Clichés Up the Wazoo
Kick-Ass (2010) Starring Aaron Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman, from a comic book by Mark Millar.
Perhaps it's a sign of what a mess Kick-Ass is that this film manages to be both a long-overdue pro-youth film and also a pile of anti-youth clichés. It certainly is a sign of how ageist our society is that the one aspect of the film many critics raged about was the one thing Kick-Ass does right.
First, let's talk about what the film-critics ignored or, worse yet, praised: the ageism.
They're After Our Women
Before the opening credits have even finished, the first thing we learn about our main character is that he is a high school student who lusts after a teacher. There have been many films pushing this ageist line that claims youth are so repulsive that even other youths would prefer to date the middle-aged. This insulting self-flattery on the part of middle-aged filmmakers, however, has rarely been as blatant as it is here.
The actress who plays the teacher is not the hottest 40-year-old they could have found, and director Matthew Vaughn does not even film her in a flattering way. Our "hero" (Aaron Johnson) attends a co-ed public high school. He is surrounded by women his own age, with firm bodies and smooth skin. Yet we have to spend the beginning of the film watching him ogle and fawn over and masturbate while thinking about a middle-aged, droopy-boobed woman. And even in his fantasy, his teacher is unattractive!
Does this teacher have some attractive personality traits that compensate for her age and her appearance? Vaughn never shows us. All we ever know about her is that she's a teacher, and the fact that she's old is supposed to be enough for us to accept that Johnson would crush on her.
Yes, Kick-Ass is a comedy, but Vaughn here does not present this as a parody of the ageist cliché, nor does he intend for us to laugh at the hero's weird taste in women. These scenes try to present Johnson as an Everyman. (Indeed, the film's narrator incessantly reminds us what a normal, average, common, typical teenager he is.) Vaughn expects young viewers, not to laugh at, but to identify with this character's lust for plain-looking old chicks.
Soon, our hero gets a same-age love interest (Lyndsy Fonseca), and even though the young woman looks like a model, she is presented as Johnson's consolation prize: since the middle-aged woman is an unobtainable dream, Johnson will have to get realistic and settle for young Fonseca.
Child-Abuse is Funny, Apparently
Around 15 minutes into the film, we see a child (the always lovable Chloë Grace Moretz) stand still while her father shoots her in the chest with a handgun. That's supposed to be funny.
Later, we see our teenaged protagonist get stabbed, then stumble into a street and get hit by a car. That, too, is supposed to be funny. Much of this film is based on Vaughn's belief that audiences will view violence involving children as outrageous fun.
Nothing original there. Plenty of movies and TV shows have presented violence against children as being funny. The one fresh twist this film offers is the belief that we can also enjoy seeing children commit violence against adults. And — of course — that's what drew criticism.
Kick-Ass is a comic book movie that tries to be funny like Mystery Men and also be brutal like The Watchmen. It's a weird combo. The twist (and indeed the only thing fresh about this film) is that these superheroes are mostly young.
Over the last 20 years, we have endured a rising flood of films based on comic books. We're often told these films are aimed at teenaged boys, yet there is a stunning lack of teenaged boys among the heroes. In the last few years, there have been two separate films about the Incredible Hulk, but not one film about the Teen Titans or Spyboy or Young Justice or Robin or the Runaways or any younger-than-20 heroes.
The Spiderman movies quickly glossed over Spiderman's high school days to focus instead on Peter Parker as college student. The X-Men movies have included some superpowered teenagers but have relegated them to either assistants or damsels in distress, leaving the heroics to middle-agers like Wolverine and Storm. The TV show "Smallville" reduced Superboy to something neither super nor heroic.
Women are badly underrepresented in comic book films, yet even women got to be heroes in Elektra and Catwoman and The Fantastic Four and The X-Men. Black heroes? Spawn, Catwoman, Blade, and The X-Men. Even the physically handicapped have been superheroes in Daredevil and The X-Men. (Clearly, the X-Men have quite an affirmative action program.)
Where are the comic book movies with heroes younger than 18? This is the void Kick-Ass fills, though just barely.
While Johnson wants to be a superhero, he largely fails. He bumbles around getting beaten by the lowliest criminals and accomplishing nothing other than making a spectacle of himself. Like "Smallville"'s non-threatening Superboy, and like cinema's younger X-Men, this costumed teenager calling himself Kick-Ass mostly just watches while real heroes take care of business.
As the Mystery Men were shown up by Captain Amazing, young Kick-Ass gets shown up by a dynamic duo calling themselves Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz). Here is the one and only fresh element of Kick-Ass and the film's one redeeming quality: Hit Girl is an actual girl.
