With Kick-Ass heading up the forefront of a new "What if superheroes existed in the real world?" trend, it may be time to wonder if this is a sign that superheroes are finally on their way out of mainstream culture.
The prevalence of superheroes in mainstream pop culture always seems to go in a cycle (and normally one led by Batman); first we get the tentative, nervous beginnings (Tim Burton's Batman, for example, which was pretty much a stylish action movie that just happened to feature a man dressed as Batman and a villain in white facepaint) before the fad gets bolder and more openly superheroic, outlandish and ridiculous (From X-Men's leather jumpsuits to Spider-Man's garish red-and-blue and, later, Iron Man's glowing, shiny armor, in the current era) and then starts collapsing under the weight of its own success (Watchmen, anyone?). By that point, it starts being visited by people who want to deconstruct it and add their own ideas, their own takes on the genre and everything goes to shit.
Kick-Ass feels like the beginning of the end, for me, but it's not alone; upcoming TV pilots like No Ordinary Family and The Cape are other high-profile examples of the move away from superpowered spectacle and towards a more mundane take on superheroes that brings them down to our level. For all its faults, something like Heroes (or other attempts at deconstruction, like Hancock or, worse, My Super Ex-Girlfriend) seemed to want to keep the scale of storytelling epic - destruction was widespread, if limited by budget, and stories had an ambition that was often let down by execution. But Kick-Ass et al are different; their entire point isn't just "What if superheroes had emotions like we do?" (Arguably Heroes' main conceit, right there in front of "Can we find something for everyone to do without actually doing anything new with the characters this year?"), but literally "What if superheroes were just like us? And could bleed and screw up and be as much of a mess as us?" Taking, if you like, one of the core questions behind Watchmen but leaving behind the imagination and ambition that addressed all the other genre conventions along with the humanity of its heroes.
Stripping not only the "heroes" but also the "super" from the genre feels, to me, as if culture is finally tiring of this latest spate of superhero worship; maybe it's a reaction to the superhero overkill of summer 2008 (and the foreknowledge of more to come from both DC Entertainment and Marvel/Disney in years to come), or just boredom with a formula that's become overfamiliar by now. It's taking apart the formula until there's almost nothing left, and then prodding what's there to see what thrills can be had. Such things are nothing new for comic fans, who've been experiencing this kind of cycle themselves on repeat for the last twenty-plus years; Marvel are at the end of a period of doing a softer version of that very same thing, after all, but whereas Dark Reign leads into a new Heroic Age of optimism, bright new Avengers and rainbow bridges (Metaphorically, at least; I have no idea whether that Thor standby will return by the end of Siege), that's down to a necessity than mainstream culture doesn't feel: Comics, Marvel in particular, have to keep pumping out superhero stories no matter how tired they may feel about the formula, because that's what the market is based around. Movies and television, luckily, have no such compulsion, and can let the genre rest and recuperate after its been taken apart.
That isn't to say that Kick-Ass won't be a massive hit; the buzz already suggests that it could be one of the movies that defines the summer, but it'll also skew the superhero movies that follow, drawing attention to their more formulaic moments and poking fun at the lack of self-conscious humor whenever they're played straight (Iron Man 2, already approaching self-parody in its trailer, is probably safe from this, but what about Thor? Or Captain America?) and potentially robbing the suspension of disbelief necessary to believe a man can fly. After seeing a genre's weak points exposed, will audiences really be excited to watch capes and costumes save the world non-stop for summers to come?