Aaron R. Davis
This weekend, I went out to see Kick-Ass. It had gotten mixed reviews, by which I mean the few critics I take seriously despised it, but a lot of my friends couldn’t stop gushing over it. (And by “friends,” I mean people I know online. Because I’m a hermit.)
When the critics say Kick-Ass is a dopey action movie, they’re right: it IS a dopey action movie. And when my friends say this movie’s a lot of awesome fun, they’re right too: it is. It’s a dopey, awesome, fun action movie. It’s funny, it’s silly, it’s kind of stupid, it’s totally unbelievable and it’s awesome. It’s artifice, sure, but so what? Artifice has its place in films, especially in superhero films.
That’s the thing about Kick-Ass: I found it impossible to take seriously.
So my question is this: is Kick-Ass a failure because it can’t make up its mind if it wants to be a superhero genre flick or a deconstruction of that genre?
(And I’m going to have to discuss this with spoilers, so if you read past this and I ruin your life because you find out something you didn’t want to know, cry to your momma and not to me, because I warned you.)
Certainly I’d call the original comic book series, written by the odious Mark Millar, a total failure. It certainly attempts to deconstruct the genre by showing what might happen in real life if some high school kid went off and decided to prowl the streets as a costumed avenger. The problem with the comic book is that it gets caught up in the fantasy bullshit, too, thus becoming the very thing it’s trying to deconstruct, while at the same time fucking its audience in the ear for even being fans of comics in the first place. The big revelation about Big Daddy — that he’s a comic book fan who turned his daughter into a killer because he didn’t want her to have a boring life — is such a slap in the face, I was actually offended by it. Not only does the comic book completely lose its nerve, it’s just plain mean when it comes to fans.
In the film, this all gets fixed. Big Daddy becomes more clichéd as a result, but at least his revised origin fits in with what you can believe in a superhero movie. But that’s just part of my point: Matthew Vaughn’s film has such affection for the genre that it can’t quite bring itself to deconstruct it in order to make any kind of social point.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Vaughn does get what superhero movies are really about, which is the adolescent power trip. Superheroes can be so appealing because, once you remove all of the punching and kicking and pop songs, they’re really just young people lost on the verge of potential adulthood and trying to forge their own identities. And really, don’t they do it in the same way kids do know? By creating and trying out new personas that are separate from their every day lives? Stan Lee called it Spider-Man; kids today call it Facebook.
So Vaughn gets that. Where he falls flat, though, is when he tries to get postmodern and show us that acting out these fantasies in real life will get you killed. But because he’s not willing to really send the point home, none of those touches work as well as the silly superhero stuff.
I’m going to describe the pivotal scene in some detail here, so once again, I refer you to the spoiler warning.
We have Kick-Ass, really just a kid from high school who has been mucking about as a superhero. He’s captured, tied to a chair and tortured on live streaming video by the goons of a mob boss. The narration tells us we’re dreaming if we think he’s going to get out alive.
And then — voila! — he does.
So the deconstruction doesn’t work, because the story loses its nerve and doesn’t go all the way. Kick-Ass doesn’t die, he’s rescued. He goes on to star in a hugely over-the-top action sequence and set us up for a sequel. Even though being a superhero in real life will get you killed, everything more or less turns out okay for Kick-Ass. Everything that happens to him — getting stabbed, being hit by a car, being physically tortured — just makes him stronger and more indestructible. The third act is really just an insincere compromise. Vaughn is trying to have it both ways: making stabs at deconstructing the genre is apparently supposed to excuse him from giving in to every cliché at the end, because we know he’s smart enough to know that this is all genre convention being played out. Rather than alienate the fanboys, he gives up on realistically taking apart their fantasy and instead celebrates it.
It does leave a slightly bad taste in my mouth that Kick-Ass couldn’t deliver on that front. It doesn’t have the courage of its convictions, and it knows it. Vaughn understands the comic book world well, but he either isn’t willing or isn’t able to make the satirical elements work. It’s all very broad, it’s not very smart, and even if it talks a good game, it’s not cutting edge or media-savvy: it just wants you to think that it is before it winds up to the predictable action climax.
But you know what? That’s okay, because the parts the film gets right — the over-the-top action sequences, the awesome soundtrack, the arch drama of superheroes — are a lot of fun. And Chloe Moretz, as the 11 year-old, foul-mouthed assassin Hit Girl, is awesome and uncomfortable at the same time. It’s not the smart, deconstructive take on the genre that my friends — and the film itself — claim that it is. It’s not Watchmen.
But … does it have to be?
I’d say no. At this point in my life, all I really ask is to be entertained. And I was.
Go see Kick-Ass if you haven’t. It’s dopey, but in a really fun way.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.