KICK-ASS: Is a Revenge Flick with Costumes Still a Superhero Movie?

Kick-Ass (2010) – Directed by Matthew Vaughn – Starring: Aaron Johnson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mark Strong, and Nicholas Cage.

Superhero stories are traditionally not revenge stories.

Even when an ordinary person is motivated to go vigilante (Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker), the act of revenge is rarely (if ever) the final act. To be interested in revenge is to single-mindedly pursue one outcome – the make Person A pay for committing Crime X – and that doesn’t work with the costume crowd or their publishers. You’ll find plenty of smaller revenge stories, but the truly-motivated-by-revenge Inigo Montoya (“You killed my father. Prepare to die.”) types are few and far between.

For starters, “revenge” is neither heroic nor altruistic. It’s also limiting in its scope, and comic book companies don’t like a limited scope. Peter Parker was out for revenge, but his moment of revenge was not used to gain satisfaction or payback, but to teach Peter a lesson that (all together now) with great power comes great responsibility, and that responsibility is to help everyone, not just yourself.

The Punisher uses revenge as a justification for mass murder. The Spectre and Ghost Rider do the vengeance thing, too, Heaven and Hell style. All of them traffic in the world of superheroes, but none of them are particularly heroic. Super or otherwise.

Which brings me to KICK-ASS.

KICK-ASS is about a kid named Dave (a bit of a less-than-average Joe) who decides to become the world’s first superhero, and in the process pretends to be gay so he can run his hands all over Katie’s body. He also gets his ass kicked. A lot. Along the way, he gets mixed up with an older guy (Cage) who decides to call himself Big Daddy and dress in a bat-less Batman costume in order to enact revenge against the mobster who ruined his life, and Hit Girl, his ice-cold-killer, pre-teen daughter (Moretz). A fourth costume comes in the form of the mobster’s kid (McLovin), who poses as Kick-Ass’ new ally, Red Mist, in order to lure Kick-Ass and Big Daddy into a trap.

So there are plenty of costumes on the screen, and Dave and his pals hang out at a comic shop after school, but don’t be fooled by all the masks and tights – KICK-ASS has much more in common with Death Wish than it does Spider-Man.

Dave wants to be a hero, but Kick-Ass isn’t a superhero movie. First, it’s Fight Club (as Dave repeatedly gets his ass graphically handed to him) and then the story gets highjacked by the Big Daddy/Frank D’Amico (the mobster) arc, and it goes Death Wish through to the end.

Superheroes and their conventions are mocked throughout the film. (This isn’t a bad thing.) While Dave means well – donning a costume and fighting bad guys – he lies about his sexual orientation so he can play “my gay friend” to Katie, the girl from school he likes. They have sleepovers, hang out in their underwear, and Dave gets to rub lotion all over her backside.

None of that was the plot to Amazing Spider-Man 47. Or 1-46. Or 48-whatever number they’re using now.

When Dave eventually climbs into Katie’s room in costume and outs himself to her (both his identity as Kick-Ass and his straightness), Katie’s reaction is to suggest he stay and have an all-new, all-uncanny kind of sleepover.

Once Dave starts getting laid, he loses interest in being a superhero. Understandable, but not exactly heroic. There’s a well-played scene as the two of them are sitting together with their friends (who don’t know they’re an item, yet) and Katie announces about Kick-Ass that she’d “totally fuck his brains out” if she got the chance.

“Really?” Dave asks.

“Definitely.”

“Want to go check out the new Kate Hudson movie where she’s like a shoe designer?”

“Totally.”

Then they head outside and not go see a Kate Hudson movie.

As the film progresses it becomes increasingly non-realistic. At first, it traffics as a realistic superhero story – Dave buys his costume on-line, he almost gets killed his first time out as Kick-Ass, he becomes an internet sensation when some kids YouTube his second big fight. Before you know it, however, Nic Cage shows up playing an off-his-rocker Batman knock-off, complete with his trained-to-be-a-killer daughter, who looks precocious and talks ferocious, at one pointing taunting her opponents by saying, “Okay you cunts, let’s see what you can do now!” Toss in McLovin convincing his dad to let him dress up as a superhero to lure Kick-Ass into a trap and by the time our busted-up hero has his cavalry moment, arriving in the nick of time to save Hit Girl by flying in on a jet pack, you’re totally invested in seeing the ordinary world transformed into a superhero world that you just roll with it.

