Is 'Kick-Ass' too violent? And in whose eyes is a box-office 'disappointment'... disappointing?

hit-girl-kickassI think that I first heard the phrase “box office disappointment” early in the 1980s, at the Stone Age dawn of the Entertainment Tonight era. Even back then, I wondered: Who, exactly, is being disappointed? Theoretically, it should be the chief of the studio that put out the movie, or maybe the marketing department, or even the people who actually made the movie (oh, them!) — the director, screenwriter, producers, tech wizards, and actors. Yet the implication, whenever that slightly scolding phrase would come rolling off of Mary Hart’s tongue (“a box office disappointment“), was somehow that we, the audience, were supposed to be disappointed. In the post–Star Wars era, movies had become like high school cliques that you joined, the more popular the better. And if a film’s opening-weekend grosses were “disappointing,” it meant that all the people who’d gone to see it had joined the wrong club.

Movie grosses, however, can be a bit like Internet dates: They often hinge on an expectation factor. Take, for instance, Kick-Ass. In a sense, it’s a Hollywood comic-book superhero movie, like Spider-Man or Batman or Iron Man, but in a very real sense it’s also an anti–comic-book superhero movie. It cost $28 million to make, it premiered at the hipster-clogged SXSW film festival (can you imagine that happening to a true megabucks franchise?), and when the buzz began to build, most prognosticators agreed that Kick-Ass was a highly original movie that, in its superbad ordinary-teen flukiness, had more going for it than not.

But that’s when the demon karma of Hollywood box office expectations set in. Kick-Ass kicked off such a steady, growing chatter of pre-release buzz that the movie, precisely because it was so eagerly anticipated, was suddenly saddled with raised expectations. The enthusiasm built, over the last week or so, to a kind of publicity-engine Ritalin rush. Measured against those expectations, Kick-Ass was left wanting. It was almost destined to be punished — to be seen, when the box office smoke cleared, as a merely mortal movie, instead of the magically endowed superhit that was being chattered about in the industry and the press. That fantasy of megahit triumph — the one that Kick-Ass didn’t live up to — goes back to the paradigm locked in during those early ET days: If it’s a bona fide smash, then we all joined the coolest, most popular club!

But let’s look at the reality. Kick-Ass, an incredibly violent and (to me) charmingly idiosyncratic movie about teen superheroes who wish that they had superpowers (and one pigtailed girl who essentially does), opened over the weekend and did just fine. No one needs to be “disappointed” by its $19.8 million gross, or its per-screen average of $6,444. (Oh, man! If only it had averaged $8,444! Then we could all be…happy!) In fact, to tag it a “disappointment” is really, in effect, a way of tainting the movie, of painting it as a kind of failure, and in doing so diminishing the possibility that it might just have legs. (It’s the filmmakers who should be disappointed — not so much by the grosses as by the rap-on-the-knuckles coverage of the grosses.)

Kick-Ass, after all, is a film that doesn’t feature name actors (though Nicolas Cage plays a rubber-bat-suit vigilante with style), and, as many have noted, its R rating would tend to keep a great many of its most natural-born fans — kids — from seeing it. As a critic who dug the movie, and was rooting for it to find the audience it deserves, I, for one, am not “disappointed” by its performance. I hope that it does find that audience, and that’s exactly what it started to do this past weekend.

* * * *

So what about that R rating, that bullet-flying mayhem, that ass-kicking little girl with her blue-streak vocabulary, and all those kids who weren’t allowed to see the movie — or, more important, the kids who were? I didn’t necessarily expect Kick-Ass to create a storm of outrage, but it did (or at least a mini-storm), and that’s probably a healthy thing. On opening weekend, two major critics hit the movie with a fusillade of moralistic criticism: Roger Ebert in his review in the Chicago Sun-Times, and The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott in a Sunday think piece that stated, with regard to Kick-Ass and the current state of movie violence: “We will, I suppose, each find our own limits and draw our own boundaries, but it may also be time to articulate those and say when enough is enough.”

Both these pieces make very cogent arguments and are well worth reading. I have no real desire to debate them point by point. What I would like to say is that articles like these almost inevitably partake of a kind of built-in double standard, since the case that they’re ultimately making — that this, finally, is the movie that went too far — could easily be applied to any number of other films that those same writers chose, for whatever reason, not to apply it to. Like, say, Wanted or The Killers or Live Free or Die Hard or Kill Bill–Vol. 1.

