So, I saw Kick-Ass yesterday, and I thought I might want to blog about it, but I wasn’t sure if A) I could articulate just what I liked about it — because I did like it — and B) I wanted to open that can of worms. Now, I’ve committed to B in my own mind, so we’ll see if A comes together as I go along.
I went to see it mostly for the same reason a whole lot of people — including Roger Ebert, with whom I agree about 95% of the time — hated it: One of the main characters, Hit Girl, is a stone cold killer who calls victims cunts and motherfuckers, traits that would be soporifically old hat if not for their belonging, in this case, to an 11-year-old girl. (Also, a lot of people — though Ebert’s not one of them — seem a hell of a lot more upset by her language than by watching her eviscerate other human beings or be brutalized herself, which got my “Wow, this culture is fucked up” antennae wiggling.)
I was not disappointed. I loved that character, far more than I expected to, even. But I loved her while also recognizing that her approach to life was essentially sociopathic — and worse, that she was not that way naturally, but had been trained/brainwashed by her father (portrayed here as a basically sympathetic figure, further complicating matters) to kill without a hint of remorse or disgust — so if I thought about it too hard, I’d be torn between crying and vomiting.
Now, regular readers know I am not one to shy away from overthinking things, and I am a big supporter of Moff’s Law. (Short version: “If you really think people should just enjoy the movie without thinking about it, then why the fuck did you 1. click on the post in the first place, and 2. bother to leave a comment? If it bugs you so much, GO WATCH A GODDAMN FUNNY CAT VIDEO.”) So I am by no means suggesting that one should avoid any deeper analysis of Hit Girl. In fact, I’m about to do just that. But it’s a lot more complicated, for me, than simply saying the whole concept of her is beyond fucked-up and therefore represents a failure of art and/or entertainment. Because the fact that she made me feel squirmy and confused and inarticulate is one of the things I liked about the movie.
Before I proceed, I want to make a few things clear.
1) There will be spoilers. Big ones. I’ll put the bulk of this post behind a cut, but for dog’s sake, if you don’t want to be spoiled, go away now.
2) I am not approaching this as a big fan of comics or superhero movies in general, or Mark Millar (whose name I just had to look up again) in particular. In fact, as for Millar, here is what I know about him: 1) His work has been criticized for egregious race and gender fail by people I respect very much. 2) He wrote the comic on which the 2008 movie Wanted was based. I saw Wanted. And I would say Wanted was the most unpleasant, misogynistic, gratuitously violent, pointless piece of shit I’ve watched in the last five years, except I also saw Crank. So any enthusiasm I had going into this movie was categorically not Millar-related.
3) I do see a lot of movies that technically belong to various distinct genres but can all be loosely gathered under the umbrella of “Shit blows up and a lot of people die” — hence having seen both Wanted and Crank — and I like many of these movies. So if you just can’t stand cinematic violence, I don’t blame you and will even stipulate that you are probably a much better person than I am — but I guarantee you will hate Kick-Ass, and I will now gently suggest that there is probably no reason for you to finish reading this post. (And if you can’t stomach mentions of specific acts of cinematic violence, please stop reading now.)
4) I went into Kick-Ass expecting a Shit Blows Up And A Lot Of People Die movie with a sense of humor, not a comedy with incidental violence, which I’m pretty sure makes a big difference. And I read just enough about it before seeing it to know some of the violence would be beyond what I could tolerate, so I did what I always do: Closed my eyes as soon as I could see it coming. Which, if you’ve seen enough of these movies, you always can. Perhaps you haven’t seen a movie in the last fifteen years, in which case, let me explain: There is no such thing as implied violence anymore. In 2010, if you see a man in danger of getting some fingers lopped off, for instance, you cannot trust the filmmakers to cut away before it’s done (much less to forgo following through on the threat). If you hear bad guys describe a microwave oven large enough to treat lumber while they’re planning to extract information from a recalcitrant foe, you cannot assume that a short time later you will learn through exposition of said foe’s death and enjoy a few inn0cent seconds before it fully sinks in that “Ohhhh… Oh MY GOD.” In 2010, if you see a pair of bolt cutters or hear the words “industrial-size microwave,” you need to either brace yourself or close your eyes and try to pretend you’re back in the good old days, when mainstream movies left at least the goriest details to our imagination. (If you choose the latter strategy, as I do, the time to open your eyes again is a few seconds after the rest of the audience goes, “GEEYAAAAAAH!”)