KICK-ASS is a completely enjoyable movie that gets better the deeper it goes, but, as I think I’ve mentioned, it’s not really a superhero movie. And that’s fine. It’s probably the better for it, because even though the movie trades in it’s initial offerings of superhero realism for superhero fantasy (and even that is questionable – superheroes don’t use jetpacks, The Fall Guy uses jetpacks), Dave never really loses his realism.

Dave’s arc from wannabe superhero to boob-touching boyfriend works; what he wants all along is to be with Katie. Whatever altruism helps motivate him into becoming a superhero, the move to put on the costume is actually done because he’s bored with the life he has, hanging out with his two best friends, who treat everything as an opportunity for putdowns (I have no idea what it would be like to be a person like tha- I mean, to have friends like that in high school …), and unable to have the life he wants, as Katie’s boyfriend.

It’s the desire to be with Katie that motivates his reluctance to tell her that he’s not gay. Katie wants to be friends with a gay guy, she thinks Dave is a gay guy, and so Dave pretends to be a gay guy.

Unlike a superhero story, which would show a conflicted hero agonizing over the statement from his girlfriend that she didn’t want him to keep being a superhero, Dave is like, “No problem.” That’s pretty realistic, I think. Dave has no superpowers (he does have a bit of nerve damage, making it easier to take a punch) so he doesn’t have that uber-superhero-guilt thing going about having a non-superhero life. It’s not hard to think that a teenaged boy would rather stay in and fool around with his girlfriend every night instead of patrolling the streets and getting bruised, bloodied, and broken fighting bad guys.

The film does trot out the “one last mission” trope, which leads to Kick Ass leading Red Mist to Big Daddy, which leads to Daddy and Kick-Ass being tied up and beaten up live on the internet, which leads to Hit Girl showing up to save the day by going all Frank Castle on the mobsters. I normally hate “one last mission” stories, but it’s okay here for two reasons. The first, it’s only a part of the film’s plot. The second, it’s executed well by totally backfiring and leaving Katie shaken and helpless as her boyfriend is tied to a chair and getting worked by a bunch of mask-wearing goons.

Dave has what passes for his hero moment after he and Katie leave the scene (Big Daddy dies) when he agrees to help Hit Girl go after D’Amico, but they don’t go to stop and arrest D’Amico – they’re going there to kill him. Hit Girl does 95% of the killing in the subsequent sequence, a raid on D’Amico’s bodyguard-laden private residence, but Dave doesn’t shy away from turning killer. The sequence is beautifully executed in its violence and it has more in common with Kill Bill than Daredevil.

If you don’t want to watch a stylistically violent movie in which a 10-year old girl drops the c-word and blows hoodlum’s brains out, you should take a pass on KICK-ASS. If you want to see a terrifically creative, fun, and enjoyable action flick, however, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Vaughn’s offering.

I really dig this movie. After I finished it I kept wanting to write something silly like, “This is the most American movie since Boogie Nights,” but that would be patently absurd. What I dig is its total acceptance of violence and brutality as both something to fear and something to revel in. I dig the balance between drama and humor.

I know there’s talk of a sequel, but I don’t really want to see one. I think some stories don’t need a second act, and I think KICK-ASS is one of them.

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One thought on “KICK-ASS: Is a Revenge Flick with Costumes Still a Superhero Movie?

  1. I’ve got a review of KICK-ASS somewhere on my hard drive. I’ll see if I can find it and put it up on TFT. But I will say that I agree with you that it’s not quite a superhero movie in that by the end, Dave does not embrace the traditional tropes we associate with being a superhero and indeed, abandons them altogether.

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