Now I realize that with Kick-Ass, we’re dealing with the highly unusual character of a girl superhero who’s supposed to be 11 years old wielding swords and guns like a prepubescent version of…well, Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films. But you could easily make the argument — and I would — that the edgy shock of this kiddie kamikaze spectacle, far from being irresponsible, adds a bracing satirical note to the very notion of over-the-top screen violence. Does a child — a girl, no less! — committing the same sort of apocalyptic carnage that adults usually do, and weathering the same smash-face brutality, make it more decadent? Or does it, in fact, highlight the decadence of what most of us accept, more or less every week, at the movies? That never-ending onslaught of blockbuster blood and ballistics leaves all of us a bit numb, but I’m not sure that any critic is going to sign on to condemn that.

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  • UGH

    I think there’s a fan-boy curse for the month of April.
    Grindhouse flopped.
    Watchmen flopped.
    ..and now Kick-Ass.
    Maybe these movies would’ve done better as Summer releases?

    • Howard Zen

      Watchmen opened in March, not April. Sin City opened in April and was a huge hit.

      • Quirky

        Watchmen grossed $107 million, Sin City only grossed $74 million (according to rottentomatoes.com)

      • Jason C.

        Check BoxOfficeMojo.com though. Yeah, Sin City made only $74 million but it only cost $40 million to make. Watchmen made $107 million and cost $130 million. In the ratio of what they cost to what they made, Sin City was the bigger hit.

    • John W

      I think it’s premature to say Kick Ass flopped.

      • Jonathan F.

        agreed.

      • yeahhh

        I don’t think it is possible for Kick Ass to flop. It Only needs to make about 8 million more dollars in order to make a profit. It will due fine.

    • Baby Gorilla

      I think you’re a stupid drooling mouth-breathing cow; how about THAT???

      • Baby Gorilla

        That last comment was directed to the sped known as UGH, BTW…

      • UGH

        You’re quite the idiot, aren’t you?
        I saw Kick Ass and thought it was great, BTW.

      • Anitamargarita

        Baby Gorilla, just saying, but when you act like an a–hole, it doesn’t really matter who you are directing it to. You’re still being a total a–hole. No one is going to say “Oh, s/he’s not being an a–hole to me, so it’s okay.” No. We just say “What an a–hole.”

    • AAC

      I think its the R rating that had a bigger impact than the spring release and most of the movies you mentioned did very well on DVD so none of them are necessarily flops.

      • UGH

        I’m not disputing DVD sales. This is about theatrical releases. Most of them have not done as well as expectd.

      • Jason C.

        The movie won’t be a flop, it cost under $30 million to make, and has already made over half of that back. It’ll make it’s entire production budget back by the end of next weekend. Yeah, what it made is disappointing if you look at the marketing push and hype behind it, but at the same time it’s going to be profitable, and you can’t call a profitable movie a flop.

    • Spyder121

      First of all, the film was great. Second of all, it hasn’t “flopped.” It’s been out for one weekend! A lot of films don’t open big but gain momentum. Look at “Titanic.” That movie opened with unimpressive figures, but kept picking up cash and became #1 for years. Now, it very well could flop if people behave like sheep and blindly follow critics’ suggestions. But it’s far from that point. Think before you speak.

      • Gus

        You’re kidding yourself if you think A LOT of films GAIN MOMENTUM. Count on KICK-ASS taking a big drop next weekend.

      • Ana

        Titanic opened at number 1 with 28 million. There have been better December openings since but that was record-setting territory. It was heavily predicted to be flop, which is what you may be thinking of.

    • Leslie

      Did you read the article? This is exactly what Owen was talking about- the only reason people think the movie flopped is because there were these expectations put on it after it started generating buzz. A movie that cost $28 million to make, & made $20 million of that back in 3 days, is NOT a flop. If the movie makes $0 for the rest of its run, then you can call it a flop.

    • ugh

      yes, watchmen was march, and did not at all flop. maybe disappoint a tad, but certainly not flopped. grindhouse flopped (but i still love it!)

