Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Morally Reprehensible": Mark Millar, Kick-Ass and the Failure of Criticism

I haven't seen the film adaptation of Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, and I wasn't planning to, but the kinds of reactions the movie is provoking from critics like Roger Ebert (who uttered the quote in the headline above) or Dana Stevens ("nihilistic and flip") are making me reconsider.

The amount of hand-wringing as people—even established, experienced critics—try and fail to explain what exactly rubs them the wrong way about this film is nothing short of amazing, and I think that's largely the magic of Mark Millar at work.

I can't stand Wanted (the comic; haven't seen the film, since I didn't think Swordfish was good enough to warrant a sequel), and I could barely stand the three, four issues I've read of Kick-Ass, either. But I have to admire the way Millar's work manages to put its critics on the defensive; and given that both Ebert and Stevens feel the need to qualify their comments by suggesting that they may just be "square" or silly, trying to apply standard concerns of morality to a comic-book movie, it seems that's translating to this film, as well.

Listen: There's no point in bringing morality into the discussion of a Mark Millar work. It's a dead end. It's what he wants you to do. He's expecting you. He's rigged the door knob so you'll get an electric jolt when you touch it. He's put grease and marbles on the floor. And he's booby-trapped the hallway with trip wires and suction arrows. He's prepared, and he is, in fact, counting on you to step right into that trap and get your ass kicked by the two universal cheap excuses for works that test the limits of good taste: It's satire!, and, It's just a dumb, over-the-top comic book!

It's not the former, of course, and it's not "just" the latter, but that won't help you if you engage Millar on those terms, because he's three steps ahead of you: It's the whole point of his work to be reprehensible in precisely the kind of way that appeals to people looking for brainless popcorn entertainment and drives the critics—or, for that matter, anyone foolish enough to stop and think about his work and what it says—utterly nuts.

Mark Millar is the master of that.

So, rather than to go skating on the thin ice of Millar's morality, I think it may be more fruitful to look at his technique.

It's been pointed out that at least some of Millar's work tends to flirt with homophobia, sexism, racism and what have you. I agree with a lot of that, but I don't agree with the conclusions.

I don't for a second believe that Mark Millar is a homophobe, a sexist and a racist. I don't believe that he's "famous" despite the fact that his work displays homophobic, sexist and racist tendencies, either.

I think the reality is much worse than that: Mark Millar's work is popular because he's a demagogic talent who has, like nobody else, perfected the art of appealing to his audience's worst and basest instincts in a way that doesn't just absolve them from experiencing any guilt from the pleasure that comes with it, but even makes them think it's cool, because it comes with just enough of a "plausible deniability" sheen to shrug it off as satire, or as stupid popcorn entertainment that's not meant to be taken seriously.

But, to quote Douglas Wolk, "knowing that you're perpetrating a cliché doesn't mean you've earned it."

Millar's brilliant shtick involves grabbing the reactionary self-loathing you find among many of the predominantly white, male, middle-class superhero (and, possibly, action-movie) audience by the balls and using it to his own advantage. His work speaks to the fears of being an emasculated loser and the resulting resentment against those to whose level you don't want to sink, those who are perceived to be even weaker and lower on the totem pole of society: women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals.

Or, to make a long story short: If you've got a latent grudge against bitches, niggers and faggots—or if you harbor any other urges deemed morally reprehensible in your tribe, for that matter—then Mark Millar is the guy who will gladly scratch that itch for you, who will jerk you off in a way that doesn't make you feel bad about it.


Bob Temuka said...

I really enjoyed the movie version of Kick Ass and generally enjoy most of Millar's output. Does this mean I'm morally flawed because I enjoy stories about morally flawed characters? Because that's kinda one of the things I like most about the whole concept of fiction.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...


Yes, I think everyone who likes Millar's work is morally flawed. Also, the rest of the planet.

In this post, though, I'm just talking about the work, and what it speaks to.

Bob Temuka said...

Okay. But it honestly did not speak to me that way.

I just think that it is really, really easy to read a failure of morality in things that people find distasteful, but that doesn't mean other people are reading it for that reason. I like Mark Millar's comics because I find them fast and funny and, unlike a lot of modern superhero comics, they don't take themselves so damn seriously.

I can't deny that there are moments in his stories that people find genuinely offensive, but other than an utter fascination with the pushing of acceptable narrative limits, I don't really care about that stuff. And I certainly don't read them to see minorities take a kicking.

