I don’t know that I have ever reviewed a movie twice, except for a couple of DVD reviews for films I had previously written about. I have definitely never reviewed a film twice during its theatrical run.
Enjoy this anomaly. Spoilers are included.
A second viewing of Kick-Ass makes all the difference.
When I saw the film for the first time at December’s Butt-Numb-A-Thon I loved it, but I was very much caught up in the visceral thrill of the movie. Matthew Vaughn has created an almost perfect action movie, balancing character and story with a series of escalating action scenes. The pacing of the picture is immaculate, and combined with the constantly ramping action set pieces – each bigger and different from the one before - Kick-Ass can feel like being shot out of a cannon. Which can also cloud critical thought, something I feared when reapproaching the movie this week. What if Kick-Ass didn’t work for me again? I believe I had written a very honest reaction based on that first viewing, but it wouldn’t be the first film to be revealed as less than I first thought upon further examination.
Walking in to the second viewing there were two things I really wanted to examine: first, my own original viewing had left me with the feeling that the film was thematically confused at best, thematically lazy at worst. The idea that this was a movie about what would really happen if kids put on costumes and fought crime seems to only be in play for the first half of the first act, and I thought that the film kind of spiraled out of thematic control after that. The second thing I wanted to pay attention to was Dave, the titular Kick-Ass himself. Many complaints about the film have Dave at their center, or rather Dave’s lack of centrality. There’s a belief that Kick-Ass is a bystander in his own movie, and that the real movers of the plot are Big Daddy and Hit Girl.
A second viewing essentially torches that complaint; while Big Daddy and Hit Girl do get all the best stuff to do, they’re not the central characters. Their screen time pales in comparison to Dave’s, in fact, but you remember them much more because they’re so cool. That could be held against the movie, I suppose, but I’m not about to get mad over a film creating utterly iconic cinematic characters.
The key to understanding why Dave isn’t the plot motivator is to understand what his journey is. There are going to be spoilers from here on in. Dave’s journey isn’t about becoming a hero or righting a wrong or getting his revenge (and the movie even explicitly states this at the beginning, joking around with the shot of Dave weeping in the rain at his mom’s grave). Dave’s journey is about stepping up. That stepping up happens to be as a superhero, but it could really be anything.
Keep in mind that Kick-Ass’ origin comes from Dave wondering why people don’t help each other out. He’s not interested in the superhero as guy searching for his past or trying to avenge the murder of loved ones or finding the right use for his great powers. Dave is looking back to the very old fashioned take on the masked avenger, which is essentially a guy throwing himself into fights that aren’t his own. Interestingly his first encounter as Kick-Ass is only half that; he finds the two guys who had mugged him earlier in the movie and stops them from breaking into a car. Dave ends up stabbed and smashed by a hit and run driver, and it isn’t until his next encounter – when he throws himself into a fight where he really has no place – that he’s successful.
That fight is the turning point for Dave, Kick-Ass and the movie, but it isn’t the end of his journey as so many seem to believe. It’s really the start. At the beginning of the film Dave’s fucking around as Kick-Ass; even after getting metal in his bones and losing nerve sensitivity he’s still fucking around. He breaks up that fight in front of the diner and becomes a YouTube sensation, and that’s essentially enough for him. Dave’s a dabbler; while he made a claim that he wants to be a hero and make a difference, he’s actually more than happy to dress the part and talk about it without really getting too much done. In fact, instead of fighting crime we see Dave spending a lot of time responding to message on MySpace, telling people how busy he is.
The next time we see Kick-Ass in action he’s again operating in self-interest, trying to earn the affection of Katie. This encounter gets almost fatal before Hit Girl makes her entrance. As she lays waste to a room filled with thugs (and standers by, to be fair – the morality of the film is complicated), Kick-Ass whimpers in fear. Dave’s not a real superhero yet (and again, let’s ignore for the moment the fact that the film equates murder with being a real superhero), he’s a poser. He’s the guy who has a script but hasn’t taken the leap into actually being a screenwriter, he’s the guy who has a guitar and posts mp3s to his MySpace page and feels like he’s really doing something for his career. Dave’s all talk. (So, by the way, is Red Mist. He’s an even bigger poser than Dave because he is just using his daddy’s money to riff on someone else. By the end of the film, though, the Red Mist is much more than that.)
