Sunday, April 25, 2010


Kick-Ass (2010) is the superhero film for our time. It is the product of the geek-chic age, the subsequent proliferation of comic book movies, and a postmodern ironic sensibility. In a year it will cease to be so relevant and become merely a symbol of a time gone by, but right now Kick-Ass is perfect. It is hilarious, it is sadistic, and it is brilliantly self-aware.

Kick-Ass Red-Band Trailer

Adapted from Mark Millar's comic series, Kick-Ass explores what could happen if a real person actually started dressing up like a superhero and taking the law into their own hands. The results are extremely messy and give the movie a stylized "realism" through the abundance of blood and bruising that is unusual in a comic book movie. As its advertising implies, Kick-Ass is not for the squeamish. The viewer feels each act of violence upon the heroes because their wounds are highlighted both visually and narratively. Each punch has an acknowledged effect, leading the viewer to conclude that the heroes will end up dead if they keep at their dangerous quest for justice.

The film also takes great pains to ground itself squarely in the contemporary reality of western culture: the characters openly discuss the likes of Superman and Batman throughout, Nicholas Cage does an obvious impersonation of Adam West while wearing his "Big Daddy" costume, and current events like the upcoming Lost finale are discussed (hence the time-specific relevance). The result of the graphic violence and cultural identification is that the movie feels like it's taking place in our world. Titular hero Kick-Ass seems like a genuine, average high-school student living in New York (Toronto if you recognize the landmarks), and his desire to become a masked vigilante is as relateable as it is delusional.

An example of the ultraviolence in the comic book Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass critiques the fictionality of superheroes and simultaneously gives us the fantasy of them. The film's real-world grounding demonstrates the implausibility of masked vigilantes, but its plot and characters venerate the underlying moral  fantasy of the concept. The movie invites us to question the heroes' motivations but clearly wants us to support them. Kick-Ass openly acknowledges his own psychosis for choosing to dress up like a superhero, and even compares himself to a serial killer. At the same time he is a good, stupid kid who just wants to do the right thing and gets in way over his head, and so his story is more endearing than horrifying.

Other heroes like Big Daddy and his twelve-year-old daughter Hit Girl are more akin to actual superheroes but are here seen in the context of our reality. They further demonstrate the mental instability necessary to actually become a vigilante but also the moral relativism that allows us to root for them. While Big Daddy is openly deranged and has brainwashed his daughter, his reasoning nevertheless invites sympathy and she simply doesn't know any better. Furthermore, the bad guys are so one-dimensionally evil that they deny all sympathy and seem ripe for swift, painful justice. Kick-Ass may take place in our world but many of its characters are of a distinctly comic book nature, and the contrast results in a simultaneous critique and embrace of the superhero fantasy.

In Kick-Ass we are shown the impossibility and foolhardiness of the superhero concept. At the same time the movie is itself a loving product of that fantasy and embraces the very fiction it dismantles. The film gives us the satisfaction of seeing the noble underdogs get the chance to triumph over evil and their own limitations, which itself is the true appeal of comic book superheros. By both critiquing and reproducing it, Kick-Ass lets us have our cake and eat it too. It is incredibly fun and should not be missed by fans of the genre.


  1. I feel like I need to make a disclaimer before I begin. The points you bring up I agree with, I love the idea of highlighting the consequences of a real person trying to be a superhero. I also love movies that make people unsure of whether or not they should laugh (was in an almost empty theatre and it made it funnier that only my friends and I were laughing). That being said, I still don't think I actually liked the movie.

    The main issue I had was the blatant homophobia in the film. I've never read the book so I don't know if that is taken directly from it or not, so this may in fact be a criticism of the book (and then of the film for not changing this). Maybe not even the homophobia. It's more the treatment of rape. When Dave's father talks to him in the hospital he mentions the police report in which it says Dave was found with no clothes on. He begins to ask Dave if he was raped, without saying the word (I forget how it actually is said), and Dave responds saying no, sounding embarrassed. While I am sure this is probably how a teenage boy in America would respond today, I find it difficult that at this point in the film "fuck" has been said more than twice and they can't use the word "rape" in a serious context. When the high school finds out what happens they assume he is now gay (I am not sure how the high school found out, is there another reason they come to this conclusion?). You write, "The film also takes great pains to ground itself squarely in the contemporary reality of western culture," and for this reason I understand why they would address rape this way. Unfortunately, I feel like such misunderstandings of rape, as well as homophobia, are part of this "reality of western culture." That being said, I still do not like how the topic is taken up in the film. Rape is something that happens to you against your will. Rape does not define your sexual orientation. A lesbian can be raped by a man and that does not make her straight, just as a man raped by another man does not make him gay. To say that rape occurs only according to one's sexual orientation is to believe that some aspects of rape are wanted.

