How Kick-Ass is Like a Dead-Baby Joke and Why Ebert is Wrong
I would not want to be writing a superhero movie right now.
Kick-Ass does superhero so well and is simultaneously so conspicuously aware of the audience’s expectations at every moment of the film, that an earnest attempt at the old hero-origin story is going to look f*cking stupid by comparison –like trying to watch a guy sliding down an incline on a plank attached to roller skate wheels after you’ve just seen Tony Hawk busting 900s. It takes the concept further. It doesn’t just manipulate your emotions, it makes a show of how it’s doing it and becomes almost a think piece about why. It is, as they say, “meta”, like a snake eating its own tail and swallowing its own sh*t, until the sh*t it’s eating is just the sh*tty byproduct of previous sh*ts and the sh*t itself starts becoming, like, this whole freaky, new thing. Which is not to say the film is sh*tty. Chill out, dude, it’s just a metaphor.
As you probably know by now, the story centers on Dave Lizewski (competently played by Brit Aaron Johnson), a wannabe superhero whose first attempt at crime fighting lands him in the hospital and spawns a rumor that has his crush (Lyndsy Fonseca) believing he’s gay (which suddenly makes her interested in him). His second attempt goes a little better, turning him into an internet celebrity, putting him on a collision course with real-deal vigilante psychos, Hit-Girl and Big Daddy. Mistaken identity and run ins with a violent drug kingpin (played by Mark Strong) ensue.
The main trick Kick-Ass has up its sleeve is the deft finesse of your sense of disbelief, a skill common to great B-movies and pulp novels. They start with something preposterous, patently unbelievable, but lurid and provocative enough that the audience is willing to play along. And just when they’ve stretched that bond as far as it can go, the audience suddenly begins caring about the characters almost despite themselves, because the story has been moving in subtle increments toward a grounded reality the entire time. In other words, if you make the human interactions natural and familiar enough, you can throw some seriously messed up sh*t at the audience, plot-wise (Pulp Fiction comes to mind). Throughout the movie, Kick-Ass manages this incredible push-pull. One moment you’re chuckling at Dave and his mini-crew of screw-off friends, Clark Duke and Evan Peters, because it seems truthful (and funny) in ways that most fictional guy-group interactions don’t — *cough* Entourage *cough, cough*– the next moment you’re watching Nic Cage and his daughter pop a bad guy like a zit in a trash compactor. They’re enjoyable for different reasons, but they’re complementary. It’s one part insane and watchable, another part just realistic enough to make you feel it. And throughout, it feels as if the filmmakers know exactly where they have you on that eye-candy-to-brain-candy spectrum.
Despite the mostly positive reviews you see everywhere, the movie has had some notable detractors, namely Ebert.
This isn’t comic violence. These men, and many others in the film, are really stone-cold dead [would you have preferred faker violence?]. And the 11-year-old apparently experiences no emotions about this. Many children that age would be, I dunno, affected somehow, don’t you think, after killing eight or 12 men who were trying to kill her?
He speaks of course of Hit-Girl, and the idea was that she’d been trained to think that way since birth. If anyone could shut out those emotions, it’d be a kid who didn’t know any better, wouldn’t it? African child soldiers ring a bell, Mr. Ebert? But the realism of it is beside the point. I disagree with this particular line of criticism, but I think I understand it. There comes a clear point in the movie about three fourths of the way through at which the filmmakers had a choice between making it a more human, emotionally-affecting story, or going a more ridiculous, shoot ’em up movie route. They clearly chose the latter. I don’t think the more everything-happening-in-earnest route, rather than slightly tongue in cheek, would necessarily have been better, because Kick-Ass does big-budget ridiculousness for ridiculousness’s sake better than just about anything I can remember. But it certainly stretches the bounds of credulity, and it’s not hard for me to imagine people feeling like the protagonist’s real moments of reflection had set them up for something different, something more insight-into-the-human-condition-y. It’s best to just accept that there’ll be elements of humanity in Kick-Ass, but that push-pull between preposterousness and genuine emotion is more the focus– just enough thought to allow you to enjoy the pulp. And anyway, humanity isn’t the only thing. Sometimes you just want to see a little girl shoot people in the face. It’s like a dead baby joke: you don’t have to believe in the literal idea of the dead baby to enjoy it, the point is delighting in the wrongness. You don’t necessarily have to believe it 100%. Hey, maybe I do cum on a potato before I eat it.
The movie isn’t perfect. There are parts that rely a little too heavily on Kung Fu like we saw to a worse extent in Watchmen. I don’t care how much karate a little girl knows, she’s still going to get her ass kicked by a full-grown man. Trust me on this one, dude. But for the most part, it’s held together by solid acting (Nic Cage does it again!) and visual brilliance. I don’t know if credit for that goes to Matthew Vaughn, cinematographer Ben Davis, or art director John King, but it’s the most amazing looking film I’ve seen in a long, long time. You know that poster that’s just pure eye candy, leaps and bounds ahead of anything else in terms of framing, color, composition, and pure eye-catchingness? The entire movie is an extension of that.
But anyway, since I’m sure this is why you came here, the answer is yeah, it’s more or less as good as you imagine.