  • Brian Smith

    I saw ‘KICK-ASS’ this weekend and loved it. I plan to see it again and am looking forward to the DVD release.

    • KC

      Maybe with it’s early exit out of it’s theatrical run that they’ll bless us with an earlier DVD release!

    • jackson bono

      is kickass really violent cause i have a 15 year old who wants to see it but im not to sure if its too violent for him to watch

  • Devin

    Very well-written, well thought-out piece.

    I think that some critics tend to pick a film like Kick-Ass to assure themselves of their own morality. Ebert fell over himself praising Kill Bill (and rightfully so) and I read that he even loved the film Class of 1984 (one, personally I find without merit). But he wants to have his cake of being a edgy, or at least a true critic who evaluates movies on their aesthetic value (and about 80-90% of the time he is), but then still wants to be a “moral” person. So movies like Kick-Ass become scape goats for our general love of violence. If we lash out against its decadence, we assure ourselves that our aestheticism has not overridden our morality.

    Probably because movies like Kick-Ass, which expose how comfortable our culture is with violence, hit a bit too close to home.

    • crispy

      Use those big words all you want.. we can all tell you don’t know what most of them mean Devin. Nice try though. Nice try. ;)

      • Devin

        Which one of those are even “big” words? Aestheticism? An appreciation of art for art’s sake, ignoring any moral implications? Any intelligent high schooler knows that.

      • Billiam

        Oh come on, don’t belittle someone for using the words “decadence” and “aesthetic.” Your post was way more condescending than Devin’s was.

      • Pete

        Actually Crispy, if you think those are “big words” then it’s likely you who doesn’t understand what they mean. I think to most people, it was a well written comment (and the “big words” were all used correctly btw).

      • anonymous

        Devin, crispy’s a known troll annoyed that its posts aren’t treated with the veneration that it deserves. Don’t sweat it.

      • Johnification

        Am I really the only one who got that crispy got, understood, and appreciated Devin’s post and was kidding?

        Man, they really need to start requiring more interpretive reading skills in high school graduates.

      • Lisa Simpson

        He even put a winky on it. (That sounds really dirty, doesn’t it?)

    • Maggie25

      I’m pretty sure Roger Ebert is far beyond the point in his career where he would be attempting to be ‘edgy’. He is probably the most famous living movie critic in the world, he hardly needs to do anything to establish himself as a ‘true critic’. I think, after reading his review, is that his problem is specifically with the violence done by a young girl, and the lack of psychological consequences for her.
      I don’t think it’s hypocritical to like a violent movie, but not a violent movie featuring 11- year-olds.

      • Devin

        Well, our culture does have a Helen Lovejoy “WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” problem, so I think, sadly, most people wouldn’t disagree with your last statement.
        But isn’t it just a TAD bit odd that if we waited just 5 years or so, no one would really bat an eye at the same girl doing the same things. Did ANYONE complain about Gogo Yubari, for example?

        And if Ebert is an artist (and I would argue that the critic is an artist), he would not rest upon his laurels. He may be the most famous, but while I disagree with his points and find some flaws in his overall arguments, I do have enough respect for the man to believe that he would recognize that one is never fully established, but must constantly strive to stay relevant and produce provocative work.

      • RyRyNYC

        Sorry Devin but a critic is not an artist. A true artist creates while a critic relies on knowledge of the medium to compare and contrast.

      • Maggie25

        I think a critic is definitely not meant to be an artist. They don’t create, they comment. I think it’s an important role and of course a critic can’t just rest on their laurels, but what I meant is, I don’t think Roger Ebert needs to prove himself. I don’t think he gives opinions cynically, in order to present himself as edgy or as a true critic. I think he tells us what he thinks of a movie and gives reasons for it. And maybe it is a little hypocritical to condemn certain kinds of violence and not others, but our thoughts and opinions are full of contradictions, and I do think he clearly states his thinking.

      • Johnification

        A “critic” is not an artist, but a writer or essayist certainly IS one, and criticism is a genre of writing. Ergo, Ebert is an artist (and a talented one, as his writing is quite good), but opinions and criticisms are just thoughts that people have.

    • Stephanie T.

      Actually he was trying to point out that the folks at the MPAA are hypocritical. Had Hit Girl been 16 and up, the movie would have been rated R but because she is a pre-teen, it’s PG13.

