Film review by: Witney Seibold
I’m going to openly discuss this film’s ending. Be warned.
Matthew Vaughn‘s superhero film “Kick-Ass,” based on a comic book, is high energy, action packed, colorful, and possessed of no small amount of cool. On the surface, it’s easy to be drawn to the eye-popping fight scenes, the visceral buckets of gore, and the gleeful profanity of an 11-year-old girl character. There are also messages of superhero motivations; does one become a superhero for glory, or through altruism?
All of these elements are, however, only glossing over how sloppy this film is. Its storytelling is haphazard, and the film meanders down several paths at once; indeed, by the time the film’s climax rolls around, the title character has been largely pushed aside in favor of a brutally violent supporting character. The main character, we begin to realize over the course of “Kick-Ass,” had no baring on the actions of the other characters (who drive the story’s central narrative), and no sway on the events in the film. This would be fine if he was presented as a Dickensian observer, but he’s seen, at the film’s outset, as the instigator of the action. The hero, in short. There are subplots in “Kick-Ass” that are never resolved, and others that are resolved a third of the way through the film. It’s as if the screenwriters, in their eagerness to remain faithful to the source material (an episodic form), forgot to connect the events in the film as a single story. As a result, we have snippets of several movies that are strung barely together as a whole.
What’s more, the tone of “Kick-Ass” is spread even thinner. It reports to take place in the real world – indeed, the film goes out of its way to point out that there are comic books hops, real teens, and absolutely no superheroes in this universe – but immediately thrusts us into a universe where ultra-stylized violence is de rigueur. The hero claims that he needs no superpowers to be a superhero, but the film then gives him a superpower of sorts. And if this is the real world, how come the film’s climax is so over-the-top, and sticks so close to the usual tropes of a superhero revenge comic?
Dave Lizewski (British heartthrob Aaron Johnson) is a 16-year-old virgin living in a slightly scuzzy version of New York. He reads comics, discusses them with his nerdy friends, and dreams of losing his virginity to Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca). He’s presented as an average modern teenager: obsessed with internet status, ironically self-aware, and addicted to pornography. I will give this to “Kick-Ass:” It manages to have the current teenage ethos pegged. In a fit of pique, and for the “cool” element, Dave decides, kind of suddenly, to become the world’s first legitimate superhero. He orders a colorful wetsuit and mask through the mail, and takes to the streets as Kick-Ass. In his first fight, however, he is stabbed, and thrown in front of a car. He is given pins and plates, and suffered some nerve damage, but is not deterred in his adolescent dream, and dons the costume once again.
A lot has been said at this point how superpowers are not needed in this world, but the nerve damage is presented as a superpower; he can now take more of a beating. Kick-Ass rescues a man from a gang of bullies, and manages to be filmed by an eager group of onlookers with cellular phones. His video is posted online, and he becomes a sensation. He does little in the way of actual rescue, but loves the glory.
This is one of the central themes of the film… I think. That when someone is in trouble, the instinct has become to film the crisis ion your personal camera and publish it on the internet, rather than help the distressed. This is a theme that has been covered in movies before (“Cloverfield” and “Diary of the Dead” leap to mind), and brings up a technology issue that has been lurking in American society ever since Rodney King. This also brings up the new idea that events are not “real” until they have been published somewhere. Oh, wait. That idea isn’t new. That was the driving force behind Don Quixote.
Oh, eventually Dave manages to land the girl of his dreams. Once he loses his virginity, the superhero thing is put aside. I hear that people with nerve damage have trouble having sex, but Dave doesn’t seem to have any troubles.
But “Kick-Ass” forgets these things, and moves on. Lurking about the edge of this world are two completely surreal supporting characters. There is the wronged cop Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage), who has been enacting an elaborate revenge scheme for years, and who is now donning a Batman-like costume to get revenge on all criminals for the death of his wife years before. That he looks like Batman is probably no coincidence. He calls himself Big Daddy. He was not inspired by Kick-Ass to become a vigilante, and has already moved into the secret-underground-lair level of superheroedom. Cage plays the role with his usual insane ferocity, and watching him deliver ridiculous dialogue in a Shatnerianly halting fashion is a delight.
Big Daddy works with his 11-year-old daughter Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz), whom he has been conditioning for years to be a killer. Mindy cusses more than a character in a Tarantino film, is eager to commit any form of violence, and takes a particularly large amount of glee in committing murder. She goes by the name Hit Girl. It’s clear that Big Daddy and Hit Girl are certifiably insane, but they are not depicted as dangerous madmen. In fact, “Kick-Ass,” with its raucous action and fast music, seems to believe that Hit Girl is the coolest thing ever, and when it comes time for her to, well, kick ass in the film’s finale, we’re supposed to be rooting for her. Another reviewer indicated that we’ll see plenty of sexy Hit Girls come Halloween. I think they’re right.
I don’t find the Hit Girl character as morally objectionable as some people (Roger Ebert in particular was offended and disgusted by a “cool” child character committing acts of real-life violence), but I will say that I didn’t quite buy the character. A sneering, violent, cute-as-a-button 11-year-old girl depicted as a vengeful superheroine… It just doesn’t work. Perhaps there is a film where such a character could be made as heroic and sympathetic, but this is not that film.
Here’s where I start to give away the ending. I feel I must to discuss a certain thematic element. Big Daddy and Hit Girl are out to kill a certain mob boss (who is played by Mark Strong, and whose own son, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, has also become a superhero, but whatever) who wronged Big Daddy in the past. In the process, Big Daddy and Kick-Ass (who is back) are kidnapped and tortured live on the internet. All of Kick-Ass’ friends watch in horror, and, once again, no one moves to help him. Big Daddy is killed, and Hit Girl, outraged, and made mentally unbalanced by years of violent conditioning, seeks bloody revenge. Kick-Ass decides to help, finally realizing that his own stabs at personal glory were always selfish.
We have an 11-year-old girl who is continuing the legacy of her dead father, and inheriting the mantle of revenge, even though she had nothing to do with the initial superhero’s motivations. I see this as a kind of harsh comment on comic book fans. The older generation of comic book characters – and by extension, comic book readers – had a very dark and sinister motivation for their actions, but made it look flashy and theatrical. The newest generation, by contrast, has lost sight of the original motivations of their elders, and is now making similar but empty gestures. Readers know familiar superhero tropes, but are rarely considering the original motivations of the superhero.
At the end of the day, this is all adolescent and poorly-thought-out and poorly-connect cultural considerations, filtered through a sloppy superhero flick whose own unclear ideas are further eschewed by its unnecessary style and cool.
In 2005 Mike Mitchell made a film called “Sky High” about a specialized private school for teenage superheroes. It was also about superhero nerds struggling between selfish glory and true altruism, and coming to terms with the older generation’s superheroic drives. But that was a film that was more enjoyable. It was funnier, and seemed to have a better handle on where its characters stood. “Sky High” even had They Might Be Giants covering Devo’s “Through Being Cool” on its soundtrack. “Kick-Ass” would have done well to adopt such an attitude.