Taxi Driver was released in 1976 to great acclaim and box office success. The story of a man’s pursuit of agency and meaning in a modern world that he barely understood captured the American national imagination, played a major role in crystalizing the legends of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and raised the standard for an entire genre. The story of Travis Bickle is a chronicle of the pain caused by the disjunction of an individual from his society and the extremes that can be taken in a person’s quest to reconnect. It is powerful, gripping and –in a world where less and less of our time is spent in any actual connection with people- increasingly relevant. But it leaves a gap. Travis Bickle is disconnected because of the trauma that he experienced fighting and leaving the Vietnam War. The modern disconectee doesn’t need any such secret origin.
Thirty-four years later, Matthew Vaughn, a director at the time best known for marrying Claudia Schiffer, launching the career of Daniel Craig with the independent action saga Layer Cake and leaving X-Men 3 just in time for Brett Ratner to ruin everything, adapted a comic series called Kick-Ass for the movies. Kick Ass came out in 2010 and achieved moderate success in its attempt to be the angry, alt/indy answer to Iron Man. While Kick-Ass failed to grab hold of the popular culture in the manner that its creators had hoped it might, it succeeded updating the Travis Bickle archetype for the post-Internet era. It succeeded in imbuing the story of the lost with a bit of blue sky.
It goes without saying that Taxi Driver is a really great movie. The dream-like aesthetic that perfectly matches the protagonist’s disconnected relationship with the world; the line that De Niro walks between desperate longing and fierce brutality in his portrayal of Travis Bickle; the ambiguous mix of redemption and dread that colours the film’s resolution; every inch of that movie is marked by the best talents of an era when they were at a creative peak. Taxi Driver is an undisputed masterpiece, but something about it has always sat poorly with me on a personal level. My problem with Taxi Driver is that it possesses such small hope.
The movie is about a man, De Niro’s Bickle character, recently discharged from the U.S. Marines and living in New York. The history of this man is left largely unexplained. We know that he has served as a Marine and seen combat. We know that he drives a taxi and lives in a horrible, small apartment. We know that his parents are alive and that he only corresponds with them by letter. We know that he is disconnected from the world and cannot rest, can never sleep. The movie gives us a compelling but incomplete portrait of its anti-heroic protagonist, a portrait filled with holes and those blank, dark spaces serve an important function. They provide our imaginations with room enough to play. Room enough to make monsters. By employing the services of the viewer, Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader enable their anti-hero to become a larger, scarier and almost mythic figure in his own story. They imbue their narrative with a sense of danger that comes from darkness. They create a movie that is both oppressive and ethereal.
Watch out now, folks. We’re about to venture into Spoiler Country: Travis Bickle is a taxi driver who prefers to drive at night. He chooses this because he cannot sleep and hopes that by working himself to the point of utter exhaustion he will finally find rest. His life is small with few friends and very limited connections. He doesn’t understand how the world works, how to interact with people and although he can create a working facsimile of a functioning and well-adjusted adult when provided with the need, the seams and rivets always show. After failing to connect with the intelligent and beautiful volunteer worker of a presidential candidate, Bickle begins to succumb to the monsters that fill his head. He convinces himself that the city needs a warrior to tear apart the criminals who walk its streets. He convinces himself that he is that warrior, trains and equips himself accordingly.
Bickle’s war on crime is misguided and his obsessions are trifold: Betsy the volunteer who scorned him; Senator Palantine, the presidential candidate in whom Betsy believes and Iris, a 12-year-old prostitute Travis desperately believes he can save. Bickle proceeds to set himself on a suicide course with the goal of destroying Betsy by assassinating Palantine and, freed by his impending death, saving Iris by sending her to her parents with his life savings. Palantine’s Secret Service guardians notice and mark the dangerous Bickle, which sends him running to Iris where he engages in a massive and brutally violent fire fight with her pimps and captors. The fight devastates Bickle even as he triumphs, but he reemerges into the world as a hero. The movie ends with Bickle picking up Betsy as a fare and denying her newfound respect for him with moderate self-deprecation and terrifyingly intense stares. The message is clear: Bickle is a hero in name only due to an absurd series of events. Next time he is set upon a deathly track, things will work out differently. It is an ending that deftly mixes dismal lyrics with an up-tempo, that smiles while promising doom. Basically, it’s an ending that gets more depressing as you think on it.
Now let’s get onto the subject of Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass was an independently produced adaptation of a creator owned mini-series from Marvel Comics stalwarts Mark Miller and John Romita Jr. While the comic series itself veers too deeply into cynicism for my taste the movie tapered that sensibility in a way that brought out the beauty and courage inherent to the premise. Kick-Ass is the story of a hand-made superhero. Dave Lizewski is a thoroughly average high-school student. He loves comics, pines for the beautiful cheerleading queen, watches too much television and isn’t exactly sure what role he’s meant to play in the world. Like so many teenagers, Dave struggles to feel connected with his life and the world around him, to feel as though he has a purpose and place to belong. “Like so many people my age,” he says, “I just existed.”
If you substitute the traumas of war for the mundane modern traumas of undeserved, meaningless comfort and a synthesized life lived behind screens, Lizewski becomes a teenaged Travis Bickle transformed for today’s world. Just like Bickle, Lizewski lives in New York and sees the city around him as fallen. He sees the world as broken. With a sentiment that now seems dated but nevertheless retains its potent and naïve beauty, Dave Lizewski fumes, “Thousands of people want to be Paris Hilton but nobody wants to be Spider-Man.” And just like that, he finds his purpose.
The rest of the movie is spent following the adventures and misadventures of Dave’s heroic alter-ego, Kick-Ass as he get caught up in a world that his much bigger and more dangerous than he prepared for. He has no discernable skills and could be very justifiably labeled as misguided. He is simply a kid in a costume but he has heart, a mission and -in a departure from his older, more deranged and destructive corollary- a genuine desire to do good. The movie can be racking and heart-breaking and Dave’s mission comes with a steep cost but it ends with Dave becoming greater than he was before. Unlike Travis Bickle the taxi-driver who felt lost in his city and decided that the world needed to be more, Dave Lizewski learns. His experiences change him enable him to grow. His story ends with a touch of sunshine.
Taxi Driver and Kick-Ass are very different movies about people with similar problems. One of them is a masterpiece and holds a deserved position in the popular canon while the other is still too new along its journey for us to know where it will ultimately rest in the national memory. Where Taxi Driver shows us the monsters that live beneath the cracks in society’s floorboards, Kick-Ass dares us to challenge ourselves towards more. Both films feature protagonists who feel disconnected from their lives and the world that surrounds them, who feel as though their disconnection may be partly blamed on the brokenness of that world and that the key to reconnection can be found in the taking of redemptive action. These movies affirm the human imperative to connect but impose an important caveat: that a person’s connection to the world must spin around the axle of empathy.
Theodore Wiebe is a writer living in Calgary. You can follow more of his important nonsense on Twitter: @TheodoreWiebe
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