The advent of the superhero was a bizarre comeuppance for the American dream.
–Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes.
Kick-Ass: How does a ten-year-old girl get her hands on a flamethrower?
The movie may be an adaptation of the comic book, but both film and initial four-color story arc were developed at the same time. Still, the comic book appeared first.
The premise initially concerned a real-world teenager, a comic-book-reading nerd, who decides to become a superhero, despite a lack of powers or even especially noteworthy fighting skills. He assembles a costume which, like all superhero costumes, looks absolutely ridiculous outside the pages of a comic or the cells of a cartoon. Still, with a mixture of naïveté and attitude, and inspired by his tights-wearing role models, Dave Lizewski heads out into the world.
He gets his ass kicked.
He also removes his costume before the ambulance comes. Look, real-world superhero might make an interesting graphic novel, but I don't know it would work in an ongoing series. For the most part, the series would consist of someone getting beaten down, issue after issue, and eventually killed.1 Appealing though the premise may be, it's somewhat misleading. No, Kick-Ass, as written by Mark Millar and drawn by John Romita, Jr., contains as much stylization as any comic book. It's just a different kind of stylization than one might find in, say, Spider-man, the mainstream character Kick-Ass most recalls, as he leads his double life and gets the attention of a local girl, Kate Deauxma.
Millar also doesn't bother giving the characters much more depth than one might find in vintage Marvel Comics, though his writing is frequently witty— and nasty and violent and deliberately inappropriate. Millar explores and revels in the violent ethics that motivate vigilantes.
Romita illustrates with gleeful sadism scenes of torture and dismemberment. Spumes of blood fly from the panels. Fredric Wertham, who attacked comic-books and, in particular, their perverse violence, would feel vindicated— a fact which this comic book touts on some of its covers.
Over the course of the first story arc (#1-9), Lizewski heals, returns to crime-fighting, becomes a Youtube sensation, and gains the attention of the girl of his dreams—though not for the best reasons. He also meets other heroes. Two of these, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, appear to have actual super-level fighting skills.
They're also more than a little bit deranged.
However, as Kick-Ass has drawn the attention of local mobsters, he's going to need their help and in any case, they're not leaving him many options. He pitches in with their crusade, complete with the slaughter of criminals, or they publicize his secret identity.
Big Daddy is Frank Castle without the moderating influences of mainstream Marvel continuity, Bruce Wayne without unlimited resources, Rorschach with a daughter in tow. He's as nasty a piece of work as any cold-blooded killer he hunts down. Hit-Girl appears to have more than human abilities, but she's also been trained from childhood, and further motivated and enhanced by political propaganda and stimulants.
At the end of the first story arc, she retires (for the present, at least) and returns home to her mother. Lizewski gets beaten up by Kate's friends but he revels in having made the world more like his beloved comic books.
As the second story arc started, promising additional nihilistic gore and dark humor, a Hollywood movie hit the big screen.
All right, you cu-ts. Let's see what you can do.
Once upon a time, films like Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange drew criticism for their shocking violence and criminal protagonists. A generation or so later, they seem mild. Kick-Ass (2010) goes where films forty years ago could not, but next to the four-color version, it also seems mild, and it cheats the premise entirely, and somewhat chillingly, in its final act.
Aaron Johnson plays Lizewski as slightly less of a loser than the comic version, a naïve dreamer who believes he can make a difference by putting on a spectacularly dorky costume. The film begins with the same darkly playful mockery of comic-book conventions, and sends Kick-Ass into the same violent tailspin that will land him in the hospital. Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) befriends him shortly thereafter. Rather than being the vacuous bitch from the comic (though I concede, her anger at being misled has some justification), she has an entirely different life, personality, and role in the film.
The comic plot develops involving Youtube, mobsters, and other heroes. Nicolas Cage's Big Daddy has less edge. He's more of a Dark Knight tribute, with a deadpan impersonation of Adam West's bat-voice. He's also been given a darker backstory that makes his violent attacks on crime more comprehensible.
Hit-Girl, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, has drawn considerable criticism. I understand that. The actress, twelve when she made the film, does an extraordinary job, one an older performer could not have improved upon. This Hit-Girl doesn't take stimulants, but she delivers death blows and witty retorts. They've taken the Buffy syndrome to an extreme: the most vulnerable of females transformed into an ass-kicking superhero. In a world with more than its share of violence, I find it compelling to watch someone who would usually be the victim take control of the situation. I've been a mentor of sorts to a young woman who lived, as a child, through the Siege of Sarajevo. I thought about her a good deal after I watched this movie2– in between feeling the sheer visceral thrills.
As with much of the film, Hit-Girl raises difficult questions. Her ability to use comic-book physics places her in the realm of pure fantasy, but some of her other methods remain disturbingly plausible. No, a twelve-year-old engaging in the mass-slaughter of criminals with guns and other deadly tech isn't appropriate. No, I shouldn't overlook my reservations merely because the film makes the slaughter look so stylish.
But dang, the girl hits a nerve.
The story moves along rapidly, propelled by its own twisted logic. Along the way, we see endless tributes to comics, action movies, comic-book adaptations, and videogames. It becomes a little too conventional in its third act, by which point the film shamelessly celebrates the conventions it had initially satirized. This may be the biggest problem. The stylized comic may be repulsive, but it forces the reader to ask questions. The film ultimately buys into violence as entertainment, and the first solution to a problem. Yeah, it's funny to see a really evil guy brought down by excessive force.
Really. We do it all the time.
Roger Ebert calls this film "morally reprehensible." That's a strong statement, given that this man (whose opinions I respect) has lavished praise on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and the Tarantino oeuvre. Perhaps, in the end, violence cannot be depicted without being celebrated. We're only human, after all. I cannot help but remember Anthony Swofford's comments on war movies in Jarhead:
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready….
–Anthony Swofford, Jarhead (5-6).
Let's hear it for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl. Fire that freakin' bazooka! Yeah!
If you can accept the violence and problematic themes, you will enjoy Kick-Ass. You won't, in the end, find much intrinsic depth in it. It may be the best inappropriate popcorn movie you'll see this year.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Written by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar.
Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass
Chloë Moretz as Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl
Nicholas Cage as Damon Macready/ Big Daddy
Lyndsy Fonseca as Katie Deauxma
Mark Strong as Frank D'Amico
Garrett M. Brown as Mr. Lizewski
Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris D'Amico/Red Mist
Clark Duke as Marty
Evan Peters as Todd
Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs. Lizewski
Sophie Wu as Erica Cho
Stu "Large" Riley as Chief Goon
1. If you look at a lot of the people who are actually doing this, they avoid getting killed by avoiding confrontation with crime. The late Captain Sticky used the superhero shtick to draw attention to issues. Polarman of the Canadian north shovels driveways. New York's Terrifica assists drunken women in bars.
Most of them seem entirely aware they look like idiots in their costumes. It's sort of like internet handles.
UPDATE: I recently met The Presence, a "real-life superhero" from Michigan who really does go after criminals. He has serious fighting skills, upper body armor, and an awareness that what he's doing is fundamentally crazy. However, he also acknowledges that most of the time, he just ends up walking a beat. He has intervened with a number of street crimes. I found him strangely likable, if slightly scary.
2. Singularity Girl was thirteen when I met her, and is in her late twenties now. I used to refer to her as my "teen sidekick." I recently discovered she still identifies me as "Giles" in her e-mail contact list. Pop culture shapes us in unusual ways indeed.