Dave’s journey here gets linked with Hit Girl and Big Daddy. He’s just about ready to retire – he got the girl, he got the fame, and since he’s just a poser that’s more than enough for him – but then he gets sucked back in by being tricked into betraying them. After Hit Girl’s massacre in the first person shooter scene, Dave can get out – whether or not Hit Girl manages to take down Frank D’Amico, the organization is in shambles and nobody will be left who knows who he is. He has it free and clear; he’s seen the reality of being a superhero and experienced the pain and now he can get out and go be with Katie and his friends and live his life. But he finally steps up and becomes a real superhero, throwing himself into a fight that he doesn’t need to be in, putting himself at risk in a big way because it’s right.
You could argue that by betraying Big Daddy and essentially causing his death, the final D’Amico assault is personal for Dave, and you’re a little bit right. There’s some thematic muddling here, mainly because the plot needs these connections to occur to keep everything moving. But it’s carefully established that not only does Dave want to get out of the superhero racket, he now has the opportunity. His decision to stand by Hit Girl is a totally selfless one.
It isn’t until Dave is hovering outside the penthouse plowing bullets into the goons that he really becomes a superhero. His entire arc was about getting to this moment, and he needed the inspiration and motivation of Hit Girl and Big Daddy to finally arrive. While the main action plot is motivated by their revenge, they really exist to keep Dave moving towards his resolution. Dave gets himself from dreamer to poser; they get him from poser to the real thing. And that’s where Kick-Ass ends, with Dave fully embracing the superhero thing, and living it in a way that he would have never thought possible – guiding a jetpack through the canyons of Manhattan (or Toronto really trying to be Manhattan).
And that jetpack. That was one of the things that troubled me on my first viewing, but was totally cleared up on my second viewing. See, I watched Kick-Ass the first time thinking it was a deconstruction of the superhero genre: ‘This is what would happen if a real person put on a costume and fought crime.’ That’s the fakeout hook, but it’s not what the movie is about. Kick-Ass is a complete celebration and re-affirmation of the superhero genre.
In a lot of ways Dave is the ultimate wannabe. As I said before he could be a wannabe screenwriter or musician or actor or street cleaner, but since this is a superhero movie he’s a wannabe superhero. The film begins from the position that all wannabes begin from – they want to do something but it seems impossible and everyone is against it. Dave’s friends mock the very idea of being a superhero. He takes very small steps into being a superhero – ordering the costume (he could be a kid at home posing in his mirror with the guitar he can’t yet play), taking it out for a spin (again, imagine him taking his guitar out to the park and plinking on the strings), and then finally giving it a real shot. What happens then is that Dave sees the dream begin to come true. He gets stabbed and hit by a car, but instead of ending his career it’s the start – he gets Wolverine-like metal in his skeleton and deadened nerve endings that allow him to take vicious beatings. That previously impossible dream has begun to slowly come true.
The film wisely takes that slow. The metal and the nerve endings aren’t too outrageous; a touch convenient maybe, but not outside the realm of possibility. Again, going back to that guitar playing kid metaphor, Dave’s got just enough mojo right now to play shows and get a MySpace following and get the girl. It’s more success than the dreamer could have hoped for, but it’s not mindblowing.
The jetpack is mindblowing.
That’s where the film takes Dave’s superhero dreams and goes to the next step, bringing him into the fantastical. The movie has been building up to this, adding the superhero elements as it went along – other costumed crusaders, a cool car, gadgets (even if it’s just a nanny cam and some security hacking), evil villains trying to unmask our heroes on TV. These are staples of the genre, and the film introduces them within the realm of reality as a way of celebrating them, not subverting them. The online unmasking isn’t a joke – it’s just as deadly serious here as it would have been for Batman in a comic in the 50s (well, more deadly serious, but the times they have changed). Kick-Ass isn’t undercutting these tropes but supporting them.
