Kick-Ass Knows Superhero Fans Are Masochists

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The superheroes in Kick-Ass don't have super-powers or fantastical technology, but they're not regular people. They're psychopaths, severely damaged and mentally shredded. The same, Kick-Ass suggests, goes for the whole superhero genre and those who love it. Minor spoilers below.

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People have tried to "deconstruct" superheroes at the movies many times before — we've had comedies like The Specials and Minute Men, and weird dramas like Sidekick, not to mention last year's self-important Watchmen — but they all treated the genre too kindly.

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Kick-Ass knows that the superhero genre is masochistic and addicted to violence porn, so the movie wastes no time in kicking the clichés of superherodom in the face, stabbing them with an oversided shank and then tossing them off a building a few times for good measure. If you love superhero narratives — and I already mentioned the masochism thing, right? — then this is a joy to watch. You can't really get the same thrill out of seeing the classic superhero origin story abused unless you truly love superheroes — although, really, anybody who likes the burgeoning sub-genre of gonzo misanthropic action-comedy will probably like this movie.

Illustration for article titled Kick-Ass Knows Superhero Fans Are Masochists

One thing Kick-Ass is not, by the way, is a "realistic" take on superheroes. There is no realism whatsoever in this movie, which is a big part of why it's so watchable in spite of all the underaged violence. Director Matthew Vaughn, who directed the ultra-campy fantasy Stardust, takes Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s gritty silliness and reshapes it into something that's pretty obviously a cartoon.

Our hero, Dave Lizewski, is a teenage loser who decides it would be cool to become a superhero, so he gets a wetsuit and some kind of head-covering. His first attempt at fighting crime leads to him getting royally fucked up, which is just as well because he has nerve damage and can't feel much pain after that. Dave's alter ego, Kick-Ass, finally becomes internet famous (and sort of regular-famous) but he never quite becomes a bad-ass. He does meet two genuine bad-asses, though: the Batman pastiche Big Daddy and his eleven-year-old daughter, Hit-Girl, who have trained until they're genuinely nigh unstoppable.

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All of these characters, plus the friend Kick-Ass meets later in the movie, the Red Mist, have had their expectations shaped by superhero comics and movies, and they're not shy about citing superhero clichés to each other. They also make fun of some of the more ridiculous ones, though, like when Kick-Ass asks how he can contact Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. And Hit-Girl replies that he can call the mayor's office. The mayor has a signal that he shines up in the sky when he needs Big Daddy's help — in the shape of a giant cock.

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There are really two kinds of action movies — ones which live up to their trailers, and ones which don't. Kick-Ass lives up to its trailers. If you watched the trailer or the ads on TV and thought it would be fun to watch an eleven-year-old girl say "cunt" and kill tons of people who vaguely deserve it, then you'll enjoy this film. (If you watched the trailers and felt disgusted or bored, then... well, duh.)

The thing that the trailers for Kick-Ass accurately convey is how fun it is — it's good, wholesome, bloody, crazy violence. For the most part, this film is not Rated R for boobs. I think you glimpse some boobs in one scene, but without — as Woody from Quantum and Woody would say — nippleage. It is rated R for its joyful, barbaric embrace of carnage. There's something to be said for action movies that show the real consequences of violence, and engage meaningfully with the tragedy of taking another person's life — but there's also a great cathartic thrill in movies that slosh fake blood all over the audience, until you're drenched in it.

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And the love of violence is really the main emotion that Kick-Ass expresses. Both inflicting violence, and receiving it. When Big Daddy points out that Kick-Ass' superpower is getting his ass kicked, you can't help accepting that it's true. But the movie winks at us, through an eye that's already swollen almost shut, and says, you know, that's not a bad superpower at all. The broken, battered young body of Dave Lizewski is the most pornographic thing in the movie, and his contusions are badges of honor.

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Superheroes don't give us much in the way of lessons about morality, or science, or whatever — they give us a context in which violence makes sense. Much like gangsters, who are the other type of non-regular people we meet in this film. You could just as easily beat people up without wearing a funny costume or being a gangster, but then it would just be senseless assault. The superhero genre legitimizes our love of brutality. And our masochism, as I may have mentioned.

You can't really love superheroes without being a painslut, Kick-Ass says. You can't embrace all of the illogic and pointlessness and nastiness of men and women and children thwacking each other in shiny outfits, unless you're addicted to hurt. If you let superhero comics yank the carpet out from under you over and over, if you put up with the contradictions and reboots and idiocy, then you're the one who craves another helping of pain.

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Stick out your tongue for the electrified alligator clamp, fanboys and fangirls — it's what you're been asking for.

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DISCUSSION

braak
Chris Braak

Yeah, I'm not really sure I can buy this. In the first place, you're talking about the "superhero genre" as though it's one big thing about heroes getting the shit kicked out of them, blurring the boundaries between empathy and enjoyment in such a way as to make "masochism" a fairly meaningless word. If the main character you're identifying with is abused, and that abuse is meant to evoke a painful sympathy (like Martin Riggs getting tortured half to death to demonstrate that his character is at its lowest point) are you still a masochist? What if that pain is just a set up for the reversal? By this definition, any time we enjoy a movie in which a character suffers, regardless of the context of that suffering, we'd be masochists. And yet, the condition in which we enjoy a movie because we enjoy seeing our protagonist get the shit kicked out of him is manifestly different than the condition in which we enjoy a movie because the protagonist kicks the shit out of someone else AFTER getting the shit kicked out of him.

All of this besides the fact that there's nothing about the "superhero genre" that demands that it be violence porn. There were whole decades in the history of comic books that eschewed anything resembling violence. And, yes, of course there's something to be made of the idea of the cathartic effect of legitimized violence, and there are many comics that do that, and some that make no bones about it, but it's grossly reductive to say that this structure is what ALL superhero comics are.

I mean, "superheroes don't give us any moral lessons"? Really? Your own Iron Man review described a movie that, in addition to engaging in cathartic violence, actually raised some important questions about the military industrial complex, the boundaries between machine and humanity, and the moral imperative of power.

I get that some people like Kick-Ass, but it's hard for me to get behind what you're doing here, which looks a lot like: Kick-Ass (actually Mark Millar in general) takes as its premise that superheroes are bullshit; if you like the movie, it must be because superheroes are bullshit. It looks like you're purposefully creating an artificial context in which the "superhero genre" is pointless escapist violence porn, wholly to justify enjoying a movie that was pointless escapist violence porn.

I'm sure I don't have to say, but there are some notable fans of the "superhero genre" that thought that Kick-Ass was complete shit.