Stick a Fork in the Meta-Superhero

I just saw Kick-Ass. I know some people were bothered by the amount of blood and the adult language. I wouldn't show it to my six-year-old, but I couldn't care less about those things. Those weren't my issues. Kick-Ass isn't a bad movie (meh) but it's the last nail in the coffin in a particular sub-genre, I hope. I know I'm late to the party, but as an avid comic book fan and devotee of our shared American mythology, I want to officially declare the meta-superhero dead. Fini. Kaput. Done. Played-out.

If not the original, among the first and greatest of the meta-superheroes was The Tick. I loved the dark humor of that story, which served up its satire of the comic book world through the lens of a simultaneously delusional and truly superhuman protagonist who broke out of an insane asylum in the first issue. The Tick was unaware that he was wearing a blue suit (or maybe it was his skin?), "nigh-invulnerable", ridiculously naive, and completely at home in his world of equally ridiculous super-villains. This send-up aimed most of its focus on the tropes of comic books themselves, though it had a bit to say about the nature of madness and the assumption of sanity in a crazy world. It was perfect for me as a high school student, and I will be forever grateful to Ben Edlund for speaking from within the comic book community (i.e. my world) about its shortcomings.

And then there was Watchmen. This pre-dated The Tick, but I missed it in 1986 and probably wouldn't have understood it anyway. I deeply disagree with Alan Moore's politics, a form of extreme libertarianism that casts all attempts at do-gooding as short-sighted, authoritarian, and ultimately evil, and I sympathize with his frustration over the way his V for Vendetta was twisted by Hollywood into an anti-Bush movie even though I love it. (It retains his anti-authoritarian message but turns it on conservatives, while he wanted it turned on the U.K.'s Labor Party.) Watchmen takes the meta-superhero to a much more intellectual, philosophical, and literary level, and despite my disagreements with his conclusions, I have the highest respect the way he used the tropes of superheroes to make an argument against what I am sure he would deem patronizing efforts to help others. Nothing has been done yet which reaches that intellectual level within the world of comic books or comic book movies.

And then there's Deadpool. Deadpool started off as a throw-away villain in one of the last issues of the New Mutants series, and even his name, Wade Wilson, is an inside joke, since he's essentially a rip off of the Teen Titan's villain Deathstroke, whose real name is Slade Wilson. But Deadpool, unlike his DC Comics progenitor, was funny, and after some character development in the X-Force series, he got his own comic book. How meta is Deadpool? He not only makes Shakespearean soliloquies directly to the reader about the comic, but even critiques the comics continuity, complaining that his real back-story is so mysterious because it keeps changing every time there's a new writer. Oh, and he once learned that he'd been cursed by the Norse god Loki to be a character in a comic book. Not too shabby.

(Here's Deadpool in the comic talking about how he doesn't look like the actor who played him in the movie. How you like them meta-apples?)

Hollywood recently gave us two animated super-villain spoofs which were both good despite their similarities. Much like the year when we got both A Bug's Life and Antz, 2010 gave us both Despicable Me and Megamind. Despicable Me chooses to focus on a villain who is a bit more James Bond, while Megamind goes right at the Superman villain, but both glean their share of gags by satirizing the cliches of comic books. And both are genuinely funny. And we don't need a third.

I'm half tempted to include Wanted in the list of meta-superhero movies, because it was so gawd-awful that the viewer is tempted to think they are intentionally having fun with the cliches of comic books. But they aren't. It just sucked. Then it insulted you for watching it. Not just implicitly, mind you. Explicitly. The protagonist gives a monologue at the end criticizing you, the viewer, for wasting your life doing uninteresting things. And since you've just spent the last two hours watching his muddled mess of a story, he's made himself a little bit right.

I'm also tempted to include Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but there are two reasons it shouldn't be lumped in with the meta-comic book stories. First of all, the comic-book-ish-ness of it was internally consistent and not self-referential, so it wasn't poking fun at comic books or saying anything about them. Second, as my wife pointed out, it wasn't really comic books but video game tropes which were being used as plot devices. It was like Doom the movie, only smart, well-made, and enjoyable.

And now, Kick-Ass, an inherently meta-comic book movie about a kid who wonders why comic book fans don't give the whole superhero thing a whirl, decides to try, and proceeds to learn why it's a bad idea. This premise could have been a lot of fun. As I watched the movie, at every step I could see why the writers made their choices. Now, having read up on the comic, I see that the original writer really did hew to the premise and produced a conclusion in which Kick-Ass ends up basically back where he started, rather than the happier movie ending. But even he made the mistake of introducing other, more "real" superheroes (well trained, well armed, lethal costumed vigilantes) to keep upping the ante. While this makes the story far more exciting, it betrays the idea that this kid's plan is obvious folly. Sure, things don't work out so well for the other heroes, either, but they are really heroes, and their failures are heroes' ends based on heroic flaws. The story was at its strongest when it was about this kid's wild-eyed optimism and naivete putting him in danger, but he's not naive to believe superhero-dom is possible if you introduce real superheroes! Anyway, the ending doesn't spoof cliches, but inhabits them so much that it ultimately becomes one. It even ends with a direct reference to a real comic book villain coming from a fake comic book villain who, we're to believe, is now going to become a real comic book villain.

That's why the meta-superhero is finished. He can no longer don his tights and trip clumsily into our normal world, mocking the cliches of comic books, because comic books and comic book movies are now populated with enough of this character that it would be repetitive, reductive, and nostalgic.

But will this stop Hollywood? I worry. Here's what I expect: A movie about the making of a movie about a superhero who has to learn he's a meta-superhero off-screen (but on our screen). Only it's animated. And the superhero who isn't really super is a dog.

Crap, I forgot about Bolt.