Reality Bites: In Defense of Kick-Ass

This post is not a review, but rather a more analytical piece in response to some of the debate surrounding Kick-Ass.  It does contain spoilers.  You have been warned.

If you're even remotely interested in film or comics then you're probably well-aware that this weekend sees the release of Kick-Ass, the highly-anticipated (in geek circles) adaptation of Mark Millar's graphic novel of the same name.  Marketed as a deconstruction of the superhero genre in the same vein as Watchmen, Kick-Ass follows superpower-less high schooler Dave Lezewski who decides to dress up and fight crime since... well, somebody has to do it.  He teams up with a wealthy ex-cop named Big Daddy and his daughter Hit Girl and attempts to take on the city's bad guys, often with mixed results.

Kick-Ass has been causing quite a stir in critical circles.  Roger Ebert found it morally reprehensible.  Many have criticized its use of extreme violence involving minors.  Others have argued it promotes the sexual abuse of children.  Moral arguments aside, some have claimed that it fails as a satire, that it’s hypocritical in its deconstruction of a genre, and that it’s all style with no substance.  While all of these concerns are certainly valid, and I can see the evidence for each of them, I can’t help but think they’re ultimately missing what the film is offering.  After the first viewing, I might have agreed with some of them.  But after seeing it a second time, I think there’s more going on beneath the surface of Kick-Ass than first meets the eye.  In fact, I'm convinced Kick-Ass is downright progressive, due largely in part to three factors: its portrayal of women, its critique of mass media and the internet, and its honesty about why people consume films and comics.  Consider this:

1) Hit Girl may be controversial, but she’s a new feminist icon.  Yes, she’s a foul-mouthed little girl with a penchant for stabbing people in the chest, but make no mistake about it: Hit Girl is the strongest female character to emerge from a mainstream Hollywood film in years.  Rather than being socialized to submit and play house, she’s been encouraged by her father to be aggressive, smart and independent.  This is no damsel in distress (coughMaryJanecough), but rather a quick-thinking go-getter who spends most her time killing bad guys and rescuing her male counterparts.  And to top it all off, she’s eleven years old.

The real world could learn a lot from her.  Ironically, of all the female characters she’s by far the most “grown up.”  While Hit Girl embodies the supposedly fictional archetype of a female warrior, the “real-world” women of Kick-Ass are as clichéd as they come.  Dave’s crush, Katie, is the stereotypical high school ditz who enjoys working on her tan and dates guys who abuse her.  Thankfully, by the end of the film she’s started to become something more than a passive and submissive object (not to mention she’s smart enough to realize Dave is a good guy despite his lies, which means we don’t have to sit through the familiar walk-away-and-then-be-won-back-like-a-prize subplot), but she’s still a far cry from being independent.  And then there’s her friend, who falls for Dave’s friend for no apparent reason other than because I guess that’s what women are supposed to do.  This is the same superficial depiction of women we’ve been getting from Hollywood since the invention of motion pictures, and it’s telling that the only positive female role model is a child and the most obviously “fictional” character of the bunch.  A woman who can think for herself and act on her own?  Why that only happens in comic books!

Many critics are quick to argue that young children should not be perpetrating such violent acts onscreen.  But why not?  It’s an R-rated film; how is having a child (and one who’s clearly not had a normal childhood) kill people any worse than having adults kill people?  Violence is violence, and murder is murder – age is inconsequential.  If anything, her age and background should excuse her from responsibility.  More worrisome to me is the scene in which Hit Girl dresses in a schoolgirl uniform, complete with pigtails and short skirt, in order to sneak her way past security.  Concerned parents and critics are right to question the sexualization of young children in a mainstream film.  However, I think it’s worth noting that she isn’t portrayed erotically at any other point in the movie, and in context this is just another example of her strength.  She may be a child, but she already knows how to manipulate men to get what she wants, and those who are enticed get what they deserve.  So before you freak out and scream child abuse, ask yourself: Between Hit Girl and other popular female characters (like Twilight's Bella Swan, for example), which is the better role model for women?

2) It’s not a deconstruction of the superhero mythos as much as it’s a deconstruction of our need to create celebrities.  We live in strange times, in which everything from a cat playing a keyboard to Justin Bieber can become an overnight sensation due to the popularity of YouTube.  Kick-Ass isn’t a satire of comic book conventions as much as a critique of how the mass media feeds the cult of celebrity. 