Hell, the most reprehensible characters in Kick Ass - both comic and movie - are the big, bad mobster and Big Daddy, two balding white guys. Condemning the entire work because of the suffering of minority characters is like writing off the Simpsons because of Apu. On his own, he is a patently offensive stereotype, but so is everybody else. It's making fun of everybody, especially the white male who rules the world.

I do get a kick out of that.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...


I'm condemning all of Millar's work for its failure of morality. Also, the rest of all creative work committed by humanity.

Bob Temuka said...

Yeah, sorry dude. I took that criticism a bit personally, which is always stupid.

But I would like to point out that in my entire life I have read two books that were absolutely morally watertight, and they were both bloody boring.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...


The point I'm trying to make, in the post itself and in my comments to you, is that morality is no good as a critical standard when it comes to Millar's work. Because all it is to Millar is a stylistic device with which to manipulate his audience.

As to whether THAT's "morally repregensible," well, everybody will have to figure that out for themselves.

Bob Temuka said...

Yeah, I was definitely reading too much into it.

But I still believe there is more to Millar than stylistic tics. I do find touches of gentle humanism in his work, sandwiched between the ridiculous. Ever since he redeemed Arcane, there has been these quiet bits of truth, and that's the main reason I follow his stuff. The exploding helicopters are just gravy.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that the only work that has sold badly for Millar at Marvel is his least offensive: the reworked Fantastic Four run he produced with Brian Hitch.

Strangely enough, it's probably my favourite piece of work by him as well (along with it's prequel, 1985), precisely because of that comparative innocence.

But I never expect him to return to it because it didn't sell. As you said, Millar's best talent is identifying an audience and shaping his work for them. So Wolverine, Wanted and Kick Ass sold, so we should expect more comics like that.

Jesus DeSaad said...

To tell the truth I'd rather read about ten racist heroes, of any color, against any color, portrayed in a heroic way, than one hero who acts as if different races, not just racism itself, don't exist.

Although I've now read enough stories about people who aren't afraid to go racist. Now I'd like to read about a hero who actually cringes, who realistically reacts to racism against someone different from the hero. Note, not another monologuing hero who laments the way society is against him, a la X-Men. I'm talking about a white guy who provides a reasonable explanation why he considers racism is wrong, rather than the stereotypical half-assed "racism bad, dur-hur"

Joe S. Walker said...

If Millar had wanted to REALLY offend people he would have made the wannabe crimefighter a lesbian who put on the costume to be feminist and empowered, only to discover that just about any man was capable of punching the shit out of her.

Anonymous said...

Great post, but the part you're missing is: the movie was bad. Poorly written. Poorly directed. Poorly acted. Slow, plodding, obvious, and dull. Obviously shot on a low budget; not funny when it meant to be funny; not exciting when it meant to be exciting; not sympathetic when it meant to be sympathetic. Anyone who likes it went into it determined to like it no matter what; and anyone with a daughter under age 10 either hated it, or I wouldn't want to know them personally.

I like Tarantino; well-excecuted horror movies; gross-out comedies; genre homeages; and superhero movies. I can only name about two that I truly hate. I was at least amused by to see Watchmen brought to life, despite all its other flaws. This was just. Plain. B-A-D. Bob, there's no accounting for taste, but in five years when the excitement of seeing this brought to the screen fades and you catch it on cable--I mean, I hope you ALREADY have ten or twenty superhero movies you'd rather see, and I'd put Mystery Men and Superman IV above it.

Just. So. So. Bad.

Anonymous said...

I can't articulate my negative feelings towards Millar -- which I've had since Ultimates -- any better than you have above; thanks for that.

T said...

I agree with nearly everything you've said here - the exception being that I do think if you are the kind of person who writes racist, sexist, homophobic work? You ARE racist, sexist, and homophobic.

I believe Mark Millar is the worst kind of 'shock' artist, one who has based his career on being a creep, appealing his work to creeps, and has squandered whatever talent he has writing this dreck.

Makes me sad. I love comics, and even superhero books - but this doesn't elevate the medium at all. Work like his brings it down and gives all fans a bad name, because outside of his fanbase, the moral issues aren't passed off as 'satire', they are very, very real.

Anonymous said...

