The critical debate and the bratty pleasures of Kick-Ass

After enjoying the subversive treatment of comic book movie conventions in Kick-Ass, I've been struck by the ferocity of the critical denunciations against the movie, notably Roger Ebert's:

"The movie's premise is that ordinary people, including a high school kid, the 11-year-old and her father, try to become superheroes in order to punish evil men. The flaw in this premise is that the little girl does become a superhero. In one scene, she faces a hallway jammed with heavily armed gangsters and shoots, stabs and kicks them all to death, while flying through the air with such power, it's enough to make Jackie Chan take out an AARP membership.

This isn't comic violence. These men, and many others in the film, are really stone-cold dead. And the 11-year-old apparently experiences no emotions about this. Many children that age would be, I dunno, affected somehow, don't you think, after killing eight or 12 men who were trying to kill her?"

Writing for The New York Times, A. O. Scott takes a more balanced but similar view in "Brutal Truths About Violence":

“I Spit on Your Grave” deliberately placed itself on the far margin of acceptability, and like other disreputable movies that go on to attract a cult following, it has a certain transgressive, contrarian energy. You watch it — if you can stand to — with the feeling that you are participating in something forbidden, perhaps dangerous, which makes viewing it feel vaguely like defying authority.

But “Kick-Ass,” a thoroughly mainstream entertainment, carries no such thrill. Everybody can share in the bloodlust, and enjoy the kinetic choreography of flying bullets and spurting arteries. It’s all in good fun, it’s all kid’s stuff, it doesn’t mean anything. That’s the conventional wisdom, in any case, which silences ethical objections to, let’s say, the idea of showing a child’s battered face as being in some way audacious. We will, I suppose, each find our own limits and draw our own boundaries, but it may also be time to articulate those and say when enough is enough."

In reply, Jane Goldman, one of the screenwriters of the film, has this to say:

"I think certainly my attitude, which is one shared by the director Matthew Vaughn is that we really want to be true to the story [the comic written by Mark Millar]. Because that’s what spoke to us about it, not the fact that, well I never saw it as a deliberately provocative story, but I think Hit-Girl is an interesting character because she’s so young. And if you were suddenly to say ‘how can we make this family friendly and get a different rating’ it would have been a completely different story than the one we were interested in telling. It was always our agenda to tell a story for adults. Some of the feedback from studios when we initially took this around was ‘oh could she be 18 years old’ but that to me would have been distasteful because suddenly it’s a sexualized girls and guns kind of bollocks and that’s not a story we’re interested in telling. She’s meant to be a proper anti-hero and that’s what was cool, that she’s at an age pre-sexualization. And that’s why people find it threatening. It’s sadly the only way you can make a non-sexualized bad ass female antihero, she has to be prepubescent."

For NYT, Manohla Dargis has a more mixed reaction:

"Ms. Moretz certainly walks the walk and jumps the jump, loading a new gun in midrun like a baby Terminator. But as her deployment of a four-letter slur for women indicates, and as the cop-out last blowout only underscores, Hit-Girl isn’t a wee Wonder Woman. She’s not even a latter-day Lara Croft, who, however absurd, works on screen because of Ms. Jolie’s own outsize persona. A supergimmick, Hit-Girl by contrast is a heroine for these movie times: a vision of female might whittled down to pocketsize."

In The Huffington Post, Melissa Silverstein also had mixed thoughts:

"The question I've been asking myself since I saw the film: does Hit Girl move us forward or backwards? I don't really have a final answer. The pros are that she is actually the hero of the film. She saves everyone and kills all the bad guys. The last time I saw that was...well...never. The actress who plays Hit Girl, Chloe Grace Moretz, wanted to play an Angelina Jolie type action role. This is the type of part she told her agents to find according to a story in the NY Times: "You know, like an action hero, woman empowerment, awesome, take-charge leading role." It warms my heart that a young actress is interested in playing these kinds of parts; that she wants to, for lack of a better word, kick ass, is cool. Also, the fact that all these guys are destroyed by a girl never becomes an issue. There's no sexist bullshit about guys being killed by a girl. She comes and wreaks havoc and all these guys want to do is survive."

Writing for /Film, David Chen had this to say about Kick-Ass' brand of superhero violence:

"Based on what I’ve read about Millar’s intentions for the comic book, I think he was trying to comment on the ridiculousness of the superhero concept. The idea that normal, everyday people might don costumes and try to take on criminals is, on its face, fairly ludicrous. Those that actually do this may suffer from dementia, amorality, delusions, or all of the above. Millar simply takes that idea to its logical extreme. While the violence in the film is brutal, it’s so over-the-top that it’s clear Vaughn wants us not just to revel in the violence itself, but in the fact of its excess. If people actually became “superheroes” in real life and were exceedingly good at it, it wouldn’t be glamorous; it would be extremely messy, unrewarding, and probably very disturbing."