      • Rock Golf

        Come again? The movie IS rated R. And had Hit Girl been 30, it still would have been rated R.

    • darclyte

      Ebert seemed to have the most trouble about the 11 year old “hit girl.” Look, Robin has been around for 60 years. There were other kids too like Speedy, Aqualad, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, and Bucky (sidekick to Captain America.) Nobody seemed to have issues with these teens/preteens running around putting their lives in danger or fighting baddies. It wasn’t until Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy was killed by a Spiderman villain that it maybe started to take root that these kids could get seriously hurt or killed (although Gwen wasn’t a hero or sidekick.) Heck, it’s been 22 years since Robin # 2 Jason Todd was BEATEN TO DEATH by the Joker. The character was probably 14 or 15 at the time. Kick Ass takes the “Batman” mythos and pairs a young girl with a “Batman” like character…only they both kill (as would probably be true in the “real world.”) So Ebert’s and other’s “hand wringing” and “moral high standing” is a little too late, and probably ill informed. The movie is rated R, if parents let their underage kids see it, it’s NOT the filmmaker’s fault anymore than ANY of the movie makers and their movies that Ebert has praised. Ebert is a little hypocritical with his review of this movie, and errs by judging the movie on “morality” and not “filmmaking.” How many other movies if judged that way would fail to past muster?

  • John W

    I saw the movie this weekend and I enjoyed it very much.

    I saw this at another site and thought it was a good point: how many kids bought tickets for another movie and somehow snuck into Kick Ass?

  • Howard Zen

    Ebert has lost his damn mind. He gave Orphan 3.5 stars, and it has a creepy killer little girl. But that got a pass….why??

    Ebert also has no problem praising a pedophile like Roman Polanski. Selective outrage from Ebert.

    • Joshua Johnson

      Orphan does not have a creepy killer little girl. Have you seen it?

      • BlackIrish4094

        I thought it did too, like a Bad Seed type. The Orphanage did not have a creepy killer little girl, you mean that one?

    • Kevin

      Maybe he thought that Kick-Ass sucked. Lots of people did, that’s why it didn’t become a big hit. Deal.

  • the Jackal

    Kick Ass is ten times better than all those movies and I wouldn’t call it a flop, I can honestly say that I haven’t seen a movie that I enjoyed this much in a long long time and I’m no fanboy

    • Kevin

      If it posts comments like a fanboy…

      • Bobby

        If it smells like a troll…

      • wendy

        just what IS a fanboy? please educate me.. thanks!

  • Amy

    When I saw Kick Ass, I was less disturbed by the violence than I was disturbed by the reaction of audience members who laughed their way through some of these horrendous acts of violence. For example when Hit Girl was punched in the face by Frank D’Amico, I winced and was kind of horrified, but people behind me were laughing. I do think that some of the violence in Kick Ass was gratuitous and over-done, while some of it was very effective in how realistic it was. I just wonder what role a film like this would play in the desensitisation of young people.

    • Mike S.

      I agree. The laughing really got to me. It was such a strange atmosphere – one guy literally shouted, during one of the diner scenes, that the main character was a f*****t. And everyone just kept on laughing. I felt like I was part of some mob.

      • Andy

        Oh my gosh, how did you cope being around all those barbarians? Maybe if less of them had shown up Kick-Ass would have made even less money.

  • elena

    If it’s a good movie, I could care less how much it grosses at the box office. I haven’t seen Kick-Ass yet, but to label it a failure because it opened to lower numbers then expected…that’s not fair. It’s not like it made $3 million or some really low number. In the $18 million range is pretty respectable. Anyways, plenty of amazing movies had crap box office numbers. I still think it should be quality over quantity…

    • Jennifer

      It should be quality over quantity, but the reality is that in Hollywood it’s all about the bottom dollar. And yes, Kick Ass was made cheaply by Hollywood standards, but studio execs had allowed film festival reactions to puff their expectations up to unrealistic proportions, and so, by their estimation, it is a box office disappointment. May not be right, but it is what it is.

      • Ana

        Movie studios throw out expected numbers every time a movie is released. Almost every movie gets previewed prior to its release so that there is early word of mouth. Most of the people who saw the film enjoyed it. I don’t think the problem with this movie lies with studio execs so much as it’s up against “How to Train Your Dragon,” which is an action movie people can take their kids to see.

