Kick Ass is a movie about violence. It's not a superhero movie, although it uses superheros to tell its story and make its point. It's not an action movie, although action is central to its purpose. It is a violence movie just as much as The Thin Red Line or Apocalypse Now are violence movies, and if you can't accept that violence is a worthy subject for a film to discuss and a significant issue facing our society today, you're not going to be able to accept this film. The problems with Kick Ass aren't that it contains violence or even how violent it is, but that it doesn't go far enough.
In the original - and unfortunately unaired - pilot episode of Joss Whedon's Firefly we see Kayleigh, the most beloved character on the show, get shot. More important than the shooting, we see the effects of the shooting. We see her pain as her stomach acids eat away at her own body, we watch her life fading as she bleeds, and we ache for her. To anyone who was familiar with Joss's previous works on Buffy and Angel, this was a key scene; not only did it contain powerful drama in its own right, it informed us that violence would be treated much more realistically on this show than any of Joss's previous shows. Most shows don't show the realistic effects of a bullet wound in the stomach (one of the worst places to be shot) and those that do are usually considered high drama. For me, that scene has always been the moment that defined the vision of Firefly.
Early in the movie Dave has his first go at being a superhero and is stabbed in the stomach. The resulting rescue and medical treatment is eerily similar to that shooting scene in Firefly and it serves the same purpose: it warns the audience that violence will be a part of this movie and, while it may be fantastic to watch, it will have realistic consequences. The rest of the movie, for all is jaw-dropping choreography depicts realistic effects of every type of trauma imaginable. There is no doubt that Dave, Mindy, or everyone else is at risk.
"You want to make the world a better place?" asks the movie, "are you prepared to pay this price?"
When Dave puts on the his costume again, knowingly going back out into the world to face the same threats that hospitalized him last time, he's making an inspired choice. His frantic, desperate, ugly defense of the man being assaulted by drug dealers is one of the movie's highlights and when Dave says that he would die for this stranger, we cheer for him because we know he's sincere.
Kick Ass's strength is its willingness to use violence as a realistic consequence to celebrate the decisions of those who would be heroes. Where it fails, however, is that it doesn't go far enough in its depiction of those consequences.
I don't mean that the violence isn't dark or scary. To quote South Park regarding Passion of the Christ, "That wasn't a movie, it was a snuff film." It's an extremely uncomfortable film to watch, particularly when you find yourself enjoying those moments of violence and feeling shame because of it. No, the film is more than sufficiently gory in its depiction of inflicted violence.
Where it fails is its depiction of the effects of inflicting violence.
Chloe Grace Moretz delivers a stellar performance as Mindy/Hit Girl, more than stealing the show. Surprisingly enough, her character is presented in an extremely believable manner; Katey Rich has a wonderful article that analyzes how Goodman, Vaughn, and Millar get the audience to accept her. The problem is that neither Mindy nor Dave show any effects from being killers.
Roger Ebert's scathing review hits all of the problems inherent with watching an eleven year-old girl killing dozens and dozens of people, but he never says the key effect of watching those scenes: I don't want to watch a little girl be a murderer. Now that's not necessarily a bad thing. The point of a movie like Kick Ass is to make you uncomfortable, but the movie never acknowledges it. Mindy's been thoroughly brainwashed by her father - you can debate the morality of it all you like (what he did was wrong, BTW) but you can't deny that she has been brainwashed - so I can accept that she is now a remorseless killer who sees the men she's killing as less than human and will have no reaction to their deaths.
But that's not a hero. That's a monster.
The reason Dave is our protagonist despite the emphasis on Hit Girl and Big Daddy is because we can identify with Dave. He's the everyman trying to find his place as a hero. He's the one confronting violence for us so that we can leave the theater better prepared to deal with a dangerous world that needs heroes, super or otherwise. Dave should be shocked or horrified or terrified of Hit Girl. He should be all three! He should have mixed feelings about the necessity of what she does. He should be pulled as he applauds her victories but is repulsed by her methods.
All we get is admiration. "Wow! Look at all those guys she killed! Cool! I wish I could be like that! That's what a real hero does!"
Dave's heroic moment at the end of the film is when he finally kills another human being. That bothers me.
The fact is we need movies like Kick Ass. We need to be able to discuss violence in today's society. Just last week when Wiki Leaks released their acquired 2007 video of the crew of an Apache helicopter killing Iraqi insurgents we saw the uproar it created. It was clear then, if it wasn't clear before, that our society has lost sight of the consequences of violence. The violence in that video is perhaps the most controlled violence in over 3,000 years of human warfare and still people were horrified by what they saw as unnecessary military brutality. That video is what war is. Hell, that video is what war should be. Go back just forty years and ask a Vietnamese soldier who watched his family get napalmed how that type of controlled violence compares.
One can debate whether we should be fighting in Iraq, but based on that video there are no grounds to criticize how the fighting is conducted. If this is a war we want to fight we need to know what the costs are so we can decide if we're prepared to pay them.
We need literature that reminds us that violence is dirty and ugly and with a high price, not only on those who have violence done to them but on those who doing the violence to others. Kick Ass tries hard and aims so high to give us that discussion, but in the end falls short because it can't break past its superhero mold that refuses to depict Hit Girl as anything but a hero.
If there is one redeeming aspect to the film to balance its oversight, it's that it's prompted a wave of criticism. People are talking, and they're talking about things that matter.