Realism is highly overrated. In particular, I hate realism applied to fantasy. Mostly because it seems to miss the point of fantasy in the first place.
I recently started a Twitter mini-debate with a friend of mine.* Watching a preview for the new Kick-Ass movie, I remarked how the movie straddles a clumsy line between superheroes and realism. This has always been a tricky prospect. Some elements of fantasy are closer to reality than others, and superheroes are about as far from reality as one can get.
I haven’t read the original mini-series this movie is based on, but the premise is an exploration of what would happen if people in the real world tried superheroics. This could be interesting. Although it seems like the story would be really, really short. Person in funny costume leaps out at bank robbers. Bank robbers shoot costumed person. The end.
However, the premise is destroyed for me the moment Hit-Girl, a small child, is able to kill a whole room of thugs and killers all by herself. This might even be possible under the right circumstances, but Hit-Girl is able to dodge bullets, reload guns by throwing clips in the air and slamming her pistols into these spinning clips, able to kick a grown man across a room, and cut off limbs with a sword.
None of this is realistic. All of this dwells firmly in the realm of the absurd. For all practical intent, Hit-Girl isn’t a parody of superheroes. She’s not a deconstruction of the superheroic fantasy. She’s not even really a tongue-in-cheek joke about superheroes. She’s just a superhero.
Kick-Ass seems even less realistic than Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. At least those films go out of their way to justify Bruce Wayne’s training and equipment. These aren’t realistic films by any stretch of the imagination, but at least by giving Batman a technological edge and an elaborate backstory, they’ve designed a fantastic justification for why Batman is Batman.
But Hit-Girl is just a little girl who has been trained to kill people. And while I do believe it wouldn’t be that hard to train a young girl to shoot people, I think teaching anyone to dodge bullets in a firefight would qualify as a superpower in itself.
Realism is absurd in this context. Once a character, any character in any story, is able to dodge bullets, you are dealing with fantasy. If you don’t believe me, then try an experiment. Have five or six friends stand around you with Nerf guns in a small room. Then have them all shoot at you. Can you dodge all those slow moving, readily visible projectiles? Of course you can’t. And that’s giant foam darts, not speeding, invisible bullets.
Also, swords don’t just slice through flesh-and-bone like Play-Do. I know that Kill Bill helped to cement this in our pop culture perceptions, but even that film took the time to justify it by giving our heroine a special sword, her own personal Excalibur.
None of this is meant as a criticism of Kick-Ass as an off-beat action adventure film. But it is a criticism of the realism of Kick-Ass. And anyone who suggests that Kick-Ass is realistic has no weight with me.
Realism in fantasy films is one thing. But what about realism in other mediums? How about video games?
A big game right now is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It’s a first-person shooter that involves running across the globe, fighting terrorists and other bad guys. While certainly on the surface, this game is more realistic than Super Mario Galaxy or Pokemon, in the end it isn’t very realistic at all. Because a realistic FPS would involve the player running around in a panicked state, trying to keep cool in a sea of chaos. And when you were shot, you’d die. End of story. Admittedly, getting shot doesn’t always kill you instantly. So the game could choose to have your character lay helplessly on the ground for a few minutes until either you expired or someone came along and carried you off to the infirmary.
Or you could be captured and thrown in a cell for years. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
A life bar or health meter makes a game fun, but it doesn’t smack of realism. When was the last time you were punched in the face and said, “Thank the Mighty Robot King that my health bar was full! Now if I can just find a health pack and a power up.”
Now Mario is, in the spectrum of things, more unrealistic. Realism is probably the last thing the designers of Mario games worry about. As I play Super Mario Galaxy, I don’t try to make much sense of it. Why does a big, evil turtle have an obsession with kidnapping princesses? Why does he emply an army of turtles, mushrooms, skeleton turtles, ghosts, and walking bombs? Why do I climb a giant toy robot in one level, fight a flower monster in another, and turn into a bee in another? Who knows? Who cares? It’s Mario. That’s just the way Mario works.
I’m not suggesting that Mario is a better game than Call of Duty. I like Mario better, but that probably has less to do with the quality of the game and more to do with my old school platformer roots. And I do enjoy weirdness for weirdness’s sake. I have no reason to believe that Call of Duty isn’t a solid game in its genre. But is it realistic? No, it just ain’t. It’s only realistic in comparison to something that is less realistic, and it’s hard to find things less realistic than a chubby (yet surprisingly athletic) Italian plumber who explores the universe, collecting stars, fighting the minions of a giant, fire-breathing turtle to rescue a princess.
Kick-Ass will undoubtedly be more realistic than much superheroic fantasy. The costumes alone demonstrate this, and the fact that many of our characters are clumsy wannabees with illusions of grandeur is more realistic than many comic book universes, where it often appears as if just putting on a costume makes you capable of fighting crime. But characters like Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are cut from the superhero cloth. They do swear, but a lot of modern comic book heroes do that. They do kill people, but a lot of modern comic book heroes do that. They’re thinly disguised psychopaths, but a lot of modern comic book heroes are that, too.
(When will we get tired of retelling Moore’s Watchmen? Or at least when will we stop acting like retelling the story is edgy or original? Just wondering on that one.)
There’s very little, if anything, to distinguish these characters from your garden variety superhero. And that’s not a problem for me. I like superheroes. I like superheroics. And Kick-Ass looks like it could be a fun, surreal, dark comedy adventure. I’ll probably even see it though I’m not a fan of Millar in general. I could launch into a rant about the ridiculous nonsense that was “Old Man Logan”, but that’s another blog post entirely and one most people wouldn’t give a damn about.
(Long story short: Old Man Logan was a very dumb Wolverine story.)
There’s nothing wrong with surrealism. There’s nothing wrong with realism. Both are valid styles. But don’t try wrapping surrealism in a realism package. Because that’s just silly. It makes realism look bad. It makes surrealism look bad. And it’s just unnecessary.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,
*My friend-in-question is Russell C. Connor. He’s a good guy, and he has a couple of books available on Amazon. There’s a plug for you, Russ, because I’m cool like that.