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Movie Review: Kick-Ass

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There are a lot of ways to think about Matthew Vaughn’s film Kick-Ass. It’s a complicated construction, because its intentions are not simple and self-evident. Part of its ostensible importance is in how it actively turns and looks back at itself, representing and subverting its own intellectual, emotional, and visceral content.

Kick-Ass is the story of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a comic book fanboy who decides to become a real superhero, patrolling New York City. As Kick-Ass, Dave starts out less than successful, but eventually, he catches on as an Internet meme, and his presence raises awareness of superheroes around New York City. However, as crime fighting becomes a more serious profession, Kick-Ass gains the attention of a local kingpin, and becomes a target for the criminal underworld. Only his association with other members of the vigilante community he's inspired can save him from their vengeance.

The expectations for Kick-Ass come from a lot of different places, and the more you think about it, the more you’ll find it second-guessing itself. Some of them come from the comic book, which is apparently similar, but not exactly the same. Some of them come from the broader world of comic book culture, which is where most of the rabid enthusiasm for the film originates. Some of the film’s expectations come from the way it’s been positioned as a genre-ending, ruthlessly deconstructive piece of film. All of these angles are coded right into the movie, so none of them can be ignored. So here we go…

I. The Self-Evident Action Movie

Okay, so Kick-Ass, on the surface, is an action movie about people who decide to become superheroes and who, with training and determination, endeavor to bring down the city’s kingpin. It’s a movie filled with bursts of brutal violence, and it has the essentials of an action film: sudden twists and turns, dramatic reversals, and protagonists written and cast for their screen presence. Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) has enormous charisma, and Kick-Ass is an endearing emotional centerpiece, acting as our proxy to the insane shit that happens in this version of New York City.

The kills are satisfying, and there’s drama to be enjoyed. However, the execution is all in the choreography and the gimmicks – animated footage, slow motion, dismemberments and splashes of blood, and a scene designed to look like a video game. Considered on the surface, the vision of a murderous 11-year old is pretty unnecessary, another trick to shock and engage the audience. All this fulfills its function, causing vocal reaction and enthusiasm from a pretty jaded audience.

However, it doesn’t break ground, or contribute anything very important to the action genre. It gets maybe three stars out of four, and that’s a bit generous, considering a lot of its merit comes from the populist appeal of some cheap tricks.

II. The Superhero Deconstruction Story

I can’t quite identify where these expectations are coming from, but Mark Millar, Matthew Vaughn, and all of their marketing people are absolutely aware of them. The first half of Kick-Ass is an unapologetic essay on how superheroes might be born in the real world, and what kinds of opposition they might come up against. Where would they come from, if not from the pages of comic books through the imaginations of teenagers? What would happen to them, except that they would get destroyed by the better-equipped, more experienced criminals they intend to defeat? How would they become famous, except through social media and the bizarre pathways of Internet fame? It kind of works, for a while.

Even the pivotal moment with Big Daddy and Hit Girl contributes something to this intellectual exercise. They are the counterpoint to Kick-Ass; if someone was actually successful as a vigilante, what would they have to do? They would have to be brutal and uncompromising, willing to commit mass murder, and generally unbalanced and anti-social. They would have to be disaffected crime fighters, and to be truly Batman-esque, they would have to have this kind of conditioning and training from an extremely young age.

Unfortunately, in this capacity, the film absolutely fails by the time it gets through its climax. The deconstructed superheroes are the same exaggerated fantasy world superhumans that appear in every '50s comic book, except they have the added novelty of extreme violence, because they’re fighting in the "real world." This justification is implicit, but it’s prevalent throughout the movie, and it doesn’t hold up when the movie loses all sense of realism. This happens when the narrative introduces humanly impossible maneuvers, and myriad clichés of supervillain idiocy: not firing when you have a dangerous opponent in your sights, pausing to give a speech before delivering a final blow.

As other reviews have said, Kick-Ass makes the mistake of reducing its real-world deconstructions to the clichés that they're lampooning. The story toys with themes of child abuse, cynicism, and the real consequences of lethal violence, but it never addresses the true dimensions of these themes, which are legal, moral, and psychological. The Dark Knight, which had less of a pretense to being a "deconstruction," actually did a better job of addressing its issues.

As a thought-provoking piece of cinema, Kick-Ass gets one star out of four.

III. The Self-Aware Postmodern Project

This is, in a sense, the overall purpose of Kick-Ass, the big picture that encompasses the previous two points. If it was only an action flick, I’d entirely dismiss the second score and leave it with that respectable three-star review up at the top. It clearly isn’t just an action movie, though; that "deconstruction" idea is the rationalization for the video game and movie references, the unnecessary inclusion of a child in a violent role, and the disparity in tone, from carefree and self-aware to viciously cynical and violent. Kick-Ass, both within the film and through its media representation, is attempting to be both an action movie and an idea movie. Unfortunately, the success of the first is severely handicapped by the failure of the second.

There is room for a great deconstruction of comic book violence, and Kick-Ass could have done it. Casting an 11-year-old as a violent vigilante is shocking, but only superficially – she’s romanticized as a hero, after all. A film that wanted to be truly shocking would have departed from this thoughtless idealization and involved the death of an innocent character, because this is a natural consequence of a violent lifestyle. It would have portrayed the failures of vigilantism, as well as its colorful, sunrise-gazing success. But instead of making good on its premise, Kick-Ass simply feeds the cultural zeitgeist of violence and cheap shocks and action gimmicks.

All this would be forgivable, if the seed of something bigger wasn’t there. But this is a film that tried to question its own premise, and then failed to follow through. So what we’re left with is a gimmicky action movie that falls short of its promise.

Because what does Kick-Ass ultimately become, except the classic comic book fantasy cliché, with superhuman feats of strength and righteousness, except with the added amusements of extreme violence, murder, and psychological abuse, justified by its contextualization in that irreverent comic book world?

So altogether, I’d give it two stars out of four. And that’s being generous.

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  • Sibu Nianqingren

    I can understand if someone wanted more analysis and reflection from Kick-Ass. It seems like the main goal of the movie is to entertain audiences, and the straight-up adaptation of Watchmen didn’t do as well as Kick-Ass did.

    Also I don’t mind a movie that likes to deconstruct some themes but also wallow in others. I know it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too.