(Note: I really wish filmmakers would quit trying to one-up the shock factor of the last hideously graphic movie, and that “torture porn” would remain a discrete genre I can confidently avoid, along with the people who actively enjoy it, instead of sneaking its way into every fucking thing short of romantic comedies and movies about singing animals. And there is a reasonable argument to be made that if I don’t like extreme violence, I should really quit spending money on movies like this. But that argument is beyond the scope of this post, which is already too long, and I haven’t even gotten near the point yet.)
5) Finally, in case all of the above and the R rating haven’t tipped you off, let me make this explicit: Kick-Ass is not remotely a children’s movie. As Women and Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein put it, “If your kid wants to see it, say no.” Say no and mean it. Since I don’t watch TV the old-fashioned way, I haven’t seen ads for it and don’t know what the marketing’s like. It’s entirely possible they’re trying to sell this as a comedy and pretend Hit Girl is all about girl power rather than blood lust — in which case, shame on them. But if you take your kid to see this, thinking it’s just a superhero movie about a nerdy boy and a plucky tween girl who fights crime with her dad, because you didn’t notice the R rating and couldn’t be bothered to read even one review — just one, any one, would tip you off to the volume of violence and gore — I basically have no patience for your outrage.
With all that out of the way, I really liked Kick-Ass, and I fucking loved Hit Girl. It’s not an uncomplicated love, but it’s love. Much of it has to do with the actress, Chloe Grace Moretz, whom even detractors acknowledge owned both the role and the film. She is fantastic. As for the handwringing about whether an 11-year-old should be allowed to portray a vicious killer, pretend to get beaten up herself or swear like a longshoreman (or a feminist blogger), even before seeing the movie, I would have said it depends entirely on the 11-year-old. And this one seems to have a terrific head on her shoulders (at least now, at 13) and an involved, thoughtful family, so A) it’s not my business to worry about her future therapy bills, but B) if it were, I wouldn’t. I am old enough to remember the same basic conversation surrounding Natalie Portman in The Professional — in which she was a bit older than Moretz, but then, that also brought barely-adolescent sexuality into the equation, which is refreshingly absent here — and it sure doesn’t seem to have ruined her life. (Meanwhile, Lindsay Lohan was only doing The Parent Trap at that age, and look how that turned out.) Granted, most tween girls, it’s safe to say, are not Natalie Portman. But as far as I can tell so far, most are not Chloe Moretz, either. (I did snort a bit at the part in that NYT article where Moretz demands to be referred to as a woman — but her brother/acting coach’s compromise in response is one of the things that makes me not worry about her.) We’ll have to wait 15 years or so to know for sure, but I’m optimistic about this one.
Anyway. That lack of sexualization might be the number one thing I enjoyed about watching the character of Hit Girl, and the sad truth is, I can’t imagine seeing a female assassin on film who’s not sexualized without her being pre-pubescent. (Or extremely aged, I suppose.) Even the thought of a sequel bums me out because already, Moretz is old enough that a lot of your garden variety squicky old motherfuckers — as opposed to actual pedophiles (and one teenaged boy in the movie) — would find her sexy while doing all of the same stuff, even if they had the decency to be ashamed of themselves for it. Once boobs are involved, it’s pretty much game over: You put even a nascent adult female body into this context, and suddenly, the Chicks Kicking Ass Are Hot switch is flipped, and it’s a whole different story. And for my money, the fact that this movie has a female character kicking ass without it being the slightest bit hot is a big part of what makes a lot of people so profoundly uncomfortable. It’s not that she’s too young to be so violent, it’s that she’s too young to have the sex appeal that’s supposed to make the violence not only palatable but titillating. So all you’re left to enjoy is a bunch of dead bodies and gore and danger, with a real, simultaneously vulnerable and vicious human character in the middle of it, and you’re like, “Wait, why am I supposed to find this entertaining again? Why do I dig it when it’s Angelina Jolie or Uma Thurman but recoil when it’s a kid young enough to be trendily named Chloe Grace?”
Being forced to ask myself such questions is the kind of thing I find entertaining, so that’s one reason why I liked it right there.
