Image Credit: Dan SmithA movie called Kick-Ass opens across the country today, and perhaps it’s remarkable that the only folks who seem to be raising even half an eyebrow over that fact are local television news producers. Trust me, I know: I taped two separate reviews of the film for TV stations, one in New York, one for affiliates across the country, and in each case, the use of that title had to be vetted, fretted over, and solemnly approved. (For the affiliate version, geared to markets in the heartland, I was told that the title wasn’t a problem…as long as I said it only a very small number of times.) Kick-Ass, as I wrote in my review, is an engagingly revved-up and original comic-book superhero movie about a high school geek who puts on a green jumpsuit and becomes a phantom crime-fighter, even though he doesn’t actually have any super powers. The movie may be controversial in several respects. It’s very violent (stabbings, over-the-top ballistic blowouts, limb-mangling Mob torture), and the character of Hit-Girl, for some parents, could prove to be a rather challenging role model to present to their impressionable daughters. I’ll discuss those issues in a future post, after you’ve all had a chance to see the movie. For right now, though, I’d like to point out that it’s almost funny, when you think about it, how a title that only a few years ago might have seemed a bit…extreme for a popcorn movie aimed squarely at the teenage market now registers, in jaded, we’ve-seen-it-all-on-the- Internet America, as just one more blasé imitation-rebel whatever.
I mean, if this was 1999, and Kick-Ass was some fluky indie comedy out of Sundance, you just know that when it opened, a lot of local newspapers would have decided to blot out the second half of that title. That’s essentially what happened back in 2003 with Badasssss!, Mario Van Peebles’ terrific drama about the making of his father’s own underground (and dangerously titled) classic, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. Jackass: The Movie, which actually came out the year before, in 2002, didn’t really have any such problems, but then, context is everything. In this case, the context being whether the word “ass” is used to mean “idiot” or, you know, your butt.
Every so often, there’s another landmark of outré movie titling, and each time it happens, we get used to it, and the door gets wedged open a bit further. In 1987, the Stephen Frears-Hanif Kureishi collaboration Sammy and Rosie Get Laid had to be referred to, in newspaper ads, as Sammy and Rosie. Period. Which kind of takes the edge off it, and the fun out of it. Just two years ago, Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno had to be shortened, in certain markets, to Zack and Miri (which really takes the fun out of it).
Television, of course, has been the pivotal groundbreaker when it comes to language. If you can say it there, you can say it anywhere. Back in the ’70s, it was a really big deal that, for the first time, you could say “butt” on a sitcom, and the word would get tossed around like an M-80. Whenever Archie Bunker said it, it brought down the house. “Butt” was followed by “bitch” and “slut” (all courtesy of Saturday Night Live, which has passed a lot of formerly taboo words into mainstream pop culture), and, finally, by this year’s pet former-quasi-swear-word-turned- acceptable-prime-time-insult: douche. (I wasn’t nearly as shocked by hearing “douche” on TV as I was by seeing it in a front-page New York Times headline about its suddenly ubiquitous use on TV.) At Sundance this past January, there was a very good comedy called Douchebag. Later this year, will it have a problem getting advertised in your local paper? I predict…yes. But not in five years.
Of course, it’s advertising, more than anything else, that ultimately sets these words on a path from forbidden to permissible to harmless. Kick-Ass can be called Kick-Ass because the marketing department of a major movie studio decided that America was ready to see a mainstream movie called Kick-Ass. It’s no subversive indie stunt. A corporation ruled on it and approved it, with national media outlets following suit, and so now it seems…okay. There’s a flow to these things. Jackass, Badasssss!, Kick-Ass, Douchebag…I can hardly wait to hear what comes next.