Warning: The following article contains major spoilers and disturbing content.
“Don’t be a hero!” You’ll hear this injunction any time you attend a formal, emergency-protocol session (“what to do in case of an active shooter,” “what to do in case of a bank robbery/hostage situation,” e.g.). As cool as it may seem, wrestling the gun-toting thief to the ground is not generally advisable. What we usually hear instead: let the professionals- the police officers, FBI, trained personnel- do their job. Let them mitigate the situation. Unless all professionals have abdicated their responsibilities, getting involved as an average person with no formal training or skills can cause more danger or harm than good. This is one of the main reasons why vigilantism isn’t legally sanctioned or even encouraged. The question still lingers though…what would it be like for an average person to become a vigilante hero…or, to put it more specifically…a superhero?
Back in 2010, when DC Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were booming, two films came out that ran parallel to our adventures alongside Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and the rest of our favorites. Both addressed the above hypothetical. One film was Super with Rainn Wilson (from “The Office”). The other film, and the focus of today’s article, was Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass, based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), your normal 17-year-old high school kid. Dave likes hanging out with his friends- Marty and Todd (Clarke Duke and Evan Peters, respectively). He crushes on his classmate, Katie Dauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), and he immerses himself in comic book lore.
One day, while sitting in a café with his two friends, he ponders why no one has become a superhero. Not a superhero with web-slinging abilities like Spider-Man, the ability to fly like Superman, or an arsenal of gadgets and resources like Batman or Ironman…but just an everyday person who decides to don a mask and/or cape and go out and fight crime. His friends respond with the most intuitive, common-sense reason: “Because they’d get their *** kicked!” David concedes. That of course makes sense. But…it’s too late…the crime-fighting bug has bitten him!
Dave purchases a green-and-yellow scuba diving suit and two batons. He then establishes a training regimen that, while well-intentioned and rigorous, is ultimately fruitless. During his first real altercation, two carjackers stab him and leave him for dead. A driver accidentally strikes him and leaves him for dead as well (speeding off). At the hospital the staffers outfit him with metal plates that dull his nerve endings. This higher tolerance for pain helps him in his next altercation, in which, despite fighting poorly, he resiliently struggles with and rescues a man from a gang of thugs. The fight takes place in front of a convenience store, where onlookers film the encounter and make it go viral online. Dave titles himself “Kick-Ass,” and he becomes an overnight citywide sensation.
Meanwhile, passing under the radar is a real-life father-daughter superhero duo. Damien McCready (Nicholas Cage), a.k.a. “Big Daddy,” teaches his daughter, Mindy McCready (Chloe Grace-Moretz), a.k.a. “Hit-Girl,” various martial arts, fighting, and weapons-related skills. He straps a Kevlar vest onto her, and, in one training session they hold in a culvert, shoots her with a handgun. The shot sends her flying back several feet, but she’s fine as her vest is bullet-proof and he was simply acclimating her to that experience (should it befall her). They then assume a more normal father-daughter relationship and go out bowling. “Big-Daddy” outfits himself with an all-black suit, mask, and cape (directly alluding to the “dark knight” himself), and “Hit-Girl” dresses in a purple Paige wig, vest, and skirt. Unlike Dave, these two are the real deal, proficient in ballistics and all sorts of other combat maneuvers.
Their main target is Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), an Italian American crime lord who once framed Damien for drugs. Damien went to prison, his wife killed herself while he did, and now he seeks revenge! Mindy is a willing participant. She is crass, foul-mouthed, and ruthlessly invincible, it seems. Mindy fits the “little miss bad***” trope…very similar to Arya Stark, Natalie Portman’s character from Leon: The Professional, or Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill (if Beatrix was 20 years younger). Damien’s old partner, Marcus Williams (Omari Hardwick), is upset though that he (Damien) looped her into his vendetta, reminding him: “You owe that kid a childhood!” “Kick-Ass” eventually crosses paths with “Big-Daddy” and “Hit-Girl,” as well as Frank D’Amico’s son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who becomes the fourth “superhero” in the film. He titles himself “Red Mist.”