But I also found it entertaining on its surface, just a good ride as long as you don’t think too hard (or keep your eyes open the whole time). Sure, I risk violating Moff’s Law by endorsing the “don’t think too hard” approach, but I don’t mean — obviously by now, I should hope — you’re better off if you just sit back, let it wash over you, and ignore any concerns it elicits. What I mean is, to get the most out of the viewing experience, you should let yourself think exactly as hard as you would about any other Shit Blows Up And A Lot Of People Die movie — which is not very — and then enjoy picking it all apart later. Ebert liked Wanted a hell of a lot more than I did, for instance, because he took exactly that approach. It is, he wrote, “lacking in two organs I always appreciate in a movie: a heart and a mind. It is mindless, heartless, preposterous.” Agreed! However, he adds, “The way to enjoy this film is to put your logic on hold, along with any higher sensitivities that might be vulnerable and immerse yourself as if in a video game.” Yeah, sorry, couldn’t do it. My higher sensitivities simply would not agree to nap through that one. But they do for some SBUAALOPD movies (which is why I keep watching them), and they did as necessary for Kick-Ass, so I’m with him on the general principle.
But the cool thing about Kick-Ass is, it wasn’t necessary in a lot of places where it ordinarily would be. Since the anti-hero wasn’t really tough — that was the whole point — and the anti-heroine A) wasn’t pornified and B) was far more capable of physically protecting herself than just about any other character, a great many of the SBUAALOPD tropes that usually prod my higher sensitivities until they’re grumpily awake were absent. For starters, there is not one damsel in distress in this movie. Kick-Ass gets a girlfriend*, but unbelievably, she’s never in peril; she waits for him and frets for his safety without also being kidnapped by the bad guys and roughed up and threatened with sexual violence, as that character in these movies almost inevitably is. Hit Girl has to be bailed out by a man with a gun twice, but both times, only after she’s killed so many fucking people so efficiently she has more than earned an assist — just like male heroes almost always get saved by a sidekick once or twice, without anyone questioning whether they remain extraordinarily, even absurdly, capable fighters. (You have to put the hero in a bit of real danger and give the tagalongs something to do, after all.) She does take a brutal beating before one of those assists comes along, and it’s horrible to watch for a lot of reasons, but if we look at her as the hero of a SBUAALOPD movie — which, title notwithstanding, she basically is — this is also perfectly standard. The asskicker-in-chief inevitably ends up bloodied but unbowed.
Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. In his review, Ebert has a challenge for those who would argue that the movie has to be appreciated in context:
A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.
He’s snarking specifically on people who would claim he doesn’t understand or appreciate the film because he doesn’t know the comic it’s based on or can’t appreciate satire or something. But I don’t know the comic, either (and strongly suspect, for numerous reasons, that I wouldn’t be into it), and since Ebert’s been a film critic for longer than I’ve been alive, and Kick-Ass hardly suffers for being excessively intellectual or opaque, I’m going to go ahead and assume he gets it on all levels on which it is meant to be got. The problem is not that he didn’t fucking get it, it’s that he didn’t fucking like it, which is fine. But personally, I found my enjoyment of it was dependent on looking at it within a certain context, so let me tell you all about the context.
And that is: You do have to see Hit Girl as this movie’s asskicker-in-chief, as the Bruce Willis/Matt Damon/Nicolas Cage (who plays her dad here)/Bankable Tough Guy of Your Choosing in this particular SBUAALOPD movie. There are reasons not to see her that way — primary among those that it’s a movie with a titular hero who is not Hit Girl and, oh yeah, 11-year-old girl — but there’s a strong argument to be made that that’s exactly what she is. 1) She kills way more bad guys than anybody else. 2) She’s the only one with the training, ammo and experience to kill way more bad guys than anyone else, except for her dad. 3) Her dad — as the father figure to the hero usually does — mostly steps aside and lets her do the serious Tough Guy shit, is shown teaching her and bailing her out early on but starts treating her as more of an equal over the course of the film, and eventually dies and leaves her to avenge him by killing the head bad guy on her own. (Did I not warn you that there would be big spoilers?) 4) Well, not completely on her own, because that’s where the ostensible hero, unremarkable teenaged boy turned crimefighter “Kick-Ass,” comes in. But again, he’s really acting as the sidekick here, the guy who helps save the day but couldn’t have saved 15 minutes of it without the leadership of a much more highly trained and impressively armed hero. Who, in this case, is an 11-year-old girl.