I think you have it wrong in that it isn't that Millar is promoting racist/homophobic/sexist material in his work, but that by doing the opposite, his work comes off racist/homophobic/sexist. Wanted is just the opposite of a hero's journey (instead of becoming his father, he kills his father). Kick-Ass is just the opposite of Spiderman's heroic journey (right to the point where his mother figure dies and his father figure lives). Heck, Chosen is just the opposite of the story of Jesus (happening in the present instead of the past). It isn't satire, its just opposite. Being racist/sexist/homophobic is just the opposite of being a superhero, so Millar's just working in his opposites theme even in those characteristics.

And that's the problem in Millar's comes off as just repetitive.

Anonymous said...

I love how everyone who loves MM's work is trying to pretend that loving a work that's sexist, homophobic and racist doesn't make them sexist homophobic and racist. I also love how they try to pretend that they're not attracted to the sexist, homophobic and racists parts particularly because they're sexist, homophobic and racist. So instead they try to sound smart by coming up with all these faux-lisophical reasons as to why MM's work is so deep and meaningful and how he's using disgusting prejudice in a smart, IRONIC way when really he's just an asshole who let's other assholes bask in their assholeness.

Keep deluding yourselves though. Deluded fanboys are the funniest kinds.

Steven R. Stahl said...

I haven't read/seen KICK-ASS or NEMESIS, although I've read reviews of them. The reviews are partly responsible for me not reading/seeing them.

If Millar is merely good at pushing buttons, and nothing else, then why read his material? A person can easily avoid being manipulated by avoiding the manipulator.


Hdefined said...

"I do think if you are the kind of person who writes racist, sexist, homophobic work? You ARE racist, sexist, and homophobic."

No no no.

First of all, what makes a work racist, sexist, or homophobic? Is it the attitude of the characters? The way the characters treat other characters? The message or point left at the end of the story?

None of that necessarily says anything about the writer, other than the fact that the writer found value in telling stories with those elements. That overreaching intention may not be the same as intentions fueled by racism, sexism, or homophobia.

Although usually when such issues are handled badly, they're handled badly by writers who are unable to discuss these themes in a mature way and probably do invest in some of these feelings.

But it's hard to generalize. For every five Mark Millars or Ron Zimmermans, there's a Garth Ennis.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

For what it's worth, I think this says more about Millar's attitude towards his work (some of it, anyway) than it does about his attitudes towards women or minorities.

For me, it goes back to what Douglas Wolk pointed out in his discussion of NEMESIS: Millar knowingly perpetrates clichés without having earned them.

"Earning" them would entail investing the narrative and the characters with something weightier and more insightful than the mere shock of seeing those clichés at play. In other words: substance.

WANTED and KICK-ASS don't have substance, and Millar knows it; he also knows how to get away with it, and how to use those clichés and the fact that they've rightly been stigmatized to attract the kind of attention and elicit the kind of outrage that in turn fuels his popularity.

I don't think Millar's out to make any statements on gender or race relations or whatever; he's just a hack who knows how to get people riled up, and who uses that "gift" to take what he can as cheaply as he can and as long as he can.

Anonymous said...

The movie was horrifically sexist and racist. The scene where African women are shown is absolutely disgusting. The way the main character talked about big breasts was ridiculous and made me want to either hurl or roll my eyes.

However, I was not offended by the violence at all. The fact that Hit-Girl was 11 didn't even make me wince.

Anonymous said...

Millar is Totally Right! His witty satire has inspired me! No longer I will permit puny white people to get in my way! The Olympics, Pornography and the latest presidential elections in the USA have proven beyond doubt that the black race is superior. From now on I will bully every Dave Lamewizcky I see; I will steal all of whitey's girlfriends who will be only happy to comply given my horse-like proportions; Money won't be a problem: I can always rob dumb-ass whitey boy round the corner. In fact i think the first thing I'll do is put a cap on that slimy, raggedy-ass, queen-worshiping, Scottish fag!
Just joking... I mean satirizing ;)

David Pirtle said...

Nice write up. I saw the film version of Kick-Ass, and I thought it was an enjoyable flick (if you could get over how ridiculous the jet pack/bazooka ending was). I decided to have a look at the source material, and I couldn't bring myself to finish the first issue. And not because of the violence, but because of the gratuitous homophobic language. The good guy and the bad guys seem to be united only in one thing...they hate those fags. It wasn't shocking. It was boring.

Arion said...

I agree, Mark Millar is in now way a homophobe. Quite the contrary, I'd say.


Anonymous said...

Excellent write up. Millar is very intelligent but that doesn't justify the immoral and offensive comics he writes.