Because the trailers for the comic-inspired movie Kick-Ass didn’t interest me, I didn’t see the film and because I didn’t see the film, I didn’t read most of the reviews and commentary and because I didn’t read most of the reviews and commentary I generally missed the lively and interesting controversy that followed on the movie’s April release. Thus I had a surprise waiting for me when the new DVD arrived via Netflix, where I had put it on the queue because… well, because I’ve seen just about everything else.
The movie began as what I thought it was: a sort of Spiderman-to-the-hip-degree, wherein a more realistic wimp than Peter Parker becomes a more realistic masked crime fighter than the web-spinner. But it changed at first gradually and then very suddenly into something far different, more original and more disturbing. The almost suicidally inept high- school-kid-slash-not-very-superhero Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) is over-shadowed by the real crime-fighting deal, Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), a 12-year-old trained to murderous mayhem by her wronged cop father (Nicholas Cage in one of the performances of his career).
Hit-Girl is the center of the controversy. The child speaks in the foulest possible language and dispatches mobster henchmen in savage acts of hyper-violence that splatter the screen with blood.
Pompous lefty critic Roger Ebert found the picture, “morally reprehensible.” Big Hollywood‘s libertarian Leigh Scott – in the one commentary I actually did read at the time – lauded the film as libertarian because it glorifies individual moral choice. But BH’s editor John Nolte said no, despite the language, Hit-Girl is a conservative heroine:
“She’s dignified, heroic, selfless, completely self-reliant, and lives by a simple code that says evil loses. No angst, no handwringing, and no moral equivalency.”
Other critics, like Leonard Maltin and the LA Times’s Kenneth Turan, treated the hyper-violence and language as if it were a stylistic rather than artistic choice–as if it were more about visceral flash than meaning. Both, like Ebert, seem to have spent some time worrying about whether they’d be deemed uncool for raising moral objections. Which speaks rather sadly of their inner concerns, but never mind.
As for me, I liked the film a lot. Thought it original, exciting, emotional and well done–one of the best movies of the year so far. I had moral qualms about paying a pre-teen actress to speak filth, but no qualms whatsoever about the pre-teen character she played speaking filth. The film’s rated R, after all, so if that sort of thing offends you, you’ve been warned.
Moreover, I thought attempts to claim the film politically were misplaced. Politics and art grow out of the same soil of eternal human truths, but their tasks are different. Politics is, or should be, about governing best to reach the best ends–which to my mind always involve individual liberty. Art, on the other hand, is visionary: it’s a record of the artist’s inner experience of the world and, at best, of mankind’s inner experience.
Kick-Ass remains an honest vision whether you’re liberal, libertarian or conservative. It’s an exploration of the place where our fine fantasies of battling evil meet the dreadful reality of blood and corruption. Like a war for a just cause, it’s at once uplifting in its heroism and horrifying in its consequences. The psychotic-but-righteous father and the twisted-but-brave little girl are both the reality and shadow-side of Kick-Ass’s yearnings to do good, part of the inner landscape of the wannabe superman.
Conservatives are sometimes bellicose about the necessity of fighting evil while liberals quail and fret at the nastiness of it all. But in art, as in life, the necessity and nastiness are one. Kick-Ass is an engaging and challenging reflection on what Winston Churchill called, “horrible war, amazing medley of the glorious and squalid, the pitiful and sublime.”