So if you accept that this is, in fact, fundamentally a SBUAALOPD movie, and that the 11-year-old girl is the Big Action Hero, then all the horrific violence that happens to and because of her is par for the course. Sure, some of it’s more explicit and grotesquely imaginative than previous examples of the genre — though that, too, is now par for the course (see above about one-upmanship) — and the idea of an 11-year-old girl as Big Action Hero is totally fucking horrifying on about a hundred levels, all of which you can and should consider when you’re done watching. But if you are the kind of person who enjoys a good SBUAALOPD movie, you have to admit that in terms of what happens — as opposed to who’s at the center of it — this one is not particularly unusual.
And that’s what’s simultaneously disturbing and awesome about Hit Girl being the one at the center of it. Because if you’re too turned off by all this happening to/being caused by an 11-year-old girl to enjoy the movie, you kind of have to ask yourself why you enjoy watching the same basic shit happen to and around Bruce Willis or Matt Damon or Nicolas Cage or whomever. (And if you don’t enjoy that basic shit, you shouldn’t be there in the first place. One review, people!) Sure, we’re usually watching grown men who can take care of themselves, but Hit Girl is, if not so grown, at least shown to be every bit as capable of fighting off hordes of bad guys. She handles knives, swords and guns as smoothly and confidently (not to mention implausibly) as any adult male action hero, and strategizes just as cleverly.
And at least in theory, these are the qualities that make us want to see what the hero does next, that make us think he is so cool, that make us feel so sure he can handle whatever comes at him that we never feel more than a pleasant frisson of fear for him or a brief wince for the pain he endures and elicits along the way. The justification for all the brutality he dishes out is always starkly black and white — he is Good; his enemies are Evil — so we accept that and go along for the ride without counting the bodies or pausing to wonder if this dude feels even a little bit bad about being a fucking killing machine. And we know that one way or another, he will triumph in the end, so while we might cringe a bit as he takes his inevitable lumps, we don’t really dwell on what it would feel like, physically or emotionally, to be kicked in the head or thrown across a room or shot in the chest even with a bulletproof vest or get your teeth knocked out or an arm broken, and then get up and keep fighting until you win.
Those are the rules. If you can’t accept all that — the need for what amounts to a willing suspension of empathy — you are simply not going to be a fan of SBUAALOPD movies. And again, that means you are probably a better person than I am. But I do like those movies as a rule, and so do about a gazillion other people, so it’s probably safe to assume that liking them does not actually make you a bad person who struggles to be compassionate and non-violent in real life. It just means you can suspend your better nature for a short time in order to watch a lot of intense, terrifying shit happen to (and because of) a fictional character, provided you know that character has the intellectual, financial and physical resources to wind up safe and triumphant, and that the fictional people who get slaughtered along the way are all A) evil and B) trying to kill the hero first. Hit Girl is clearly shown to be such a character, fighting such characters. So if you can’t stomach this well-established formula with her at the center of it, the obvious question is, are you usually willing to suspend empathy because of the character’s resources and the good/evil thing and the knowledge that it is fiction, or because the hero usually has a dick and a deep voice?
But wait a minute, Kate, I can hear you saying. It’s not just that she’s female, it’s that she’s a fucking child! Perhaps you even like the same basic formula when an Angelina Jolie or Uma Thurman is the anti-/heroine, so it’s totally not just about the dudeliness of the lead? But honestly, I’m usually not so into SBUAALOPD movies with adult female asskickers-in-chief. They’ve never appealed to me much, probably because they tend to be sold on the fuckability of the heroine more than the relatability of her; the primary market is still young, straight and male, after all, so a female lead is drawn to evoke fantasies either of being dominated by such a badass or being such a badass yourself that you could rock her world, neither of which does much for me. And because it’s all aimed at the same young, straight, male market, this doesn’t really go both ways. While I certainly don’t mind looking at Matt Damon or Clive Owen or Jason Statham fighting bad guys, I am generally not thinking, “God, that was so totally badass, I want to fuck you right now.” (And I am definitely not thinking that while watching, say, Bruce Willis or even a young Arnold Schwarzenegger or the increasingly vile and crusty Mel Gibson). If I like the film enough that my higher sensitivities are napping comfortably, then I am thinking, much like the young, straight men in the audience, “God, that was so badass, I want to be you right now” (“and also, I would like to fuck you some time just because you are extremely good-looking, but that’s incidental”).
