This is certainly a well-made film... good strong acting, good directing, good dialogue, fairly tight plotting, cool visuals, memorable characters, and some rockin’ action. Nothing much wrong with it in any area. Well, except for just one area... namely, the premise. The entire reason the movie has for existing in the first place!
How can a movie that’s made entirely of good parts be bad? When the whole concept it’s in service of is just wrong and stupid.
Said premise comes from comic book author Mark Millar, the same guy who wrote the book that Wanted was based on. As in that film, people who are more familiar with Millar’s work than I am have been saying that the movie does a good job of improving the flaws in the source comic, and toning down some of Millar’s more off-putting traits as a writer. One such person stated that the finished film functions well as a critique of what was wrong with the comic. I wouldn’t know, never having seen a copy. But the movie does not critique or correct the comic’s core premise.
Millar started out with a laudable enough intent: to contrast the fantasy of being a superhero with the reality of what violence and fighting are really like. It’s based on his own typical teenage superhero dreams, and how disillusioning it can be when you find out just how tough it really is to get in a serious fight with someone, and learn just how much harm can happen to you from a single punch in the face. Millar’s point, he says, is that comic book characters — not to mention other fictional tough guys, such as noir private eyes and TV cops — go through fights and violence of this kind every day and shake it off with no ill effects, and that this kind of unrealistically harmless Bugs Bunny idea of what violence is like underpins our fantasies about being superheroic.
On paper, exploring this sounds like a reasonable and worthwhile thing to take a deeper look at. It’s only when we get down to the specifics of Millar’s approach that things start to go pear-shaped.
The way he does it is to posit a teenage protagonist who, with no physical advantages to base it on, just decides one day to live the life of a superhero, protecting the innocent. And then, when this inevitably leads to him getting in serious trouble, he doesn’t learn, and goes back for more punishment. Having been beaten up and nearly killed once, what does he do? Go out and get beaten up and nearly killed again. With no reason whatever to think he’ll have any chance to create a better outcome. No live person could possibly do this. It’s utterly and totally nonbelievable for anyone — at least anyone who is mentally competent to handle their own affairs — to act this way.
The young protagonist, Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson — mostly a
TV actor before this) keeps wondering why we don’t all hear about
superheroes in real life. Why don’t real people put on masks
communism crime? To him it seems self-evident that
people would want to do this, and we would have heard about it in real
life. And when nobody else thinks this sounds good, he figures that
he’ll just have to do it himself. The superhero persona he invents
is named Kick-Ass.
That someone might try this once is reasonable... and lately, a few people have. But that an otherwise sensible person would throw himself back into this once he’s been shown in the harshest terms just how hopelessly unprepared he is to handle it, and nearly died as a result... there’s just no buying it.
Why does Millar think this idea is workable? Because when he was thirteen, he decided he was going to do this himself. He and a friend started preparing themselves to be superheroes, which they figured they could do just by going to the gym and taking karate lessons. But even kids this young and naive could see, once they were a little older, that this plan was a non-starter.
(I could mention that I once took some karate classes. And though I didn’t progress very far, I did develop the knack of breaking boards with my fists, with the requisite toughening of my knuckles that this requires. Now this toughening is definitely a useful thing to have in a fight, but the one and only time in my life that I ever aimed a board-breaker type of punch at a live target, he simply ducked, and I missed by a metric furlong. He then gave me about a dozen return punches, but fortunately, his ability to hit with power was just as underdeveloped as my ability to connect with a moving target, so neither of us ended up doing any harm to the other. Aside from the social consequences, that is.)
Anyway, to Millar, it seems like a reasonably short extrapolation from his own teenage experience to the premise of this story.
If you can get over that one sticking point — the idea that a real kid who is otherwise sane and intelligent could actually follow such a life course — the rest of the movie is not bad at all. Young Kick-Ass gets himself noticed, and starts to run afoul of the serious bad guys. And he also meets some other people in superhero costumes. One, “The Red Mist”, is an entirely fake superhero, just out to sucker him. But he meets others who are absolutely the real thing.
They’re a duo: a father-daughter team who call themselves Big Daddy and Hit Girl. Big Daddy is... Nicolas Cage! And he’s not a hero, he’s a vigilante killer who is absolutely ruthless in his pursuit of the local mob. He slaughters and mangles and dismembers the crime family’s mooks without the slightest twinge of hesitation or conscience. Nor is he any more merciful toward minor drug dealers who aren’t the direct targets of his vigilante campaign.
And Hit Girl does the same. She racks up plenty of kills on her own. And she’s only eleven years old. In her, Millar looks at the old superhero trope of a kid raised from infancy by a mentor who trains them up to be the world’s most unstoppable badass — an idea that dates back at least to Doc Savage and the Phantom. She is that — though just a pint-sized kid, she dishes out the hurt in large family economy size packages.
Hit Girl is by far the best thing about this movie. The sight of this tiny innocent-looking kid wading into a pack of goons with a gun or a blade, and leaving behind a roomful of blood and bodies — and using plenty of language inapropriate for her age in the process — is genuinely shocking. That some of her rampages are played partly for laughs, and accompanied very inappropriately by the theme song of an old childrens’ TV variety show, makes it even worse. It’s highly transgressive. It’s bloody brilliant.
Add to this that she’s played terrifically by the best child actor we’ve seen in years, Chloe Moretz (thirteen at the time this was made, but looking a good deal younger), and you’ve got a truly unforgettable character. Especially when you realize how much her peculiar upbringing has made it completely impossible for her to ever be anything like a normal person, or have a real childhood. The dubious ethicality of Big Daddy’s raising her this way is an issue that the film confronts head-on.
This awesomeness has led a number of viewers to opine that they would much rather have seen a movie about Big Daddy and Hit Girl without wasting any of their viewing time on that pointless Kick-Ass character.
Anyway, once all these ingredients are in place, there’s plenty of plot and action to make from them, and the movie follows through on it very solidly. And there’s a big final showdown in which Kick-Ass and Hit Girl team up against the villain. There’s no lack of excitement and thrills in the film’s closing act.
..............And it all completely undermines Millar’s whole stated point for making this exercise in the first place! Far from challenging the old idea of fictional tough guys shaking off a beating every week and coming right back at full strength for the next conflict, it reinforces that falsehood. Kick-Ass goes into the final showdown at a time when he should be in the hospital, and handles himself just fine. And instead of being reminded how foolish his venture into superherodom was in the first place, he ends up apparently learning that this is just how you pay your dues before becoming a successful superhero. Gaaah!
It’s not just that it’s an instance of Hancock Syndrome (the reluctance to deconstruct heroic tropes without bringing then back to be played straight in the final showdown)... it’s that they put a Hancock-Syndrome ending on a film whose entire raison-d’être is antithetical to it.
The end result is that this is a frustrating movie. Lots of it is original and striking and highly memorable and bound to be influential, and lots of it is just dumb and wrong and annoying. There’s lots of individual bits where you just want to find fellow fans and go “Wow, did you see the part where etc etc...?”, and yet as a whole it doesn’t cohere into anything but meaningless crap.
So in sum, this is not a good movie. But nonetheless, my recommendation is that you definitely see it, solely because of Hit Girl. If you’re any kind of fan of action movies, your life is incomplete if you haven’t gotten acquainted with this character.