This article was first posted to FantasticFangirls.org April 19, 2010 and includes spoilers for the film Kick-Ass.
It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies. Why? CNN is talking about comic book movies. Really. CNN. There was the bruhaha over first Ryan Reynolds as Hal and then Blake Lively as Carol in the Green Lantern movie. Then there was the drawn out casting wars for the mantle of Captain America — only to have it given to Johnny Storm. Now, Joss Whedon is going to direct the Avengers movie. Probably. According to CNN.
Joss Whedon went to school at Wesleyan, where I work, so you can buy DVD box sets of Buffy and Astonishing X-Men trade paperbacks in our campus book store. Michael Bay also went to Wesleyan. Jason Reitman was wait-listed. He told me so last Thursday, me and about 250 others, all guests of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. You know. The Oscar people. We were there to see Reitman’s Oscar-nominated film Up in the Air (despite the title, it is not about Superman, or a comic book movie at all) and afterwards he talked about his craft. Two moments stood out as specifically relevant to this discussion for this site. The first, he claimed to have been offered to direct an X-Men movie (First Class) after the phenomenal success of Juno. As Reitman told the story, the studio asked him “Do you want to direct the X-Men film?” and he said, “Well, no, but why do you think I can?” I like this story for two things. One, everyone picture X-Men: First Class as an effective sequel to Juno. Awesome, right? And two, honestly, I appreciate such frank self-knowledge.
The second moment is a lesson Jason’s father Ivan Reitman (the director of Ghostbusters, among many other films) taught him. Ivan invited Jason over to watch 24 on DVD, saying it was the best series he’d seen in ages, possibly ever. Jason was surprised to find he maybe agreed and wondered why, why is 24 so good? There are lots of stories about terrorism, what makes this one exceptional? And Ivan said, this isn’t a story about terrorism. Terrorism is the location, this a story about a man trying to keep his family together. Jason then applied this to his own films. Thank You for Smoking isn’t about big tobacco, it isn’t about smoking — smoking is the location, the story is about freedom of choice. In Juno the location is teenage pregnancy, the story is about the moment when you choose to grow up. In Up in the Air the location is losing your job, the story is how we define ourselves. And given that, maybe the studio wasn’t so crazy to offer Jason the X-Men film.
My favorite movie of all time is Luc Besson’s Leon. It was released in the US as The Professional and missing a few key scenes deemed too sensitive for American audiences. Those scenes feature Mathilda, a 13-year-old girl, accompanying Leon, a professional assassin, as he does his job exacting vengeance/justice on drug dealers/rival mafia/corrupt cops. He’s teaching her the ropes. She shoots. She kills. Those scenes were cut from the American release and it was still a controversial film. That was 1994. In 2010, Kick-Ass is creating that same buzz of controversy because it features Mindy, an 11-year-old girl, accompanying her father, a wronged cop turned vigilante, as he exacts vengeance/justice on the gang of drug dealers/mafia/corrupt cops who destroyed his life. He teaches her the ropes. She shoots. She kills. She single-handedly murders some 50 men. She is a one (very young) woman killing machine and it is depicted in full gory color. Mindy, a.k.a. Hit-Girl, was taught from age five to understand, appreciate, and wield weapons with deadly force and she is very, very good at it. I understand the controversy. I understand why a stereotypical PTA/Soccer Mom might not enjoy this movie. But let’s go back to the first sentence in this paragraph. My favorite movie of all time is Luc Besson’s Leon.
I loved Kick-Ass.
First! I haven’t read the original comic so I do not have a knowledgeable opinion on how or why or what things are changed. Going in, I understood the premise to be “what if real people tried to be super heroes.” I didn’t know the purple haired girl was a purple haired little girl. I didn’t know Nicolas Cage was basically playing Batman — I didn’t know Nicolas Cage was in it, something I am still amazed no one mentioned to me. No, sitting down to watch, I knew the basic premise, that Roger Ebert hated it, and that people were comparing it to Kill Bill. And having seen it, I see why. This film may be considered “ultra-violent,” Mindy comes off as a Tarantino character, and it is a revenge plot (while Dave (Kick-Ass) is the protagonist, this is Mindy’s story. Like Luke is the protagonist in Star Wars but it is Anakin’s story). So I think I’ll start there with my counter to the controversy surrounding Hit Girl.