For Film School Rejects, writer/director of Kick-Ass Matthew Vaughn had this to say:

One of the main reasons I did Kick-Ass was I was just like, you know, the comic movies, the superhero films I’ve been watching, the superheroes are old! You know, Batman is from the ‘30s, and Superman ‘30s, and Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, they are from the ‘60s, watched them in the ‘80s. And I just thought, “Gosh. Where is our modern-day superhero film? Where is our sort of post-modern look at all the movies that we all love?” I just felt too many of these films were regurgitating the same idea, so they are just not relevant to modern life in any shape or form. So I wanted to make a movie that I think kids are going to relate to.

And we had unbelievably great reviews in England. And the harshest critic — I was terrified to read his reviews — said the thing that made me…I’ve never been so proud of a review because he described the movie as being the Clockwork Orange of this generation. And when I heard that, I was just like "Cool." That's exactly what I wanted.

I just felt like, “Where have the edgy, cool movies gone?” You know, what happened? I think the film industry has just grounded them out of the environment. One of the main reasons I did Kick-Ass was I was just like, you know, the comic District 9 was brilliant and one of the few films which I really, really enjoyed last year. And I said, "Look, I want to continue that vibe."

So, is Kick-Ass edgy or depraved, "cool" or sick, a film worthy of being grouped in with calculated outrage of A Clockwork Orange or one that will, as Ebert suggests, lead to "kids in the age range of this movie's home video audience . . . shooting one another every day in America"?

While I had problems with the Kick-Ass' adherence to the comic book movie cliches (the adolescent wish-fulfillment, generic bad guys, the loud costumes, torture scenes, the obvious preparation for the sequel, etc.), I liked the way the film plays with audience expectations. For instance, in the opening scene, a man in a winged superhero outfit jumps off of a skyscraper. As he tries to fly, a crowd down below applauds his "heroism" until he crashes into the hood of a car and dies. Then, the voiceover (Dave) says "That's not me. That's some Armenian guy with mental health problems." In this way the makers of Kick-Ass mock the knee-jerk desire to look upon a costumed crusader as a hero. And I wonder how much that bratty impulse to lampoon that veneration might in part be one reason for all of the critical scorn of the film.

By updating and messing with the concept of the superhero, Mark Millar and Matthew Vaughn have radicalized the genre. As Ben Child points out, how will all of the upcoming superhero films look, all of the Captain Americas, the Avengers, the Green Hornet, Iron Man 2, Silver Surfer, Ant Man, Venom etc., etc.? Will they now look dated in comparison? I get royally sick of Knock'm Sock'm manly super power-filled showdowns in films like Iron-Man and The Hulk, all of the roars of the "wild" in films like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolfman that serve to further emphasize just how domesticated we've all become. The makers of Kick-Ass at least resist the conventions much as Hit Girl takes on an entire criminal organization singlehandedly, and in doing so has created something new. The critical debate attests to that.

Related link:

The art of Kick-Ass


Dan North said…
Thanks for posting this, Doc. I'm glad that the film has divided critics. It should. For some of us, it divides us within ourselves - it's an exciting film that takes care to construct euphoric, crescendous action scenes that sweep you up in the thrill of it all. Then you might realise what it has made you feel excited about (indiscriminate, vigilante slaughter, mostly committed by a brainwashed child to carry out her father's vengeful mission). The film itself never does the pull-back-and-reveal that might make it easier to accept that the film has anything at all to say that is reflective about cultural violence. So, in the words of Homer Simpson, there is no moral: it's just a bunch of stuff that happened.

I'm not convinced of Hit Girl's feminist credentials, nor in the claim that the makers were interested in telling "her story". Her story consists of carrying out her father's dirty work (they've removed the moment in the comic book where it turns out that he's fed her anti-liberal slogans and coked her up before a fight), and her characterisation hinges on the single joke that she's a walking incongruity, and the safety of the depiction comes from the knowledge that she could never exist in real life. They've removed any childlike qualities that might have made the character troubling or nuanced, leaving only the daffy fun of seeing her mimic precisely the aestheticised kills of any other superhero assassin - her role is one of mimicry, not innovation. But by the time she got around to stabbing a defenceless, near-nude woman in the back as she screamed for her life, I somehow stopped enjoying the joke. I'm prudish like that.
Thanks for your thoughts, Dan. I agree with you about the self-division. My impression is that other younger viewers often have no problem with ironically appreciating the movie. One 18 year old I know couldn't understand what the older critics were objecting to, and he basically used the "It's only a movie" defense. Kick-Ass could indicate a new toxic level of irony, but it also has warmth and some craft. If critics want to make a stand about Kick-Ass, then I find that fascinating and commendable, but they should beware of having double standards with their previous reviews of Tarantino films, for instance.

Ultimately, I'm not defending the sometimes gleefully unethical movie so much as being intrigued by all of the critical hullaballoo. It says a lot about the critics.
Richard Bellamy said…
I didn't dislike this movie because I am one of the "older" critics. I can see its attempt at irony. Also, I'm not easily shocked by movies, and I'm not coming from that group of writers responding to this film. I didn't find it especially shocking - sort of obscene as Hit-Girl does her thing. My reaction was kind of like, "Oh, yeah, that's cute, but now where is this going?" - and where it went was into overblown ridiculousness. Tarantino had already done the plaid-skirted schoolgirl thing with Kill Bill - and then it was gripping and visceral. Yes, I got a kick out of Hit-Girl's first spree to the inane TV show tune - then the film strayed from art into excessive stupidity. I can't compare Hit-Girl with Clockwork Orange - that film has a visceral gravity to it that makes you think. This film has no thoughtful control over its ironies and genre lampooning and superhero parody. Part of it is that I'm totally tired of anything having to do with superheroes. I found Dark Knight refreshing only because of Ledger's performance. I hope this is not the superhero for the present generation - because that would be sad. I have no better argument than to say that this is just a stupid movie that missed its mark and fails to do anything clever, artistic, thoughtful, visceral, or satisfyingly memorable.

Sorry for the free-flow rant at a number of ideas touched on here in this well-rounded presentation of the different arguments. Good work, FilmDr.
Anonymous said…
They've removed any childlike qualities that might have made the character troubling or nuanced

She is childlike when she is with her Dad. And with her foster father. Just not when she is in action.

Otherwise she would not be a walking incongruity.

I'm not convinced of Hit Girl's feminist credentials, nor in the claim that the makers were interested in telling "her story".

If there is a sequel, I gather that her role is intended to be a bit like that of the central character in "A History of Violence". So that probably will be more about her.
Thanks for your thoughts, Hokahey, and the link on your blog.

We can fully agree on being sick of superhero movies (X-Men Origins: Wolverine is my definition of obscene), but whereas Kick-Ass appears to have exacerbated your weariness, I found the movie something of a relief from the usual stuff. For instance, I liked the way nobody in the film had any real superpowers at all. Also, the film found ways to increase the pitifulness of the main character (Dave), so it seems to follow along a continuum already established by the woes of Peter in Spiderman 2. And I do think Kick-Ass updates the genre some, with its tendency to favor the internet over television, the emphasis on social networks, and the way Dave finds fame through a viral video. What did Spiderman 3 have in comparison? An emo haircut and Dunst once again in the (yawn) maiden-in-distress mode (Hit Girl seems a step up on that). I'm hoping that Kick-Ass will oblige the genre to take change faster than it otherwise would have.

As for your point about stupidity, I guess, but I didn't notice it as much. I liked the way the film found odd moments of pleasure in transformation--Red Mist and Kick-Ass goofing around to "Crazy" in the Mistmobile as they head to the next hyperviolent scene. The film has an odd amateurish sweetness mixed in with the bloodshed. I'm also amazed at how Nicolas Cage took his major problems as an actor and a star (witness his hair issues in the loathsome Bangkok Dangerous) and somehow turn them to his advantage in his warped characterizations in Kick-Ass and Bad Lieutenant. How often do actors do that?


Good point about her being childlike. I think Moretz is a good actress as she proves in 500 Days of Summer. I found myself wondering if she was imitating Clint Eastwood's deadpan delivery in some of the action scenes.

I heard that both Hit Girl and Big Daddy were originally the central focus of the comic, but Mark Millar decided to make them secondary to Dave, who more closely resembles Mark. I wouldn't be surprised if Hit Girl took over later.
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr. - I really appreciate how you are tolerant of my opinion on this movie - never coming back with, "You just don't get it." We both saw things to like and dislike - just for me there was more to dislike. I think this is well said - "The film has an odd amateurish sweetness mixed in with the bloodshed." That's true - I noted in my post that I liked the character of Dave - I also like the "Crazy" scene you point out here.

As for the updates you point out. That's interesting because I never thought of the other superhero movies as NOT being updated. They always seemed set during the present time - and I guess all the CGI just evokes an atmosphere that makes me feel like superhero movies of the past ten years are quite updated.

But I can see what you saying about the values and roles not being updated. Interesting. I guess there is a place for a superhero movie for our time. Just, this one didn't do it for me and I don't know if I'm looking forward to anyone else giving it a try.

Certainly there are major problems with the (spoiler alert) latter half of the movie too. In the comic, when Katie learns that Dave is not gay, she rejects him. In the movie, she proves rather unrealistically sympathetic for the purposes of adolescent wish-fulfillment. Also, I didn't care much for Frank D'Amico's erstwhile snuff video designed to prove to the world that you shouldn't become a super power. Like so many plot developments in action films, this scene uses "torture, kill, repeat" like another cycle in a washing machine.
Richard Bellamy said…
Thanks for the further thoughts. What's up next to consider? Oh, yeah, forgot, another superhero movie: Iron Man 2.
Malcolm said…
I really enjoyed Kick Ass as well, watching it on a dining room table surrounded by friends all eating our dinners... It was everything I was looking for, an action/comic book film that decided to push the accepted limits of the genre. Being a huge fan of Kubrick, I really enjoyed the A Clockwork Orange references, and am disappointed in Ebert for being so short sighted... oh well, Blue Velvet and Brazil and several other films have shown that he is definitely fallible as a reviewer, but you got to respect the guy.
Thanks, Malcolm,

The Green Hornet also felt like more of the same antiquated crap, with its emphasis on a newspaper. Kick-Ass shows how the viral video is the contemporary medium of choice.