So last year a little movie called Kick-Ass was released to theaters. It was moderately successful, to the point that a sequel has been rumored, though that’s apparently in limbo for the moment. At any rate, the basic plot is that an unpopular high school kid, under the influence of comic books and a healthy dose of insecurity, decides to step up and be a superhero. He even gets a costume and everything. The results are… well… not exactly heroic per se, but pretty funny. This review is organized less around specific legal issues than the characters and the legal issues they raise. Spoilers follow as always.

I. “Kick-Ass”

First off, “Kick-Ass” himself. Better known—or rather “officially”, since no one seems to know him at all—as Dave Lizewski, resident of what seems to be either Brooklyn or Queens, is a loser. Plain and simple. He spends a disproportionate amount of time either hanging out in a comic book store or local diner with his two outrageously nerdy best friends or being rendered speechless by Katie, the girl he’s got a massive crush on. A couple of local thugs have set up shop in a parking lot/alley that Dave and his friends regularly cross on their way to and from school, and the thugs have relieved them of their lunch money and consumer electronics with sufficient regularity for it to have become something of a ritual. Then, one day, he asks himself why no one has tried to be a superhero in real life. He decides to go for it, and orders himself a wetsuit from an online vendor. After a couple of modifications and some… batons? practice swords? they’re never really identified… he’s got himself a costume and a self-imposed mandate. Who does he run into first? The aforementioned thugs. Emboldened (delusional?) by his newly-discovered superhero-ness, he decides to make a stand.

The scene of a gangly, out-of-shape teenager going after two muscle-bound thugs goes about as well as could be expected. Dave—excuse me, “Kick-Ass”—surprises the thugs for a minute when he resists, and manages to land one or two decent shots with his sticks. But unlike the stories in comic books, these thugs are not easily intimidated, nor do they mess around. Kick-Ass gets knifed in the gut pretty much right away, and as he wanders off, bleeding profusely, Kick-Ass gets hit by a car, shattering just about every bone in his body. The resulting full-body x-rays reveal pins and plates throughout his entire skeleton, yielding a picture which admittedly does look like a film of Wolverine, if Wolverine’s adamantium frame were patched together piecemeal with pins and screws rather than seamlessly welded to his skeleton by design. After a few weeks in the hospital Dave returns home, little worse for the wear, except that the damage to his spine has deadened his ability to feel pain. In short, Kick-Ass’s one superpower is the ability to take an ass-kicking slightly better than your average guy, not out of sheer physical toughness, but because he’s damaged goods.

After that auspicious start, things get a bit more interesting, legally speaking. Kick-Ass gets his break-out moment when some civilians upload a video to YouTube of him fighting off a group of hooligans to save a random stranger. The superpower does come in handy, as Kick-Ass really does take a beating, but he manages to get off a few defiant quotes about being willing to die rather than watching a group of guys beat up a defenseless man while the crowd watches. And you know what? Dave, as Kick-Ass, would be entirely within his rights to do what he did there. The right to defend others is basically co-extensive with the right to self-defense in most jurisdictions, i.e. one may use reasonable force to fend off or prevent what one reasonably perceives to be an assault on another. The weapons Kick-Ass was using aren’t particularly dangerous—no guns nor knives—and there were a bunch of attackers, so even if they had been unarmed, some additional “oomph” would be justified. And he doesn’t go after them, or even really try to hurt any of them, he simply strikes out whenever one of them attacks the guy he’s defending. This is, basically, an okay thing to do.

But that’s about where things stop. Dressing up in a costume isn’t really a violation of any law, but deliberately going out on patrol to fight crime with force is likely going to be a problem unless one is a law enforcement officer.  We’ve mentioned it in comments, but some idiot was arrested and charged in Michigan last month for hanging off the side of a building in a Batman costume with a variety of concealed weapons. The cops were, to put it mildly, not amused. The stock-in-trade of the costumed hero involves trespassing, violations of weapons laws (for concealed weapons if nothing else), and disturbing the peace, if not also assault or worse. Sure, there’s plenty of crime in our streets, but at this point, it isn’t the kind of crime that we believe could not be solved by police officers if there were enough of them.

II. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy

Of course, Kick-Ass realizes pretty quickly that he isn’t the only game in town. “Big Daddy,” a former police officer with a grudge, and his precocious daughter “Hit Girl,” are as close to the real deal as one can get without having actual superpowers: highly trained and ridiculously well-equipped. Hit Girl herself is a combination of utterly hilarious and deeply disturbing, given that she appears to be about twelve, yet is the single most violent and foul-mouthed character in the movie. There are a few obvious legal problems here. Training your daughter to take bullets by shooting her constitutes “endangering the welfare of a child” (N.Y. Penal Law 260.10) if anything does, and the number of laws they violate by possessing the kinds of weapons they do aren’t even really worth enumerating. It’s so blatantly illegal that it’s beyond illegal into something else entirely. Then again, the whole movie is pretty tongue-in-cheek, and it’s arguable that part of the whole project is to point out just how absurd the whole superhero gig really is.

