Kick-Ass (2010)

2010 #39
Matthew Vaughn | 117 mins | cinema | 15 / R

This review contains spoilers.

If you happen to remember my (first) Watchmen review, you may recall that I asserted the following:

Zack Snyder’s Watchmen Film is not “the big screen equivalent of Alan Moore’s Watchmen” — that would be a movie, likely very different to the graphic novel, that examined and deconstructed representations of superheroes in cinema and television.

To cut to the chase, Kick-Ass is that film. Yes, it’s still adapted from a pre-existing comic book text, and it doesn’t “examine and deconstruct” quite as methodically — or, if you prefer, “as coldy” — as both Moore and Snyder did; but it still takes its cues as much, if not more, from fellow superhero films and TV series than directly from comics. Much as Watchmen offered variations of specific characters and situations in comics, so too does Kick-Ass from their film counterparts: Kick-Ass himself has the whole “awkward teenage experience” thing of Spider-Man, but fully updated to the era of internet social networking (even if it’s a behind-the-times use of MySpace over Facebook or Twitter); while Big Daddy is a clear Batman analogy, with elements of The Punisher thrown in for good measure.

Elements and moments in this vein permeate the film: Nic Cage employing an Adam West Batman voice for Big Daddy; the black eyeliner required to complete his mask; the Spider-Man plot structure (particularly early on) and numerous references (the opening voiceover, or when Kick-Ass considers jumping rooftops); the “chicks dig the car”-esque scenes with Red Mist — the list goes on, other sequences spoofing whole genre clichés (the “first night on the job”, for example) as well as such specific films.

The score is similarly perfect, mixing serious action queues with appropriately-placed fun songs (mainly during Hit Girl’s action sprees) and more knowing nods to other films — listen out for almost-note-perfect riffs on the famous Superman theme and Danny Elfman’s Batman work.

And, again like Watchmen, Kick-Ass takes all these familiar elements and clichés and attempts to place them in ‘the real world’ (though its real world is far closer to, um, the real real world than Watchmen’s alternate history). What this means, practically, is that Kick-Ass gets his ass kicked. Badly. And that his enemies aren’t cackling megalomaniacs who leave handy riddles around or plot to pollute the water supply, but everyday muggers and, at worst, crime kingpins. This, I suppose, could be seen as where it takes on Batman Begins; signs seem to suggest Kick-Ass 2 may follow The Dark Knight’s theory of supervillains following the superhero into existence.

But, to go back on myself, the most striking point here is the ass-kicking. Violence is bloody, brutal and realistic. Well, the actions themselves are all action movie choreography, but the results are realistic — bloody and brutally so. Kick-Ass gets broken his first time out… which, fortunately, and fully in-keeping with the superhero-origins story, leaves him with a half-metal skeleton and the ability to feel no pain. “Cool,” as he probably says.

This example characterises the film’s attempts to have its cake and eat it. While it does the whole “being a superhero would be a nightmare” thing early on, we then meet Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, who are unfeasible pros, and Kick-Ass himself improves too. It gets to criticise the unlikelihood of the premise and the extremity of the violence, before later revelling in it itself. On the other hand, it’s so much fun that maybe this doesn’t matter — director Matthew Vaughn certainly knows his way round an action sequence, and the humour keeps rolling too — so the (arguably) topsy-turvy themes of the tale ultimately serve as a “downbeat good-for-nothing makes good” story arc.

Not that the mass of negative reviews seem to notice this anyway — they’re too busy being outraged at the swearing uttered by and violence enacted on a young girl. I speak, of course, of the likes of Christopher Tookey (don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him — he writes in the Daily Mail) and Roger Ebert, both of whom lambasted the film for its moral vacuity. They’re not the only ones, just some of the most high-profile (on the other side of the fence, plenty of reviews didn’t miss the point, but they’re less interesting at the moment). Is it low to suggest Ebert & co are too old to ‘get’ Kick-Ass? Probably; especially as some of the other critics who hated it are suitably young. But I don’t think it’s wrong to suggest that not all their arguments hold weight; that some of their reactions were too simplistic.