The sexualization of violence against and executed by women is one of the things I usually hate about even the relatively good SBUAALOPD movies. If there are any women to speak of in the movie, then the focus is inevitably on how hot they are while kicking ass, how hot they are while getting their asses kicked, how hot they are while tied up and waiting to be assaulted by the bad guys/saved by the hero, etc. I do not happen to be sexually attracted to women, and I fucking hate that these are nearly always underdeveloped characters who exist only to further the hero’s story and whose most lovable demonstrated quality is, in fact, hotness, so I find it all incredibly tiresome and offensive, if basically inevitable, and to me, the mark of a really good SBUAALOPD movie is that there’s somewhat less of that than usual, either because the hot chick evinces a glimmer of personality or because the hero has some purpose other than rescuing her sweet ass. And even making a woman the hero doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a good SBUAALOPD movie, because I’m still supposed to moved by her hotness, and I’m just not, and I’m actually rather creeped out by the idea that the kind of extreme violence I’ve described above is supposed to come off as sexy when a lady does it (or has it done to her).
Which brings us back around to my first point, and why I really dug Kick-Ass. It’s got a female action hero whose body and violent acts are completely unsexualized. It’s the rare opportunity to watch a girl kick ass — fortunately or unfortunately, an actual girl — without the camera lingering on her tits or all the men underestimating her (nobody does, which is very cool) or the real hero shoving her aside or a bunch of flirtatious mid-fight dialogue and sexy winks. It is the first time I have ever seen a female character doing it all just like the men do it — with physical and mental toughness, cleverness, courage and a shitload of ordnance as her only resources, and exactly zero use of her sexuality to make an easily duped jackass do her bidding. And thanks to elements of our culture that have been well-covered here before, it would frankly be damn near impossible to pull off with anyone much older than 11, because once a female has secondary sex characteristics, Hollywood will never, ever ignore them long enough to tell a completely unrelated story. At least not in a SBUAALOPD movie, and generally not at all.
Is it disturbing to watch a child doing all of this, and having all this done to her? Yes, incredibly. But mostly because it should be disturbing to watch anyone doing all this, and having all this done to them; in reality, violence isn’t exciting or funny or sexy to watch whether it’s happening to a little girl or a grown man or a hot chick. Kick-Ass removes the veil that usually makes it so easy to willingly suspend empathy long enough to enjoy this kind of film, which is woven from a whole bunch of cultural bullshit about Tough Guys and individual heroes and good and evil and hotness that we damn well ought to think critically about more often, even if we are the kind of people who enjoy these movies in between protracted bouts of being compassionate, decent human beings. Especially if we are those kinds of people.
One last thing: Al didn’t like the movie much. There could be a lot of reasons for that, and he didn’t have the patience to try for anything more nuanced than, “It was way too violent and kind of dumb.” (THIS FROM A MAN WHO LIKED CRANK!) But here’s one guess as to why we had such different reactions. Between the rampant sexism and increasing gore that requires eye-shielding, I am completely accustomed to being made uncomfortable by SBUAALOPD movies and judging them by whether I enjoyed myself despite the disturbing and offensive parts. Al, who’s somewhat better at telling his higher sensitivities to put a sock in it, is much more of the “just turn off your brain and go along for the ride” school, even to the extent of flagrantly violating Moff’s Law on occasion. (Like when I want to talk about the rape scene in Crank at a party.) So, for starters, I suppose I was kind of dazzled by the novelty of having all new disturbing and offensive shit to analyze instead of just the same old shit. There’s that. But also, I really like the fact that Hit Girl makes some people who are usually comfortable watching SBUAALOPD films incredibly uncomfortable. Because if you get past the sputtery “It’s a little girl! How could you?” response — which, granted, most people probably won’t — then it’s the kind of discomfort that leads to important questions about what we’ll tolerate watching, and why. I like that I walked out of there with a gut reaction of “That was awesome!” immediately followed by an intellectual reaction of, “Damn, it’s fucked up that I thought that was awesome.” That tells me I just saw something new, if nothing else. And on further reflection, the new thing for me was not a violent, remorseless, brutalized, potty-mouthed child but a female action hero with all the agency and skill of a man, whom the audience is not supposed to want to fuck. That is a pretty awesome thing, even if it is also frankly pretty fucked up that I thought that movie was awesome.
*This is achieved, unfortunately, through total Nice Guy behavior, but I am too tired to go into that right now. Maybe in comments.