Kill Bill ends with this title (which is brilliant and sums up why I love the movie):
To apply the Reitman formula (I imagine Quentin would object loudly and with colorful language, but I don’t imagine he’s reading this — if he is, call me! We’ll talk movies!), the Bride’s revenge plot is the location, the story is about two people fighting over how to raise their child. Beatrice wanted to raise her baby without guns and swords and assassinations, far away from the life she’d led to the point where she got pregnant; Bill chose to raise their daughter within that life. But in the end Beatrice wins, and BB will be raised away from the life she was born into. Leon ends with Mathilda going to school, it’s her last choice, but she makes it and we are led to believe, at least for the moment, she is safe from the life of drugs and murder she’d been surrounded by. Kick-Ass also ends with Mindy a) being raised by the parent who would put her childhood ahead of all the violence of their world (Damon’s friend and former partner, Marcus, who’d raised Mindy from birth to age 5 while Damon was imprisoned) and b) going to school. My point is that the films end with these girls not being murderers.
This movie is not being marketed to children. I went to Target the other day. There were two aisles and an end cap of Iron Man 2 merchandise in the Toys section and an entire wall of Iron Man and War Machine t-shirts in the Boys section (no t-shirts in the Girls section, but that’s another issue). There was nothing at all for Kick-Ass. I went to Hot Topic and there were three different t-shirts featuring Kick-Ass, on the male side of the store, in adult sizes with no youth options, and right next to t-shirts featuring Pulp Fiction and Boondock Saints. The movie is rated R. It is not a story for children and it is not being treated like it is.
At the very end, right before he is going to kill her in cold blood, the main antagonist, Frank D’Amico, says to Hit-Girl, “I wish I had a daughter like you.” And it was that moment that really made the movie for me. With eight words, D’Amico says it all. Maybe, I thought to myself, maybe Mindy wasn’t raised to be a superhero, maybe she was raised to be a supervillain. Stories should make us think. But they shouldn’t teach us how.
Roger Ebert called Kick-Ass “morally reprehensible.” I submit that whatever you personally think of Mindy’s character, if you expect your child, or society, to learn right and wrong from Kick-Ass, that is not something wrong with the movie, that is something wrong with you. But beyond the pithy over-generalizations back and forth, there is a lesson I would want everyone to take away. At one point during the movie, Dave decides that it makes sense that if with great power there is great responsibility, then with no power there is no responsibility, but that it isn’t true. The audience is meant to identify with Dave, the boy with the right blend of naivete and optimism to be a superhero — he’s got a big heart and bigger dreams and he gets in way over his head. But as Dave says himself, each of us at some point in our life imagines being a superhero, however we define it. I think Dave’s greatest moment of superheroism is not when he blows D’Amico through the window to save Mindy, but when he makes the choice to be Kick-Ass and then makes the choice to stop. If everyone had the sense of responsibility and compassion he does, our world would be a better place. I am not telling you to take up a weapon and a costume and solve the world’s problems at the barrel of a gun and neither is the movie. The movie and I are both saying: everyone has the power to choose who to be and what to do with that choice.
It is fair to say, if you hated Kill Bill or The Professional, for their violence and lack of innocence, you will hate Kick-Ass. But if you are on the fence, give it a chance. It is a well done film — no overdone CG or gimmicky 3D, the movie relies on a solid story and good performances led by Nicolas Cage. He is honestly excellent, in what I see as three distinct roles. In his super persona of Big Daddy, he does a delightful William Shatner by way of Adam West Batman impression; as Mindy’s Daddy he is charmingly insane, the way he says “child” is just a revelation. And then in one and a half scenes with his former partner, Marcus, who is still a cop, he is subdued and serious, but the insanity that is a hallmark of the other two characters is still right there under the surface. It is a nuanced over the top performance and that is not a contradiction. The two young stars and the surrounding cast are also solid and all together worth the price of admission. It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies.