Kick-Ass (Lionsgate), the new superhero fantasy based on a series of comic books by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., comes with its own built-in buzz-generating controversy: Are we scandalized by the fact that the movie features a preteen girl (Chloë Grace Moretz, who was 11 at the time of filming) blowing away bad guys and cursing as if she were a made man in Goodfellas?
In a much-discussed line that appears in the film’s red-band trailer, Moretz’s character, the purple-wigged, tartan-skirted Hit Girl bursts into a room full of evildoers and announces her presence with “All right, you cunts, let’s see what you can do now.” Later, she describes a Batman-style signal that the mayor flashes in the sky to summon superheroic aid: “It’s in the shape of a giant cock.” The shock value of these lines made the trailer a huge hit at this year’s Comic-Con, and at the screening I attended, a significant portion of the audience (but not a majority) held their sides in mirth every time Hit Girl dispensed another nugget of age-inappropriate wisdom.
In a profile of Moretz in the Sunday New York Times, the director, Matthew Vaughn, pointed out the hypocrisy of those who criticized his movie’s use of profanity while ignoring its violence: “I was like, ‘Does it not bother you that she killed about 53 people in this film?’ … I’m like, ‘Would you rather your daughter swore, or became a masked vigilante killer?’ They’re going, ‘Yeah, I don’t know.’ “
Cogently put, sir. But this critic, for one, is going, “Yeah, it does bother me that Moretz’s character, Hit Girl, and her fellow amateur superheroes rack up a body count in the high dozens.” In the course of this zanyromp made for the high-school set, human bodies are microwaved, crushed in trash compactors, skewered, bazookaed, and burned alive. And, yes, it’s comic-book violence and deliberately over the top—but since Kick-Ass’ whole premise is that comic-book violence, when enacted in real life, has real consequences, it seems a strange choice to layer Tarantino-style splatter onto the Y.A.-novel setting and play the whole thing for laughs.
Though Hit Girl has become the focus of the marketing campaign, she’s not the movie’s main character. That would be Kick-Ass, the alter ego of a scrawny teenager named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). After wondering with his geek pals about why no one tries to be a superhero in real life, Dave decides to order a green-and-yellow wet suit and mask over the Internet and strike out as a freelance crime fighter. Kick-Ass soon becomes a YouTube sensation for his masochistic willingness to intervene in street scuffles, but he discovers he isn’t the only amateur superhero on the streets of New York City. A former cop, Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) has transformed himself into a costumed vigilante called Big Daddy to take revenge on the mob boss (Mark Strong), who framed him years ago for a crime he didn’t commit. Macready’s preteen daughter Mindy, aka Hit Girl, shares her father’s passion for guns, knives, and vigilante mayhem. And in a late-emerging subplot, the mob boss’ son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) uses his father’s inexhaustible wealth to construct a super-persona of his own.
Sentences I never thought I’d write: Nicholas Cage gives the most nuanced performance in this movie. Cage, now firmly entrenched in his late-mannerist phase, turns a neat vocal trick whenever he dons his Big Daddy mask and cape: His speech rhythms lurch into the odd staccato delivery of Adam West, TV’s original Batman. As Damon McReady talking to his daughter, Cage sounds completely different, his voice a soothing paternal wheedle. Cage’s studied, campy performance doesn’t really fit the movie’s tossed-off, casual tone, but you have to admire the amount of thought he put into details that so few younger viewers will notice. A man who names his son Kal-El is a man who takes his comics seriously.
It’s probably not fair to say that Chloë Grace Moretz has struck me as a calculating performer in the two movies I’ve seen her in (this and (500) Days of Summer), because both roles, as written, have been calculated displays of raunchy precocity. Her Mindy/Hit Girl is a projection of presexual juvenile fantasy. Nor is Dave/Kick-Ass’ blandness the fault of Aaron Johnson, the young British actor who plays him (and who will soon be seen as John Lennon in Nowhere Boy). It’s the fault of the script, which never provides a reason for Dave’s transformation into Kick-Ass beyond his vague adolescent notion that being a superhero sounds neat. That may be enough to justify Dave’s embarking on the experiment, but it doesn’t explain why he continues to venture out in costume after being beaten, stabbed, and hit by a car.
Late in the movie, in voice-over, Dave puts a glum twist on a line from Spider-Man: “With no power comes no responsibility.” If this film proposed any alternate moral vision, that line might count a sly reappropriation of the original. As the prelude to a climactic orgy of bloodletting set to the punk anthem “Bad Reputation,” the joke comes off as nihilistic and flip. What do these characters consider worthy of killing and dying for? That a protagonist lacks superpowers is no reason for him to lack motivation, conviction, or purpose.
That’s right, I just mentioned moral vision in a review of a comic-book movie. Go ahead and call me a sententious schoolmarm (you cunts). The bone I’m picking here goes beyond the flaws of a minor movie like Kick-Ass: I’m ready to rip out the needle on the intravenous feed of comic-book superheroes that Hollywood has had us hooked up to for decades now. Some films derived from comics are excellent; some are goofy good fun; some are lousy. But why has this genre taken our popular culture hostage, and what can we do to escape? Won’t some filmmaker out there put on her wet suit and come to the rescue?