Masculinity in the Millarverse Part 1: Deconstructing Gender Performances in the Film Adaptations of
On September 22, 2017, Kingsman: The Golden Circle will be released in theaters, marking the 8th theatrical live-action film based on a Mark Millar comic. Mark Millar, to those who aren't comics fans, is a Scottish writer who has been working in mainstream comics since the 1990s, and has written for titles including Swamp Thing, X-Men, Superman, and Judge Dredd. Despite Millar's work on big name titles like these, he is possibly more famous for his incredible success in getting his independently created comics adapted into films. Given the recent news that Millarworld, the author's comic book publishing house, was purchased by media streaming giant Netflix, it doesn't appear that Millar's comics to film career will be slowing down any time soon.
Starting with Wanted in 2008, Millar's film adaptations have been consistently successful with audiences and critics alike (Kick-Ass 2 from 2013 being a notable exception). Despite the vastly different levels of fidelity to the source material from adaptation to adaptation, all of the films in the live-action cinematic Millarverse bear one striking similarity, which seems to spring directly from Millar's writing: they showcase the ways that masculinity is performed across film genres. To clarify: each of the films I will be examining in this series of articles contributes to a larger conversation about how masculinity is performed in and across filmic and comic genres, including superhero stories, spy films, and coming of age tales.
Although Millar's comics work has been justifiably criticized for its treatment of women (check out articles here and here for a small taste), I would argue that through gleefully over-the-top violence and sex, the film adaptations of those comics simultaneously galvanize Western masculinity as action-oriented while also critiquing the performativity and instability of the 'masculine' film star. Much like the 1999 film Fight Club, the filmic adaptations of Millar can be read as subversions of masculinity; their glorious excess reminds the audience of just how ridiculous societal expectations are for men.
However, this subversive reading of the Millarverse exists in tension with the more common reaction to the films – that they are just "dumb fun," as is traditionally expected from the action and superhero film genres. And, to be fair, the "dumb, but fun" description holds true for many of these films – in the Millarverse, assassins can "bend" the trajectory of bullets, villains use SIM cards to send aggression waves that induce mass mayhem, and an 11-year-old girl armed only with shards of glass is able to take down a supervillain three times her size. Millar's comics, and the films they inspire, are not exactly subtle in their fusion of violence and camp. But in spite of this lack of subtlety, there is something that draws me back to these films over and over, and always forces me to wonder - what do these films really say about masculinity? And, an even more complicated question, what does my unabashed love of the cinematic Millarverse say about me, as a fan of these films and a self-described feminist?
My argument is that these films can be read in multiple ways – as subversive reflections on the state of masculinity in the 21st century, and/or as dumb, yet fun masculinist fantasies. Because of this tension between possible readings, the cinematic Millarverse is an excellent starting point for a conversation about gender and genre, and how the two are mutually constitutive and yet at odds with each other. In the articles that follow in this series, I will examine the role of gender and genre in two films adapted from the work of Mark Millar: Kick-Ass (2010), and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014).