Dir. Matthew Vaughn
So I took another look at this one, wondering if having seen it in the midst of its initial run I was being reactionary in finding it an unpleasant experience. Nerdom at large fell all over themselves for this one, finally getting their “hard R” superhero movie and feeling very grown up about themselves. The critics, too, mostly praised its kinetic pace and lightly postmodern take on the subject (this was back in the days before postmodern “What if a real person became a superhero?” films actually outnumbered legit superhero films). But I thought it was a kind of nasty, stupid, ugly little thing just barely concealed in a sugary coat of glossy Hollywood professionalism. Most of the people who seemed to share my point of view were the typical crazy family groups, but both Roger Ebert and Vern from outlawvern.com agreed with me, which is pretty good company to be in if you’re going to be defending an unpopular opinion. Still, I wondered if I would learn to love this one like all my peers did if I took a little time away from it and returned knowing what was in store.
Nope. Turns out I was right the first time, this thing is a craftily concealed little pill of pure hate dressed up in fun action tropes. I guess I might have known that considering it came from the comic by Mark Millar who wrote the indefensibly vile WANTED. But the weird thing is, I’m not sure it’s his fault here. I’ve never read his comic, but the film seems to me to be weirdly unaware –willfully, even—of what the story it's telling is actually about.
Here’s the thing: This is about a bunch of bitter, deluded, pathetic, hate-fueled losers who feel better about themselves only when they successfully commit acts of violence against other people. No one here even pretends to have humanitarian motives – they do what they do because it’s a nice confidence booster, to be able to beat people up or murder them and get away with it makes them feel special. And because they’re fighting crime, it’s all nice and morally justified.
Which would be a reasonably interesting take on the Superhero trope, had they chosen to actually develop this subtext (which admittedly was already better explored in the WATCHMEN movie, and already much, much better explored already in the Watchmen comics waaaay back in the 80s). The scary thing about the film, though, is that instead of exploring what seems like the most obvious thing to draw out of the story, it’s totally on these guys’ side. It really thinks they’re fucking awesome, and the more violent they get the more awesome it thinks they are.
Which is, I think, what makes it such an unsettling experience to me. It's the kind of film which plays into all the worst tendencies of nerd culture – validating their misogyny, their secret feelings of superiority, their bitter, simmering rage. This is the movie where the geeks are right, girls really do only like jerks. Nice guys might as well be gay to them (this is literally depicted in the film). But if you become a successful enough bully, the girl who previously ignored you can hardly wait to fuck you in an ally (again, no exaggeration. Literally depicted). The subtext is about empowerment, validation, and popularity through violence, and there's no other way to see it. The movie even makes explicit this point. Kick-Ass is a selfish, whiny little prick who's ready to retire after committing one “heroic” act and feeling better about himself. But he has one thing to do first: go tell his crush that he's a hero so she'll fuck him. “What's the difference between Peter Parker and Spider Man?” Kick-Ass sneers, “Spider Man gets the girl.”
Is that really the difference? Peter Parker isn't like Batman, he's not living a life as cover for his superheroing. He's actually living a real life, trying to balance work, life, and family while grinding by in a low-paying, unflashy working-class kinda job. He's got plenty to complain about, but instead he's sweet and upbeat, heroically taking abuse from people who think he's irresponsible andunreliable due to his anonymous webslinging. He could easily tell everyone that he's Spider-Man and probably do a lot better for himself, but he doesn't. That's not what it's about. Besides, it's not like Spidey is thorax-deep in women, either. Yes, Black Cat is admittedly pretty hot, but it's Peter Parker, not Spidey, who ends up finding happiness with long-term babes like Mary Jane and (briefly) Gwen Stacy. Not because he's a hero, but because he's a good guy and an unselfish friend. He doesn't get the girl because she thinks it's hot that he beats up baddies -- he gets her in spite of feeling obligated to put his own life second in order to make the world safer. Spider-Man is Peter's burden, not his fantasy. He lives a double-life as Spider-Man because he's cursed with abilities which make him uniquely suited to helping the world.
At the end of Kick-Ass, the title character mocks the classic Spider-Man ethos by musing, “With no power comes no responsibility,” and its supposed to count as character growth that he goes ahead and kills a few people even though he didn't technically have to and probably won't even be substantially rewarded for it. But do you really think Peter would have just led a life of smug self-satisfaction had he not been bitten by that radioactive/genetically altered spider? If Uncle Ben had been killed and Peter didn't have superpowers, would he just have shrugged it off and gone into middle management at an investment bank? Fuck no. He's in the game to help people, to make the world better. And that's something Kick-Ass (both the character and the movie) just fundamentally misunderstands about Superheroing. Every so-called hero in the movie is in it for entirely selfish reasons. In many cases, they make life considerably worse for other people. When Kick-Ass learns that an impersonator has been savagely murdered in his stead, it doesn't even occur to him to feel a twinge of remorse or regret for what he's started. He's just glad someone else got killed first so he has a heads-up to save his own ass.
Only one person in the film seems aware that they’re playing a sociopath, and that’s the reliably eccentric Nicholas Cage in one of his court-mandated 5 good performances per decade. As much as the movie wants you to think this guy’s awesome, Cage lets you know what an spaced-out psycho he is with his Ned Flanders mustache (he actually puts on a fake handlebar mustache in his crime-fighting persona, a touch of genius I must assume came from Cage) and hilariously nutty gay southern drawl (he should have a talk show with Gary Oldman from THE FIFTH ELEMENT). He's good at killing but he's a total failure as a father and as a human being. The movie is totally with him and falls all over itself showing you how effective he is, but Cage brilliantly undermines the effort by putting just a hint of overblown theatrical flair into his superhero persona. Cage knows how to look cool as a superhero type, but here he (intentionally, I truly believe) makes the character look like a kid playing in a Batman costume, subtly reminding you that this guy isn't so much a serious gritty hero as a big self-absorbed child who happens to own a lot of guns.
Nic Cage auditioning for BLACK SWAN 2: UGLY DUCKLING
Nic Cage auditioning for BLACK SWAN 2: UGLY DUCKLING
Other than that, though, the movie is dead set on convincing you how awesome these guys are, and the scary thing is that it’s devilishly good at making the whole thing fun, funny, and kinetic. It’s a pretty good time, objectively, and I have to imagine Matthew Vaughn has a genuinely fun action comedy in him somewhere. But this ain’t it. This is a serial killer film where we’re supposed to cheer for the killers and think they’re cool. It idolizes violence, makes a tacit (and occasionally even explicit) argument for violence as a necessary tool for self-actualization. Which gives the screen violence an unpleasant, pushy feel, like an aggressive drunk getting in your face about something you basically already agree about. Shit, I love screen violence. I didn’t watch every FRIDAY THE 13th just for the sex scenes. But this thing worships the violence so feverishly, and so steadfastly refuses to introspect about the obvious horror story playing out in its narrative... that its actually a turn-off.
If it had anything to say about anything at all, that might even be ok. With a film this short on ideas, though, it just feels uncomfortably close to trying to win friends by feeding into people's worst traits and validating their most selfish fantasies. If you let yourself get sucked into its nasty little fable about discovering how special you are by beating people up, I imagine it can be a kind of powerful, seductive fantasy. But watching from the outside is pretty horrifying.