Then when we get to the jetpack the movie has come to a point where it has become a flatout superhero fantasy. Dave’s dreams at the beginning have been rewarded in ways he never would have imagined. It’s the guitar kid standing on stage at a stadium, playing to 30,000 people. Like any dreamer he had this idea in his head of where he’d like to end up, but he never truly thought he could get there.
When viewed that way Kick-Ass is suddenly a very inspirational film. It’s a movie that tells you to get off your ass – the first step is to stop talking about doing something and actually do it. The next step is then to really throw yourself into it; you have to mean it and not just be along for the ride or happy to take the low-hanging fruit. If you want to make a movie don’t just talk about it, don’t just futz around with some camera equipment – make the fucking movie. Do it. Your most impossible, ridiculous dream can completely and totally come true if you throw yourself out there.
Hopefully throwing yourself out there doesn’t involve killing dozens of people. There’s no denying that the film has a juvenile sensibility when it comes to the violence, and frankly that’s part of what I liked about it. There were people at the LA premiere saying the movie reminded them of Kill Bill, although I’m sure some of that had to do with Hit Girl at one point wearing an outfit that recalls GoGo Yubari from that film. Still, the comparison is valid; Kill Bill and Kick Ass are both films that are very much about other films/media. Kick Ass is littered with references not just to comic books but to other movies, and Vaughn knows where his film stands in a long chain of cinematic action – the last shot of the movie is the Red Mist pointing his gun at the camera, a direct and obvious reference to 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. Part of the interesting tension within the story comes from Dave’s old fashioned motives for fighting crime contrasted with Hit Girl and Big Daddy’s very modern methods of doing so.
Those decrying the fascism of a film like this are utterly missing the point. No shit. Alan Moore long ago pointed out that superheroes are, almost by definition, fascists. Comic creator Mark Millar isn’t interested in denying this, and neither is Vaughn. That fascism is, frankly, part of the fun. I’m not sure that we would want to watch many movies about superheroes who stopped crime by improving infrastructure in bad neighborhoods. Depicting an act and actually condoning that act are miles apart.
Then there’s Hit Girl. A great, amazing character who I last year called the Hans Landa of 2010. I was mocked at the time, but now that Kick-Ass is hitting theaters I think I’m being justified – while she’s not the same character as Landa, she’s a character who does the same thing, who elevates the rest of the movie, who steals every moment she’s on screen and who is going to be the face of the film from here on out. Just as an unknown German actor stole a movie from Brad Pitt, this secondary character stole the movie from the lead.
I could go into a whole thing about the meaning of Hit Girl; many are dismissing her as a cheap trick because it’s an 11 year old girl cursing and killing (as if that’s not totally awesome in itself; I don’t really know why you need to defend something cool and fun), but I wonder if she isn’t standing in for the comics of today. While Big Daddy is basing himself on the Adam West and Tim Burton Batmans, Hit Girl reflects an uglier modern sensibility. Where comics were once for kids they’re now blood-soaked and ‘adult;’ the packaging remains juvenile but the content has been deformed. Hit Girl is that – the kiddie outer shell with the deranged soul of a sociopathic 25 year old inside.
There’s more going on in Kick-Ass than just a bunch of violence, although there is that as well. A propulsive, well-made, energetic and energizing work, Kick-Ass synthesizes so many elements of the modern entertainment world – from anime to comics to social networking to action movies – and presents a sly series of comments upon them within the framework of a bone-crushing action spectacle. It’s a movie that rewards a first viewing with incredible thrills and then allows, on future viewings, more insight and thought. And also a return to those incredible thrills. Yeah, I was able to think a lot more about the themes and meanings of Kick-Ass on my second viewing, but I was also able to get absolutely pumped up by the electric action onscreen.