Superheroes don’t have mothers. You hear about Superman’s father (who gave him the cape), or Batman’s father (who gave him the money), but there’s seldom any mention of mom. The X-men are all orphans. Spiderman was raised by an aunt. And why is this? What’s the connection, you ask, between wearing a costume and not having a mother? Easy; the costume is the uniform of the outcast, of someone who feels they can’t be loved. Fighting crime is a form of self-harm. This is something the new superhero/costumed vigilante movie, Kick-Ass, understands really well. You should take note that both its heroes lose their mothers at an early age.
When teenager Dave Lizewski’s mother dies at the breakfast table, he decides life must go on…and he must go on to become Kick-Ass, masked avenger of injustice. He doesn’t want to avenge his mother’s death, however; he just wants to be popular on Facebook. Dave is a nerd, and, like all nerds, he thinks super-powers would get him girls. He doesn’t live in a world where there are superheroes, sadly. But that doesn’t stop him from ordering a scuba costume off the internet and getting involved in a brawl. Soon, Dave’s masked alter-ego is a YouTube sensation. The only thing better at taking-on bad guys is eleven-years-old, and called Hit Girl.
This movie is morally cavalier in its attitude to children and violence. I’m thinking of the scene where Hit Girl is punched in the face by a grown-man, or the scene where Hit Girl hacks off a man’s leg, or the scene where Hit Girl stabs someone with a butterfly knife, or, y’know, the character of Hit Girl, who is eleven-years-old and who kills people for a living (Imagine Natalie Portman is Leon, only much more violent, and played for laughs). The real problem, however, is that savagery is an asset to the movie. Partly, this is because director Matthew Vaughn is making a black comedy, but also because (as in all the best black comedies) death isn’t whitewashed. There’s no sentimentality. When a key character is immolated, the shot of someone in desperate mourning lasts about a second and a half.
Nicolas Cage is maybe the only actor who isn’t tuned in. He delivers his lines in the halting style of Adam West, mistaking the movie for an exercise in camp. Where everyone else acts like they’re in the real world, and there just happen to be costumed vigilantes, Cage acts like he’s in a comic, and he just happens to know real people. He should’ve looked to the child actors. Under Matthew Vaughn’s direction (I’m assuming Nicolas Cage was under Nicolas Cage’s direction) everyone else moves plausibly between tragedy and farce. When Kick-Ass stars in his feted YouTube clip (for instance), it’s funny – but you also see his earnest, tormented heart.
Aaron Johnson plays Dave (and Kick-Ass) with such bottled up hope, he’s impossible to dislike. He wants his life to be amazing. Humdrum scares him. When he’s knocked down by a car (on his first crime-fighting mission) and given steel plates to hold his bones together, it’s what he’s dreamed of (his x-ray “looks like Wolverine!”). He seems wide-eyed even to an eleven-year-old (though, granted, Hit Girl isn’t any eleven-year-old). Chloe Moretz makes a good mentor for him because she’s everything he wants to be (bar her psychosis). Moretz is hugely likeable too; darting about like a knife-wielding Chihuahua. She puts the “cut” in “cute”.
The movie does have some morals because it isn’t afraid to autopsy superhero myths. Not just the wounded outcast part, but the violent revenge fantasies. Comic-books are pornographic with violence. Kick-Ass simply shows this. It’s shocking (and still a little immoral) to have an eleven-year-old meting out mortal justice. But it isn’t out of keeping for comic-books. These things are written to give licence to the id, to the part of the brain that clutches a knife in its ganglions. People are ripped to pieces in comics as a way to appease violent aggression in real life. Superheroes are proxies. Batman’s true alter-ego isn’t in his thirties; he’s thirteen, and he’s pissed.