    While the films also takes pains to distance itself from the homophobic stereotypes of gay men, when Katie says something like "I've always wanted a friend like you," and then adds, "Not that I think you're all the same," it still plays up the stereotype the gay guys are nothing more than asexual sidekicks to help girls with shopping or, in the case of the film, fake suntan application. Again, this is a stereotype that is part of Western culture, but I still don't see why it had to exist in this film. The film does not promote hatred for gay men, but it still seems to place them on a level lower than "normal" straight people it seems.

    Anyways, that's my rant. I think you bring up some good points and I think a lot of what I have a problem with is the parts that are, unfortunately, representative of current western culture. I think that a lot of people watching it will be aware of that, I do not believe that the audience watches with an uncritical eye. I just don't understand why these stereotypes and myths have to be promoted.

  2. Heather, you make some good points. In particular I think you're spot on with your criticisms of Katie and the way her character completely reinforces dominant stereotypes about gay men. Her character (or lack thereof) furthermore embodied many negative stereotypes about high school girls. Her role in the film seemed to be strictly that of the fantasy object: she is the hot girlfriend that nerdy kids like Dave dream about without ever having any real contact or understanding of the opposite sex. I'd argue that their awkward first kiss emphasized this point. I think the movie could definitely have been better without the largely unnecessary "gay rumour" subplot, and if Katie had actually had a personality.

    That said, I read a few of the things you criticize a little differently. With regards to Dave's father not using the word rape, I didn't get the sense that it was because "rape" is a dirty word or anything like that. I felt the film makers were just trying to get a cheap laugh out of the awkwardness between Dave and his father when the question comes up. We the audience know that Dave wasn't raped, and so when his father thinks so and gets awkward it's supposed to be funny. It's a bad joke but that's all it was.

    Furthermore I don't think that the rumour about Dave being gay was because he was raped. I'm not familiar with the myth that rape can define your sexual orientation, but I do know that Dave's friend makes a comment that shows the entire school knows Dave was found naked and beaten. I sensed the rumour started because most people assumed he was the victim of a hate crime as opposed to rape. That actually doesn't sound so believable now that I type it out, but that's what I assumed when I was sitting in the theatre. Chock it up to crappy writing in an attempt to work in the shitty subplot.

    You raise some solid points. There really isn't a good reason for the sexual orientation and rape issues to be in Kick-Ass at all. They're unnecessary and poorly conceived and clearly problematic. It's unfortunate that they so hindered your enjoyment of the film, and that the film makers felt the content was necessary at all. I wish that I shared your sentiments about the audience, especially for this type of film, but the giggling teenage boys that snuck into the screening I saw lead me to believe otherwise.

  3. Yeah, the rape and gay rumour wasn't necessary to the story, and I wish I knew why the rumour is supposed to have started because now I am no longer sure about that. I didn't mean that the lack of the word "rape" meant they felt it was a dirty word, I thought it was more reflective of the immaturity of the writers in that they could talk about sexual activity (wanted and unwanted) only as fucking, but when it became serious they were unable to discuss it at all. I do get what you are saying though, and it felt that way to me too that it was supposed to be the dad was uncomfortable saying the word, I just don't understand why it had to be dealt that way only.

  4. Marty and I just went to see it and I was totally struck by the blatant homophobia throughout the whole film. It wasn't even just the treatment of sexual assault (although that was a problem, and yeah sexual assault defining one's sexuality is definitely a pervasive myth), but also the fact that it reinforced the harmful stereotype/myth that gay guys are just straight men using homosexuality to get into girls' pants (not to mention Dave's "oh my gawd they think I'm GAY?? Not GAY!" reaction. Even the self-tanning scene could be read as an instance of sexual assault, given that she was consenting to being touched only because she thought he was gay.
    Another problem I had was with the film's racism. There's one good black character in the cop, but other than that black characters are either drug dealers or lackeys, or both.
    Those were the major issues I had with it, although I could nit-pick about a couple other things. I didn't hate it, it was pretty enjoyable (in a stylized and sadistic kind of way) but I was really uncomfortable with those things throughout. Not to mention the small child being beaten by a full-grown man and killing tons of people which, despite being really entertaining, was also pretty horrifying by the end. However, I'm assuming that that discomfort was intentional on the filmmakers' part.