There’s a very good reason why I don’t give letter grades, or star counts, or any other quantitative review to these movies: occasionally, a film like Kick-Ass comes along. Parts of it I found to be as entertaining as anything else that came out in 2009, a solid-A action picture. Other parts of it seemed at best naive and and worst intentionally dishonest. I had seen it prior to its screening at Movie Klub; sometimes I looked back on it fondly, and sometimes with disgust. This movie utterly confounds me.
Matthew Vaughn (who also directed) and screenwriting partner Jane Goldman adapted the comic book from writer Mark Millar and artist John Romita Jr., about average kid Dave (Aaron Johnson) who decides to become a superhero named Kick-Ass. He doesn’t really have a reason, he just likes comic books and it makes him feel better about himself than his overly bland life does. He quickly develops a reason, however, as he runs into the super-serious vigilante team of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), and they get him in trouble with a crime boss (Mark Strong).
Kick-Ass is quite entertaining just as a straight-up action film. Vaughn matured immensely as a director since the rather blandly shot Stardust; this is a movie with great shots and real visual creativity. The choreography is good in that it has awesome martial-arts action for the Hit Girl scenes but also looks like real fights in the Kick-Ass scenes. Moretz and especially Cage are just great; we wait and wait for Big Daddy and Hit Girl to get back on screen, and when they do they do not disappoint. There are also some great comedy bits in this film, especially with Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin in Superbad, the LARP kid in Role Models) as another would-be hero named Red Mist.
Here’s the thing: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be a movie about what it really means to be a superhero in the real world, and then swing a complete 180 to become a rollicking action picture with preteen killing machines and bazooka vs. jetpack fights. It seems like Millar had ideas for two different comics and he mashed them together. The result is entertaining, sure, but its messages got mixed when they were translated to film.
The weirdest difference between those two sub-movies is that the Hit Girl and Big Daddy characters have no self-awareness of their comic-book-ness at all. The bad guys do (one of them says Big Daddy looks like Batman), all of the other supporting characters do (this movie name-checks seemingly every good comic in existence), and Cage does as an actor (with the Big Daddy mask on, he does a hilarious Adam West impression), but the characters don’t. Kick-Ass, meanwhile, is completely defined by his self-awareness and his angst about being good enough.
This movie is basically two stories in direct opposition to each other. Dave’s story is about how it should be impossible to be a hero, and it’s no fun at all, but standing up for other people will make you feel better about yourself. The other story is about how it is possible to be a superhero, like Big Daddy and Hit Girl, and … it’s awesome? I mean, there is a throwaway scene where it is suggested that Hit Girl has been brainwashed by her father, but the movie instantly abandons that subplot and the character who introduces it. This conflict builds to the point that, in one key scene late in the movie, I thought the only logical move for Hit Girl was to kill Kick-Ass. Spoiler: she doesn’t.
In fact, on the second viewing of the movie I realized that Dave already knew everything he needed to know about superhero-ing without Big Daddy and Hit Girl. One lesson that Dave claims to have learned by being Kick-Ass is that “with no power comes no responsibility … except, that’s not true.” However, he already knew that. He becomes a superhero because he’s sick of the people who have no power and act like they have no responsibility, the people who would rather take cell phone video than call 911. The movie acts as though he’s changed, but all that he’s learned by the end is that jetpacks are awesome.
I’m conflicted with regards to the Hit Girl character. She made the movie fun while I was watching it, but she fails when I think about the movie afterward. Compare with one of my favorite movies, Leon: The Professional. In that movie, Natalie Portman’s Matilda curses like a typical 12-year-old who wants to sound like an adult but doesn’t; she can shoot people with a paintball gun but is overcome with fear when the bullets are live; she is sexualized in an honest way, like a girl who has had a traumatic childhood. By contrast, Hit Girl curses like a middle-aged British writer*; her psychopath’s bloodlust is the product of a brainwashed upbringing that the movie mostly ignores; the skin-tight leather sexualizes her in the same way as it did Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix. Matilda is a real character who is the product of Luc Besson’s Absurd Ridiculous Land; Hit Girl is an absurd character in a movie that claims to be about the Real World That Real People Live In.
I was a bit sad when I read Roger Ebert’s one-star review of Kick-Ass. He was the first reviewer to embrace Bonnie and Clyde when the old-guard critics pooh-pooh’d its sex and violence; now it seemed that he had become part of the old guard himself. Yet when I saw Kick-Ass, I agreed with some of what he said, even while I was laughing at some of the gags and enjoying the action choreography. Apparently I’m not too old to have fun with this movie, but I’m too old to love it.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*My problem is not so much that Hit Girl says the word “cunt,” but that the line sounds terrible. Never in the history of cursing has an American girl used that word in that way.