Matthew Vaughn (Stardust, Layer Cake) directed the film. Vaughn and Jane Goldman co-wrote the screenplay. Ben Davis provided principal photography. Pietro Scalia, John Harris, and Eddie Hamilton edited the movie. John Murphy, Henry Jackman, Marius de Vries, and Ilan Eshkeri provided the musical score. Vaughn, Kris Thykier, Adam Bohling, Tarquin Pack, David Reid, and Brad Pitt produced the film. Its production companies were Marv Films and Plan B Entertainment, and both Lionsgate and Focus Features distributed the movie.
Vaughn’s style is both gritty and sensational. Kick-Ass is a black comedy with splashy visuals and buckets of blood. Its violence is at times serious and campy. Throw in a hip and eclectic soundtrack into the midst, and you have something that appears to take direct inspiration from Quentin Tarantino.
In the third reel, Chris betrays Dave, shooting Mindy and then handing over Damien and Dave to his father’s men (the latter unwillingly). D’Amico’s crew captures the two and binds them to chairs in an empty warehouse. They tease the public about the “Unmasking of Kick-Ass,” and then pull their bait-and-switch. Various goons in balaclavas appear in front of a bright, tropical canvas (which they’ve ironically draped behind their two captives).
They address the audience and then proceed to beat, brutalize, and otherwise torture the two crime-fighters. Dave- through voiceover narration- expresses how much the beatings hurt (despite his “[expletive] up nerve endings”), how much it’ll hurt never making it out alive, and how the audience shouldn’t assume he does just because of his voiceover (citing Sunset Boulevard, American Beauty, and Sin City as examples in which the dead provide narration). The goons douse the two in kerosine and light up a zippo. “Gentlemen, time to die,” they exclaim. Marty, Todd, Katie, and even Chris all look on with stark horror. Frank gleefully smiles.
A bullet then suddenly rips through the lead executioner’s head. He collapses dead on the canvas behind him and the “studio lights” explode and plunge the warehouse into total darkness. Everyone- all the above goons and viewers- are completely shocked/confused. The goons pace about carefully…guns drawn. The shot appears through first-person night vision, and the goggles zero in on various people. The “first-person” brandishes a baretta, aims up at one of the goons, and takes a clean head shot. A fusillade erupts. Gunshots ring out and light up the pitch-black atmosphere like fireworks. The driving score ratchets up the tension.
The “first-person” continues to “delete” goon after goon (plunging a knife in one of the men’s chests). Several goons take refuge behind Dave. One of them scrounges about in the darkness, feeling the floor until he grabs the lighter. “I’ve got it.” The zippo flickers and flames ignite the kerosene and light up under Damien.
We see that the “first-person” is Mindy. She survived because she wore her Kevlar vest. The previously grief-stricken Damien (who hadn’t reacted at all to his torture) perks up, ecstatic to see his daughter alive. He instructs her to “take cover” and then guides her on various maneuvers from “Batman.” The orchestral score- “Adagio in D Minor” (which the film’s musicians borrowed from the film Sunshine)- swells as Mindy desperately cuts her way through the men. She covers her father’s flames with a blanket, snuffs out the camera recording the whole melee, and then attends to her father. It’s too late though. Damien dies of his burn wounds.
Why is the film’s torture sequence significant? The reason is the angle the filmmakers take. The bad guys trick the public and then expose them (through live streaming) to actual violence in real time (at least within the context of the film). They speak in “child-friendly” language- colorfully introducing the names of various weapons that they then use to beat and brutalize their captives. The goons speak to the crowd of viewers (in a manner analogous to your run-of-the-mill afterschool special): “Hello, boys and girls…we’re going to show you why being a superhero is a bad idea!” The lead executioner/torturer hums along, “Kerosene…the silent killer,” before announcing, “This, for all you cave men out there, is fire” (flicking his lighter).
