Masculinity in the Millarverse Part 2: Kick-Ass (2010)
As I stated in last week's article, which introduced my argument about the cinematic adaptations of Mark Millar's comics work, this collection of films can be read together as building an argument about gender, genre, and the connections between those two concepts. Although Millar's comics, and the film adaptations that have sprung forth from them, have been fairly criticized for over-the-top violence and casual misogyny, I would offer a counterpoint, which is that these films can also be read as a campy and satirical take on "manhood," and in particular, on manhood as it is constructed via movies and television. To that end, this article will discuss Kick-Ass, adapted from the comic book of the same name (written by Millar and illustrated by John Romita, Jr.), and how the film simultaneously depicts the masculine fantasies evoked in the superhero genre while also satirizing the impossibility of fulfilling those fantasies in the real world.
Director Matthew Vaughn's 2010 break-out hit Kick-Ass follows the story of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a scrawny high schooler and comic book geek who one day decides to become a superhero, despite his lack of any qualifications. In his first run-in with criminals, "Kick-Ass," the superhero persona adopted by Dave, gets his ass kicked. Given his lack of training and powers, this isn't surprising; the silver lining, though, is that the surgeries to repair Dave's broken body actually do make him less susceptible to pain. It's not ideal, but steel plates and nerve damage (inhibiting the pain response) are probably more realistic superpowers than x-ray eyes or spider senses, right?
After video footage of Kick-Ass fighting off muggers goes viral, he quickly gains both allies and enemies. The former – a father/daughter team of vigilantes named Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) - try to protect Dave from his own stupidity, and end up caught in an unraveling plot between Kick-Ass and a crime syndicate run by the father of Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a schoolmate of Dave's. In the end, Kick-Ass is only able to take down the crime boss (Mark Strong) with the help of Hit Girl, who is highly proficient in several fighting styles and weaponry.
The plot of Kick-Ass reads like a juvenile, masculinist fantasy: average guy decides to become a superhero, and through dumb luck, actually pulls it off. Of course he also manages to snag the girl of his dreams, Katie (Lydnsy Fonseca), in an incredibly problematic subplot where he pretends to be gay in order to gain her friendship before making a move on her. But these masculine fantasies are not presented neutrally – in order to become a "hero," Dave must endure agonizing pain and humiliation. The fantasy loses quite a bit of its potency as we watch Dave's body crumple under the heavy blows of men that, unlike the villains in comic books, don't stop to explain their dastardly plot, giving the hero time to stop them.
In addition to this, Kick-Ass is nearly castrated when he attempts to protect Katie from Rasul (Kofi Natei), a meth user who frequents the clinic where she volunteers; in this incident, Hit Girl arrives just in time to save Kick-Ass. In this inversion of the 'castrating woman' trope, castration is literally delayed because a girl intervenes; problematically, Dave still feels figuratively castrated by his inability to 'perform' as the hero he desires to be. At the end of the film, even though Kick-Ass, Hit Girl, and Big Daddy have successfully destroyed the crime syndicate, Dave decides to retire from his crime-fighting career. In true comic book fashion, the film ends with Chris D'Amico, as his supervillain alter-ego, Red Mist, vowing revenge against Kick-Ass for the death of his father. It is clear that the cycle of male-on-male violence will continue in the sequel (and although I don't intend to discuss Kick-Ass 2 (2013) in this article series, I will say that the film, like the other Millar adaptations I have mentioned, enacts a complicated and messy sort of gender politics that can't be easily summarized or parsed).
Although one could argue that Kick-Ass is not just masculine, but regressively so, ultimately the film satirizes comic book/superhero masculinity. The most adept fighter in the film is Hit Girl who is not only a girl (as her name implies), but is also only 11 years old. Dave, both as himself and as Kick-Ass, is routinely the victim of horrific bodily violence, torture, and humiliation. The most traditionally "masculine" characters in the film – Rasul, Frank D'Amico, and various gang-members – are all portrayed as bullies and sadists. If the superhero genre is based on male wish-fulfillment, Kick-Ass doesn't just defer those dreams – it destroys them.