story elements, though it does hide them in a mundane sheen.


  1. You know you're ruining movies for me, right? Not through spoilers (you warn me of those), but because I'm never going to be able to just sit back and watch...I'm going to be too busy analyzing the underlying heroes' journeys! ;)

  2. This movie is bad-ass. As is your analysis.

  3. I will ditto Linda's comment. I don't watch movies often, but you've just added another layer to the experience.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and sharing your success story. I look forward to watching you continue your own heroic journey in the writing world.


  4. Movies like this are fun because they claim to be unconventional, but there's no way around what makes a good story. I also like the film Memento because of it's unique story approach of telling events backwards, but watching for it's traditional three act story arc is also fulfilling.

    Building Castles on the Beach

  5. Linda: Oh it'll get you. It becomes second nature so easily to watch for the story elements.

    Matthew: Thanks!

    catwoods: Thanks for visiting back!

    Brent: It's great to see how the unconventional still has an inherent model which is the same as other stories. As writers, we can see that we don't need to worry about pure originality in order to tell a good story.

  6. I love how you took it through all the stages of the hero's journey for us. I didn't see this movie, but now I want to! I took a film class once a long time ago, and after that I was analyzing all the time. Then not long ago, I took a screenwriting workshop. After that, I couldn't keep from yelling out "First act reversal!" and stuff like that. I think it's fun, because even really crappy movies will follow the path.

  7. Melissa: Thanks! It really is easy to get into that mindset, isn't it?