Reviews like the Daily Mail’s would have us believe the film is all about the glorification of extreme violence and sexualisation of 11-year-old girls. Some have read this as Tookey being a paedophile — how else would he spot something others didn’t, unless he were aroused by it himself? Tookey, naturally, denies such things (he’s posted a long whiney “I’m being internet bullied!” article online, trying to lump himself in with those unfortunate souls who’ve suffered the emotional consequences of genuine internet bullying). I fall between the two camps on this one — that is to say, Tookey’s probably not a paedophile, but nor does the film set out to entice them. Vaughn said he cast Hit-Girl young to avoid sexualising her; if he’d cast a more physically developed 15-year-old, she would’ve been more suspect.

If anything, the film works to confront its audience with notions like this. Is Hit-Girl sexy? She’s 11, you perv! Is getting into fights fun? Not when you get the crap kicked out of you! Is being captured by the enemy, ready to be unmasked on the internet, just a chance for a cool escape? Not when you get burnt alive. Slowly. Is this highly-trained uber-assassin the Coolest Killer Ever? Not when a grown man is beating up a little girl. Vaughn & co (by which I mean original author Mark Miller and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman) start from a place of “this doesn’t work” (having their cake), then they do make it cool (eating it), but then they tear it back down again (I can’t think of a pleasant analogy now).

But, unlike their characters, they don’t tear it down with a baseball bat around the audiences’ head; by which I mean, they don’t spell it out in big idiot-friendly letters — “do you see why this is wrong? Do you see? Let me tell you again…” Instead, they let what occurs speak for itself. OK, the good guys do win in the end, and in a rather cool way — but would it be a more complete moral message if the grown man killed the little girl; if the hero got blown up by the bazooka? Perhaps it would; I don’t know; personally, I like it the way it is.

Am I saying experienced, respected critics like Ebert and Tookey (well, he’s experienced) are too thick to see subtext that I’ve noticed? For once, I suppose I am (though I certainly don’t claim to be alone in noticing it). Am I treating the filmmakers with more intelligence than they deserve? I don’t think so; I think Ebert, Tookey & co have assumed they’re dumber than they are, and in the process made themselves look a bit dimmer. I think they’ve been blinded by the comic-booky roots (their defence, “but I’ve liked some comic book films!”, is beside the point), the extreme situations the film presents — and there’s no doubt that the violence and swearing from such young characters are deliberately extreme and provocative (but for a reason) — and the potential for audiences to misread the whole thing as “just cool”, and so have misread it themselves, as “just perverse”. I think that does the film a disservice.

My initial reaction — besides “wow this is a fun watch!” — was that Kick-Ass walks a tightrope between its initial “what if someone really tried to be a superhero?” premise and the visceral pleasures of taking it to the level of “what if someone succeeded at being a superhero?” But the more I consider it, the more I think this is part of the point — it never, really, goes fully ‘right’. As I’ve said, the good guys win and the bad guys lose, but there are casualties and hard-fought battles along the way. Yes, it thoroughly abandons its “this is the real world” premise by the final act, but the film as a whole leads you there step by step. Is this a flaw, or sneaky filmmaking pulling (or attempting to pull) the wool over our eyes? Does it matter?

It’s an ideological minefield, that’s for sure, and perhaps some would rather it more blatantly faced up to this than it does. Others would clearly rather it didn’t ever raise such issues. Has it dodged them, or has it left them for the audience to consider? I think it’s clear I believe the latter; that most of the negative reviews are too busy being angry to notice they were made to think (or were meant to); sadly, some viewers will be too busy thinking “woah, cool” to have thought at all, which just vindicates those naysayers in their own mind. This latter group are clearly the ones the critics are worried about, but why should every film cater to the lowest common denominator of intellectual ability, or be wary that every viewer might be a paedophile or violent psycho?

And even leaving all that aside, even treating it as “just a comic book movie”, Kick-Ass has something significant to offer. By using various other superhero movies and TV series as its starting point, but grounding them in (a version of) the real world — with attendant debates about violence etc — Kick-Ass fills a void in need of filling. By which I mean: as Watchmen was to superhero comics, so Kick-Ass is to superhero films.

5 out of 5

Kick-Ass is released on DVD & Blu-ray in the US today, and in the UK on 6th September.

It came 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.

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