  • buzz off

    I read something along the lines of “comic fanboys don’t have dates to take to see this movie.” A plausible explanation, I think.
    I personally only saw the movie on the off chance. That poster of a guy in a wet suit is hardly appealing to people who have no idea what this film is about. Now it is in cinemas, I think word of mouth will keep it alive for weeks to come.

  • CleverShrew

    The first question makes me laugh. “Is ‘Kick-Ass’ too violent?” Umm, the name of the movie is “Kick-Ass”

    • Maggie25

      That doesn’t mean it can’t be too violent. If a movie was called “The Most Offensive Movie Ever Made” it doesn’t mean that there can’t be debate about whether it is too offensive. I’m not saying I think Kick Ass is the most offensive movie ever made or anything like that, I’m just saying the title doesn’t have anything to do with anything.

      • CleverShrew

        You are correct in that. My point being that people who are afraid of violence, or feel that a movie such as this is “too” violent, perhaps should not pay money to see an R-rated movie with the plot in the title. And that leeds to the next question, just how violent is “too” violent?

  • Ken

    I loved it and after the movie, my fiancee and I got into a pretty deep discussions from the movie. To me, that’s a success.

  • Mike S.

    I actually came to the same question but from Ebert’s and Scott’s moralistic angle: if Kick Ass struck me, with its faux-outrageous candy-colored nihilism, as deadening, soullless, etc. why haven’t all those similarly violent-nihilistic movies before them struck me the same way? (Some have – and there seems to be a culminating effect: I actually loathed Inglourious Basterds and Observe and Report for similar reasons).

    But the thought I had walking out of the film was that – where Vaughn had made Layer Cake a gangster fantasy punctuated by jarring moments of real violence (the diner scene struck me especially), he attempted to make Kick Ass a “realistic” comic book movie (did you buy that was NY? or the muggers straight out of Spiderman?), he punctuated it with expected fantasy flourishes inherited from the Matrix and other comic book movies. And I think there is a huge difference.

    Layer Cake, which I love, felt like it scratched what was beneath the surface of Guy Ritchie movies (and far surpassed them in my book) by incorporating moments of real violence. It sort of broke me out of the fantasy, even for a moment, in thoughtful ways. But Kick-Ass, every time it makes that girl a superhero and then returns to say, have her punched in the face, goes from intriguing to numbing to kind of sickening. And I actually thought, beyond its visceral impact, that it just didn’t work – it felt muddled and confused as to what it wanted to be.

    As for the question: why haven’t the dozens of others affected me like this? It remains open – but I’m not resolved to say, “well, they are all acceptable”.

    • Li

      Very thoughtful comment.

  • Shiny

    Kick-Ass has already made all it’s money back thanks to the tiny budget and it will have a long life on DVD thanks to the buzz. Like Terminator, Sin City and Blade Runner it will have a long shelf life thanks to all the buzz.

  • DW

    I’d argue that the Kick-Ass opening is indeed a disappointment. Not only did the movie cost $28 million, but LionsGate plunked down $15 million to distribute it, plus who knows how many millions in marketing costs. It’s not likely to make a profit in theaters.

    • Ana

      Even with distribution costs, the movie needs another 25 million or so to break even. It opened barely out of first place and received really good exit reviews. It’ll probably make a profit in the next couple of weeks it the R rating and promises of excessive violence doesn’t scare too many people off.

  • Chelsey

    Why can movies show little girls getting molested and beaten, but no one bats an eye? You take a youngster and make her powerful and suddenly everyone has something to say. As far as her language goes, they’re just words.

    • AAC

      What movie are you referring to in which little girls are beaten and molested and no one batted an eye? Taxi Driver and Pretty Baby were fairly controversial for their day and the Lovely Bones movie completely removes the molestation scene depicted in the book. You may like the movie but make an argument that makes sense.

      • Tony

        Yes, there is discussion of the molestations or beatings. Typically when someone is victimized in a traditional sense like in the movies you mentioned, the movie is deemed important and revelatory. When they aren’t the victim but have the strength to fight (argue if you’s like about how HitGirl might be victimized in subtler ways), then it might be too violent.
        It’s like coach always said, they only see the retaliation.

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