In the film, Kick-Ass only becomes a hit after a video of him beating up thugs is posted online.  Due to the global reach of the internet, he’s catapulted to stardom despite the fact that he doesn’t really deserve it.  People latch on to him the way they do other superheroes, and it isn’t long before he’s being used to fuel sales of comics, costumes, and even coffee.  Rather than finding the real heroes, in the form of Big Daddy and Hit Girl, the media and culture focuses on Kick-Ass and Red Mist, the two guys who aren’t really all that special.  The internet makes them famous, and it’s ultimately what nearly leads to our protagonist’s downfall.  As a result of our easy access to the internet, Red Mist is able to alert his father when he and Kick-Ass are on their way to the warehouse, nearly leading to Kick-Ass’ capture.  Later on, he uses his GPS to locate Big Daddy and Hit Girl and then pass the directions along to his father’s goons.  And in the film's most chilling scene, Frank D’Amico attempts to use the internet to strike fear into the hearts of the largest amount of people possible by broadcasting the torture and murder of Kick-Ass online.  Rather than try to stop him, even the police are shown looking dumbstruck at the video feed.  And when it becomes clear the feed won’t be shown on the news, everyone rushes to their computers to watch the carnage. 

There’s a thick layer of cynicism in the film’s portrayal of global networks.  Vaughn clearly seems to be implying that we’re drawn to violence and death in the media at the cost of our desire to help.  We love to watch heroes die almost as much as we love to create them.  Not only that, but we’re so quick to give up our privacy in the form of location trackers and webcams that it’s easy for bad guys to use that to their advantage.  This isn't a movie about why superheroes could never be real.  It's a movie about why we wish they were real, and how we'll make and break our own cultural icons if we need to.  Which leads me to the final, most important point...

3) Kick-Ass is pro-film, pro-video games, pro-comics, and pro-America, dammit!  Dave makes the obvious observation that being a superhero in real life is impossible.  Were anyone to actually attempt such a thing without Bruce Wayne-style money and training, they’d probably be dead within a week.  That’s what Dave discovers when he first dons the Kick-Ass costume, as he winds up in the hospital after being stabbed in the gut.

(RANDOM SIDE NOTE: Some people have interpreted last year’s Up as a deathbed fantasy concocted by its protagonist. That’s a view I don’t share, but couldn’t the same thing be said about Kick-Ass?  Dave is stabbed and hit by a car, and as he struggles to hold on and survive we fade-to-white into… the rest of the film, in which Kick-Ass ultimately becomes a celebrity and saves the day alongside more experienced costumed avengers.  Sounds like wish-fulfillment fantasy to me, and let's not forget that the film ends with a POV shot to the face.  Just a thought.)

But Kick-Ass doesn’t stop at simply picking apart comic book conventions about the realism of superheroes.  Though I’ve heard the comic has a much darker and more “realistic” ending regarding several of its characters (particularly Big Daddy and Dave), the film ultimately becomes exactly as fantastical as most comics, films and video games. This isn’t a takedown of comic book and film tropes about a single individual being able to take on hundreds of bad guys.  It’s a celebration of imagination.  It’s an acknowledgement that, yes, these things are very unrealistic and fantastic, but that’sprecisely why we need them.

This is a film about the collision between real life and comic book fantasy.  Dave is a real person.  He is not special.  He does not have powers.  Whenever he fights crime, he’s lucky to escape with only a few bruises and broken bones.  For all intents and purposes, he is Mr. Reality.  As he rides around town with Red Mist, the radio coos, "I think you're craaaaaazy."  And he is.  Only a lunatic would dress up and fight crime in the real world.

Big Daddy and Hit Girl, however, are on an entirely different plane of existence.  Big Daddy is clearly an imitation of Batman, from the persona of a wealthy vengeance-seeker with a penchant for high-tech weaponry to Nic Cage’s intentional channeling of Adam West in his performance.  And can you get any more unrealistic than an eleven-year-old who can slaughter dozens without blinking?  These aren’t real people.  These are mythical figures.  They are a product of our cultural desire to rise above our regular, boring lives and do something extraordinary.  The same is even truer of the villain, mob boss Frank D’Amico, who is a giant walking cliché.  He’s an extremely rich gangster with the police in his pocket, he knows martial arts, and his henchmen have names like Louie and Tony.  At one point the film transitions his face from real-life incarnation into pen-and-ink shading.  He is literally a comic-book villain. Either Mark Millar and company did a terrible job of deconstructing comic book conventions with every character except Dave, or there’s more up their sleeve.

