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.
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.
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.