III. Conclusion

If you’re looking for a realistic movie, this probably isn’t it, but in taking this approach, the filmmakers do seem to capture just how unlikely the idea of real superheroes actually is. It’s worth watching for that alone, and it also manages to be a pretty hilarious movie in its own right. A sequel probably isn’t warranted at this point, but it’s definitely worth watching.

14 responses to “Kick-Ass

  1. Does this mean you guys haven’t read the comic? I find that hard to believe, being such comics connoisseurs! Please run to your nearest comic shop (or online) and buy the trade right now, then write about it 🙂

    • I can’t speak for Ryan (who wrote this post), but I’ll admit my tastes tend more toward regular superhero comics (plus Moore and Gaiman). If the Kick-Ass comic presents different issues than the movie then that could be a good idea for a follow-up post, though.

  2. Jamas Enright

    Will you aguys also be looking at the movie Super, which is a more adult take on the same idea?
    (Not sure if there are different legal issues, though…)

  3. Could I suggest for a future column a look at the movie Hancock; some interesting legal issues there, not least the idea of a hero going to jail for causing excess property damage, and some rather large-scale vandalism (covering the moon with a charity logo) near the end.

  4. Dunno if Kick Ass would necessarily count as “patrolling for crime” even in his outfit though, since if memory serves he was mostly doing stuff like looking for lost pets (his only actual combat I recall prior to the end of the movie was fairly clear self defense/defense of others actually, just the first one mentioned here and getting jumped after asking a guy to leave Katie alone). I’m assuming there aren’t laws against walking around in costume per se in his area given the one fellow who got killed for dressing up as him on the way to a party; I doubt the poor guy would have worn said costume in public if it was illegal. His weapons weren’t even really concealed really, and I imagine batons lack any specific weapons laws against them unlike blades and firearms. So apart from the ending where he goes after the mob with lethal force, I’m not sure he was breaking any laws except for not reporting Big Daddy and Hit-Girl (and nobody knew he’d met them or even that they existed for most of the film). He would have been obliged to identify himself to any police who asked, but none did. Heck, the police may have known who he was anyway if the paramedic lied about reporting him, and just let it slide since he wasn’t actually doing anything except wandering around dressed up like an idiot.

    • We should have been more clear. The issue is not that “patrolling for crime” is per se illegal (otherwise neighborhood watch would be in trouble). The issue is that many superheroes patrol in illegal ways: trespassing and even breaking & entering are routine. Those could be excused on the grounds of necessity if a crime is in progress, but doing it proactively is a problem.

    • I believe a lot of areas have anti-mask laws, which are intended for use against the KKK and such, but which would make it illegal for a superhero to wear a mask if he’s not going to a Halloween party.

      • Which given the aforementioned hapless fellow who got killed by the bad guy for dressing up the same as Kick Ass, the area the movie takes place in probably doesn’t have such anti-mask laws or the victim would have probably been arrested first. “Red Mist” giving an interview on TV would probably also gotten him busted if just wearing a mask was illegal. Like I said, if the cops ASKED Kick Ass to identify himself he’d better do so, but just walking around dressed up didn’t seem to be a crime in that jurisdiction.

        As for the trespassing/breaking & entering thing, I can’t recall his “typical” patrols actually involving those. I can’t remember the specifics of when he and Red Mist entered that one warehouse (not sure if it was B&E or they could point to something suspicious suggesting a crime in progress), but that’s the only possible violation in that regard I can think of before the whole jet pack thing at the end, where the crime was more “breaking and obliterating” :).

  5. I don’t recall the details because it’s been a while since I’ve read or watched Kick-Ass but I seem to recall him having a MySpace account where people could write in and ask for help. What are the legal ramifications of coming to someone’s aid in a superheroic way if requested to do so?

    I imagine that would be considered self-defense just like the other guy, right?

    • How is this different from a Private Investigator or Professional Bodyguard soliciting clients?

      • I’d imagine licencing would be a big one. I know that many areas require both to have some manner of licence to prevent any idiot to go out and do exactly what a PI or bodyguard does. That doesn’t necessarily prevent idiots from doing so, but at least you know who the idiots are then.

        A question though, if Kick-Ass is out on foot, can the police honestly just stop him and demand to see his ID, or even identify himself?

      • Many states have enacted stop and identify statutes, the constitutionality of which the Supreme Court upheld in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District, 542 U.S. 177 (2004).

        Stop and identify statutes generally require that the person reasonably be suspected of committing or being about to commit a crime, but walking around with an identity-concealing costume on while carrying weapons may very well qualify.

  6. Pingback: Law and the Multiverse | Absurdly Nerdly

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