These three scenes are so invigorating, they leave us wondering why filmmaker Vaughn relegated Hit Girl to a minor role and centered his film around the ineffectual Kick-Ass. I guess he thought if Hit Girl were given center stage, adults who find her threatening would find the film uncomfortable.
Sadly, Vaughn may have gaged correctly. Kick-Ass drew a firestorm of controversy, not because of its insulting suggestion that a "typical teenager" would prefer a middle-aged lady over a same-age beauty, and not because it expects us to laugh at violence against children and teenagers, but it drew controversy because it allowed an 11-year-old girl to dish out as much as she takes.
Roger Ebert led a pack of critics denouncing the film's morality for glorifying a heroine who is unaffected by killing. Yet Ebert and most of his compatriots never made such criticisms about Sergio Leone's westerns, or the James Bond movies, or the countless other films that glorify a middle-aged hero killing without hesitation or remorse. Why the double-standard? Ebert explains:
This movie regards human beings like video-game targets. Kill one, and you score. They're dead, you win. When kids in the age range of this movie's home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny.
Actually, FBI statistics show that it's adults who are "shooting one another every day" in far greater number than children and teenagers are. Even children are more likely to be killed by adults than by other children, so a person who genuinely cares for children's safety should be more worried about the role-models Hollywood offers adults than the role-models it offers children.
It's one thing for Quentin Tarantino to unleash his kind of metacognitive b-movie violence, but it's a whole other thing to involve kids. ... If we think of children as little adults, there's nothing that separates what's appropriate for adults and what's appropriate for children.
This, unfortunately, is giving the film too much credit. Even in the Hit Girl scenes, Vaughn fails to portray children in the respectful way this and other films portray adults. Vaughn treats children differently at every turn. For example: every time Hit Girl uses a swear word, Vaughn follows it with one or two seconds of silence that he clearly expects the audience to fill by gasping, "Oh my God! She said a swear word even though she's 11!" (By contrast, the sappy "family film" Curly Sue has an even younger girl use swear words and never once seems as self-conscious about it.)
Vaughn views Hit Girl, not as a character, but as a gimmick. Admittedly, she's a gimmick that works, partly because of the shameful absence of young heroes elsewhere in cinema, and partly because Chloë Grace Moretz is a dynamite actress. (Were Moretz playing a prostitute here, I suspect she would have gotten an Oscar as 13-year-old Jodie Foster did. A child being sexually abused by adults, apparently, sits better with the Academy than does a child fighting back against adults.)
Viewers who hated Kick-Ass generally admitted Hit Girl was the film's most interesting element, and those who loved Kick-Ass generally agreed Hit Girl was the most exciting thing in the film. Yet Vaughn keeps Hit Girl's presence to a minimum, and he takes other steps to keep middle-aged viewers from feeling too threatened. Rather than let Hit Girl be some independent, empowering fantasy for youth, for example, Vaughn makes her a puppet of her father. She kills on her father's orders, and when her father dies, she kills in his honor. She never does anything for her own purposes. (This is straight out of the Young Guns playbook.)
While most of the film is just a string of (often ageist) clichés, an 11-year-old besting adults is refreshing and adds something so badly needed that it makes up for much of the film's shortcomings. Yet even in these Hit Girl scenes, Vaughn can't resist ageism.
In the climax, we see Hit Girl get the drop on bad guys by taking advantage of their kindness. She approaches them as a crying, helpless girl. They feel sorry for her and try to help her out, then she shoots them, punishing them for being kind to a child. We've seen this before, too. (Hell, right after Kick-Ass, Moretz herself had to repeat this cliché in her next film, Let Me In.)
And here's a cliché I almost didn't expect Kick-Ass to stoop to: at the film's conclusion, Hit Girl is cornered by the adult villain, sits helplessly, and is then rescued. Yep. Even after blowing away dozens of bad guys, she has to be reduced to a helpless child. When Johnson saves her in his only moment of competence, he is not a deus ex machina, as would usually be the case. But it's still disappointing that the only young heroine we've been offered winds up another helpless damsel in distress.
Vaughn struggles to make Kick-Ass "edgy" with needlessly bloody violence and with swear words used only for their perceived shock value. If only he'd had the courage to really shock audiences by treating children with the same respect other films treat adults. This film would have been so much more edgy had it centered around a competent child or teenager who uses swear words casually instead of as punch lines, who defeats adult villains and, when she gets cornered, either saves herself or at least plays some role in her own salvation by doing something clever to attract help or to stall the bad guy. Now that would be shocking. That would be edgy. That would be a film that kicks ass.