The audience is shown two different realities - the "realistic" one of Dave, and the fantasy one of Big Daddy and Frank D'Amico that he gradually comes into greater contact with.  These conflicting realities are a literal representation of his internal struggle as he tries to figure out what it takes to be a real hero.  Is it really possible for a regular guy to fight for truth and justice, or is that just the stuff of fiction?  Things finally come to a head in the film's darkest moment, when Kick-Ass and Big Daddy are tortured and prepared for public execution.  This is the last time we’re ever shown anything remotely “realistic” in Kick-Ass.  The blows are fierce and cringe-inducing, and when the gasoline comes out, we’re sure it’s all over.  “This is how the movie ends,” I thought during my first viewing.  “They all die, and Vaughn and Millar get to hammer in the point that superheroes can’t be real.”  Dave’s voiceover even supports this assumption, referencing films like American Beauty and Sunset Blvd. in which the narrators are actually dead.  If all the writers wanted to do was expose the superhero mythology as a farce, this is how they would end the film. 

But they don’t.  And that makes all the difference.

I can’t fully describe the feeling of overwhelming relief that swept over the audience at both screenings I attended when Hit Girl comes to their rescue.  The scene is so fraught with tension that the sight of Hit Girl putting on night-vision goggles and mowing down bad guys in a POV shot (like a video game!) brought applause and yells of approval.  We want the good guys to win.  We want Dave to be a hero.  And Matthew Vaughn knows this and is happy to give it to us.  After this scene, the film doesn’t even try to play the “realism” game anymore.  It delivers all the crazy Hit Girl violence we’ve come to love, and then throws in a jetpack.  And despite the fact that he couldn’t even stay on a catwalk at the beginning of the film, Dave has no problem learning how to use it in a matter of minutes.  This is fantasy, plain and simple, and we love every minute of it.

We get it.  Superheroes in the real world probably wouldn’t work out too well.  But that doesn’t mean art is irresponsible for entertaining the notion that it could.  The reason action movies, video games and superhero comics are so popular is that we love the idea of a few lone individuals rising up against the establishment and succeeding.  This is the foundation of the American Dream – the idea that one person can overcome any obstacle through sheer determination and hard work.  

Matthew Vaughn structures Kick-Ass in such a way that the audience gets to see Dave's failure and then revel in his ultimate triumph, and as such the film serves almost as a call to action.  "With no power comes no responsibility," Dave quips, "But that isn't true."  Yes, doing the right thing might be risky.  Yes, it might hurt.  But at the end of the day, the true villains of Kick-Ass are the people that stand by and do nothing.  By having the film dive completely into fantasy territory in its final act, Vaughn seems to be giving us hope that though it may be difficult, and it may seem like a work of fiction, good can ultimately overcome evil, and that's a goal worth striving for.  Sure, superheroes aren't real.  But that doesn't mean we can't all try to be a little more selfless in our everyday lives.  Comic books and films may be fiction, but they act as both outlets for our fantasies and impulses and as encouragement to do good no matter the odds stacked against us.

Like it or not, we all want to be extraordinary.  That’s why Kick-Ass and Hit Girl are certain to be two of this year’s most popular Halloween costumes.  He’s the normal guy that gets to be a hero, and she’s the girl who always was one.  We don’t consume these products to be reminded that it couldn’t happen.  It’s exactly the opposite: we watch movies, read comics and play video games to escape.  If Superman died at the end of the first issue, would we want to keep reading?  If Mario sprained his ankle and was crippled after every jump for a mushroom, would we still play?  If Jake Sully in Avatar hadn’t defeated the bad guys in the end, would it have made so much money?  I don’t think so.

The ultimate goal of so many of these mediums is simply to entertain.  They encourage us to keep moving forward despite whatever obstacles we face, no matter how impossible it may seem.  And like the scene in Kick-Ass in which an eleven-year-old girl massacres the mobsters who want to kill her father, they provide an outlet for all of our own tension and impulses to be released.  There’s a great collective sigh of relief, and for a few moments all is right with the world.  Kick-Ass may be violent, profane, and have a wildly uneven tone, but that’s the point.  Comic books and movies aren’t real, but they can make us wish they were.  And thank God for that.