Aaron Johnson, in 'Kick-Ass'

Dir. Matthew Vaughn
(2010, R, 117 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

How you respond to Kick-Ass will depend on how you look at it. There are elements that suggest a film to be taken seriously and several others that suggest pure escapism, some that seem exploitive in their violence and others that seem to be satirizing that violence. What do I think? It would be self-flattery to claim that I got the film; many will enjoy it simply as giddy, violent spectacle, and others will hate it for the same reason. But I think there’s more to it than meets the eye. I think the film is doing with ambivalence and a sly wink what Michael Haneke’s Funny Games tried to do with smug, scolding superiority: shine a light on our consumption of such violence, and in the process highlight the fundamental disconnect between our sanitized PG-13 fantasies and the cold, hard smack of R-rated reality.

Chloe Grace Moretz, as Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl

Consider the first time we meet father and daughter Damon and Mindy Macready (Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz). Holding a handgun at his side, he reassures the eleven-year-old girl that everything will be alright, then shoots her in the chest, knocking her flat on her back. The object of the exercise is to get her used to the feeling of being shot while wearing a bulletproof vest. Hurts like getting punched in the chest, he explains, but now she knows and will be ready when someone shoots her for real.

Since she was five, Damon has trained her to be a combat-ready killing machine. We can all agree this is gross child abuse … right? Their first scene is unsettling in its levity, and as an indication of what the film has in store, it’s darkly brilliant. How better to set up a story of discordant violence than with this twisted version of father-daughter bonding?

Damon has his reasons, which of course don’t vindicate him but serve to illuminate character and theme. His backstory, full of betrayal and revenge, is told through a comic book Damon himself has created in order to make their activities more palatable for his daughter. The comic in this case is a reflexive device, revealing the naive fantasy at the heart of the father’s violent campaign and at the same time exposing the film’s own inspiration; superhero adventures are fun, but taken to their logical conclusion in reality end in the same gory mayhem the film alternately revels in and recoils from.

The title character’s alter ego is Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a comic book-nerd who wonders why no one ever really tries to be a superhero. His friends explain that, obviously, a “real” superhero would be killed on his first day. He opens the film by narrating a scene of a young, costumed crusader taking a leap of faith off a high-rise building. You can guess how it ends. Nevertheless, Dave orders a green wetsuit, chooses his moniker, and establishes a MySpace page to connect with citizens in need. He survives his first good deed, but just barely; he’s stabbed, and the injury is shown without the romanticized nobility movie heroes usually get.

There comes a moment after a vicious beating where Dave/Kick-Ass cleans blood from his face, and his shock upon looking in the mirror is apparent. Director Matthew Vaughn dwells on his injuries for a few moments, highlighting the physical consequences of all that cops-and-robbers roleplay. Things we’re used to taking for granted — cuts, bruises, and battle scars — we’re instead asked to stop and ponder, changing our perspective of it.

In his voice-overs, Dave references Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty, and a henchman has a moment with a bazooka inspired by Scarface. There’s a scene of a street fight captured on cell phone camera and made popular on YouTube, which leads stores to immediately stock Kick-Ass merchandise. Mindy, who fights crime as Hit Girl, has a night-vision shoot-out that mimics first-person-shooter video games. A group of mobsters try to hold a live execution over the internet — shades of terrorism mixed into this loose survey of new media, how we consume them, and how they shape our cultures and desires; a teen reads comic books, decides to become a superhero, then becomes a comic book.

Nicolas Cage, as Damon Macready/Big Daddy

So what are we to do with Kick-Ass? After it ended, I froze in my seat, struck by conflicting ideas about its content, which switches from a blunt death scene shot beautifully in near darkness to a Kill Bill-worthy shootout set to “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett. We find ourselves rooting for the child abuser and his traumatized daughter, because they’re certainly better than the mobsters trying to protect their drug enterprise from the child abuser and his traumatized daughter, and because, wherever our real-world morality may point us, the precocious self-possession of that agile little tyke is extremely cinema-cool.

Does the film want to have its cake, or eat it? Roger Ebert expressed intense moral outrage at its depiction of an 11-year-old girl, yet he gave a very positive review to Antichrist, a film about adults but whose violence is far more graphic and, to me, far more exploitive, with only its art-film pretensions to separate it from sheer snuff-film indulgence. Where to draw the line is relative, and upon reflection, it seems strange to draw it here instead of somewhere else. At least this film is interested in the effect of its violence as well as the revelry of it.

I read an article by Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly before seeing the film that planted the seed of my interpretation of it. About the controversy, he wrote, “Does a child — a girl, no less! — committing the same sort of apocalyptic carnage that adults usually do, and weathering the same smash-face brutality, make it more decadent? Or does it, in fact, highlight the decadence of what most of us accept, more or less every week, at the movies?” Here is a film to make us reevaluate what we watch and how we watch it, a superior popcorn entertainment that subtly turns an eye inward; this is a graphic, R-rated film about kids and teens committing acts of extreme violence, but let’s not forget that it’s children and teens who are targeted by the comic books and the films that inspired it.