Doesn’t Take a Superhero

Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay reviews the new release, Kick-Ass, after the jump.  I ought to kick his for seeing it before me.

Kick-Ass (based on the graphic graphic novel by Mark Millar) is one of those cultural touchstone films that comes along every so often and forces us to look at what’s become of our society. Critics and audiences seem to either love or hate it, depending on their view of things, mainly about its wild, bloody, cartoonish violence. It either represents the best of creative filmmaking, or the worst of society. Much of the controversy centers on the 11 year-old Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), a pint-sized ball of pain who’s been trained as an assassin since she was barely out of Pampers. The early objection from the moral critics was that she was foul-mouthed. She is, but this should be surprising only to those who think school children don’t have access to the full fusillade of four-letter words by the time they’re seven. Other, more sensible critics have noted that perhaps it’s more disturbing that Hit Girl kills several dozen people in the course of the film, with gleeful brutality. This is new territory – Tarantino meets the Justin Bieber set. Only a few observers have taken the extra step to realize that a hyper-violent female character, like Angelina Jolie in action films, or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, is essentially acting out a male sexual fantasy. This has uncomfortable implications when the homicidal babe in question is prepubescent. Keeping in mind these challenging and disturbing questions, we shouldn’t miss the moral of this whack-job of a movie. And there is a moral.

Kick-Ass is the Nom de Guerre of a dorky kid named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) in Queens who wants to be a superhero but makes Peter Parker look smooth. He has no special powers like Spidey or Superman and no money to buy an arsenal of hi-tech crime fighting gadgets like Batman. All he has are a couple of batons and a very silly, form-fitting green bodysuit. His first foray into fighting crime is pretty disastrous, but at least being stabbed and run over by a car causes him to lose some of his capacity to feel pain. He of course has a girl he idolizes, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) who pays no attention to him until the rumor spreads around school that he’s gay. He plays along as the gay best friend in order to get closer, being Rock Hudson to her Doris Day.

Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl.

In the course of his crime fighting, he gets mixed up in a much more dangerous battle involving a former cop, now turned superhero called Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter, Hit Girl who he has trained in martial arts and weaponry in order to assassinate the crime boss he holds responsible for killing his wife. We’re introduced to this bizarre pair as their alter-egos, Damon Macready and Mindy, are in the midst of a lesson on how to take a bullet in the chest while wearing a flack jacket. (“It doesn’t hurt much more than being punched in the chest,” he says. “But I hate being punched in the chest,” she says.) Cage plays the twitching, nebbishy Macready well, but is most hilarious in his Batman-inspired super suit, which he feels would not be complete without channeling Adam West. There’s also the crime boss’s son, Chris (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who creates a persona called Red Mist to lure Kick Ass, Big Daddy, and Hit Girl into the clutches of the crime family. Other than this role as a plot device, Mintz-Plasse’s McLovin’ groove is mostly wasted in this film.

A scene from Mark Millar's graphic novel.

Now, a few notes on the aforementioned Hit Girl. The joke about this character is that she’s the only one of these losers who’s actually a superhero. Chloë Grace Moretz plays the role with aplomb, joyfully wasting bad guys using her superior athleticism and weaponry. Several critics have talked about how disturbing the final battle is, as, like most superheroes, she gets beat up while trying to kill the bad guy. But at that point in the film, she has so crossed into the realm of fantasy as a character, it’s hard to view her as a “mere” child. The disgusting thing about child abuse, among many things, is that children are powerless and vulnerable. This girl is not. As for the sexual element of violent female characters, a review from no less sophisticated a source than Anthony Lane in the New Yorker calls the film, “violence’s answer to kiddie porn.” He notes the supposed sexual suggestiveness of Hit Girl’s “white blouse, hair in pigtails, and short tartan skirt.” Last time I checked, this is the standard uniform for girls in private school; it’s adults that have made it into fetish wear. My sense is the filmmakers walk right up to the line of the potential sexual nature of Hit Girl, enough to make viewers uncomfortable, without crossing that line or making it explicit.

Most of the objections to the film might be summarized as B-WAC (But What About the Children?) The B-WAC’s, Anthony Lane and Roger Ebert among them, bring up the point that with an R rating, parents may bring their children to see the film, and the children may be adversely affected. Any parent who does so is irresponsible, but B-WAC has never been a legitimate critique of any piece of art (unless that art is aimed specifically at children). As for the R rating, the M.P.A.A. has made it clear they believe any amount of sex or even nudity viewed on screen will damage children, but no amount of violence will. It is virtually impossible to receive an NC-17 rating based solely on violence, as the Saw series, all of Tarantino’s films, and The Passion of the Christ have demonstrated. I wish it were not this way. But for critics and an industry that have celebrated the continued ratcheting up of screen violence to suddenly resort to B-WAC as an objection to this film is absurd. What it says to me is that many adults believe that kids live in a separate world called Childhood, with a separate culture called Innocence, in which they are unaware of things like sex, violence, and injustice. This was never true, but has become even less true in the hyper-media age. If the kids are exposed to too much prurient sex and violence, it’s because they are human beings who live in a media world (created by adults) with too much prurient sex and violence. As usual, the kids just have to live their lives and make the best of it in a world they didn’t create. Which is what Hit Girl does.

The moral of Kick-Ass comes in the critique of violence not on film, but in real life in the Internet age. Blessed (or cursed) with both naiveté and a heightened sense of justice, Dave Lizewski becomes disgusted with the way other people stand around doing nothing when real violence is happening. Or worse, when they pull out their cell phones and start filming, as happens when he takes on a group of thugs who are beating up seemingly defenseless man. The video from the incident goes viral and makes him a YouTube star, but there is little sense of collective outrage at the violence involved, only the thrill of watching the fight go down live on camera. A further condemnation of our voyeuristic culture comes during the scene where Kick-Ass and Big Daddy are captured by the crime boss, and the thugs stage a Joker-style torture session and unmasking on the Internet. At first the local news covers the event, and everyone around the city tunes in. But as things become bloodier, the anchor cuts it off and says they can show no more on television. Everyone, including cops watching at a local precinct, jumps to their computers so they can see the gruesome act continue.

Dave Lizewski makes it clear he’s not a refugee alien from another planet, like Superman, and he’s not motivated by revenge for the sake of his family. (His mother died, but by aneurism, not in a Bruce Wayne style mugging.) He’s just a kid with an active fantasy life and a belief born of his obsession with comics that you’re not supposed to stand by while bad things happen. During his famous YouTube fight, one of the thugs pulls out a knife and asks him if he’d die for some scumbag he doesn’t even know. When faced with the injustice of the situation, Dave says yes. I smell Christ figure! But seriously, the moral of the film comes when Dave twists a line from Spider-Man, who was told by his dying uncle, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Kick-Ass’ version, from the kid with no money and no super powers is that when faced with injustice, he could say, “With no power comes no responsibility…But that’s not really true.”

Kick-Ass (117 mins) is rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use (some involving children) and is currently in theaters.