The very disturbing ethical dilemma of children’s exposure to harmful or mature content/experiences is something that goes back several decades. Child sexual abuse is undoubtedly one of the most hideous crimes a person can commit…so hideous that even hardened prisoners brutalize those incarcerated for such crimes. But, even in the absence of any abusive physical contact, visual and verbal forms of exposure can still be very traumatizing. NBC’s show, “Dateline: To Catch a Predator” (2004-2007) with Chris Hansen, compellingly conveyed this message.
Kids who, for instance, watch pornography at too young an age can suffer lifelong, traumatic, emotionally scarring damage. Exposure to graphic violence is similar. Movie ratings like G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 exist for that reason. When my cousin and I were around 10-11 years old, we watched Last of the Mohicans (1992) many times at our grandmother’s cottage. The film is replete with full-scale battles, scalpings, immolations, and one scene in which a warrior cuts out a living man’s heart. Did the film traumatize us? No. I wouldn’t say so, but who knows what effects it had.
When the goons livestream their torture and attempted execution, they break the deliberate “exposure” barrier that should never be crossed…acting in some ways like child predators. They chillingly merge wholesome-sounding pedagogy with hideous brutality. This all builds to the moment of (attempted) execution. The goons (under D’Amico’s direction) try to convey the classic message: “If you want to play with fire, expect to get burned” (literally).
Burning alive is one of- if not the- most horrific ways of dying…and a very archaic one at that! In HBO’s medieval-themed fantastical drama, Game of Thrones, plenty of characters (and even entire cities) burn alive. In real-life, inquisitors burned prisoners at the stake. The English burned Joan of Arc at the stake. Fire may warm us up in the winter and help cook our food. A single flame may signify divine hope. But a “lake of fire” symbolizes eternal torment.
We don’t tend to associate immolation with modern gangsters and mafiosos, though. Their brutality (as harsh as it may be) is usually limited to bullets and beatings. In some films, though, fire makes a cameo appearance. In Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), one character slices and mutilates a chair-bound police officer before saturating him with gasoline and preparing to burn him alive (the scene may have easily inspired the above scene/sequence in Kick-Ass). American Gangster (2007) opens with Frank Lucas lighting a man ablaze and then shooting him. D’Amico graduates to the role of super-villain by appealing to fire. Immolating his captives saliently sends a much stronger, cautionary message!
The message is of course nothing new- being a “superhero” is far less glamorous than one’s naïve ambitions or impressions from popular stories may have people believe. There are plenty of real-life enterprises in which this is the case. Being a soldier is not nearly as “fun” as it may appear in “Call of Duty” or “Metal of Honor.” The life of a police officer is not nearly as exciting as it may appear on “CSI,” nor is the life of a spy as sexy and romantic as one may hope after watching any of the “Mission-Impossible” or “James Bond” films. All these enterprises have real, serious, dark, and very unpleasant potential consequences, but, alas, the dragon must be real; the dragon must be capable of eating or burning people for the quest to slay it to become meaningful.
Is it then the case that the most meaningful quests necessitate a real possibility for “immolation”? Yes. At least in one respect or another. But this is where the whole realm of prudence, caution, careful assessment, and competency come into play. A person who gets married knows there’s a possibility their spouse may “burn” them. Their spouse may seek a divorce and walk out (taking them for all they’re worth- financially or otherwise). But this is far less likely if the two people approach marriage carefully (Do they really love each other? Do their values align? Can they communicate effectively?)
By that same token, those who contend with violent people as a vocation do so only after enduring rigorous and intense training. Officers and military personnel are aware of all the caveats and vicissitudes when it comes to wrestling a criminal or firing a gun. Their fighting skills are far more engrained in them than in any average, everyday person, and that is ultimately why the whole “don’t be a hero” injunction exists. As cool as it may seem, spontaneously turning into a caped crusader “is a bad idea!”