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Culture Warrior: 3 Rules of Child Assassin Movies

By  · Published on April 12th, 2011

This editorial features some spoilers for Hanna and Kick-Ass. Consider yourself warned.

In preparation for this post I ran a quick Internet search on child assassins and found this video from New York Magazine. While I wasn’t promised a video exclusively on child assassins here, and instead got something that explores the notion of child killers at large, this video conflates two categories of child killers that I think deserve remarkably different types of consideration.

The great majority of killings performed by children in this video are from horror movies. From Rosemary’s Baby to The Omen to The Brood to Firestarter to the other Omen and beyond, the child/killer is an exhaustively repeated horror trope to the point of cliche (and is often confused with the simple overlapping category of “scary children,” like in The Shining and The Sixth Sense). But every so often a child-killer horror film comes along that works in line with the formula (The Children, anyone? Bueller? Okay, how about Let Me In?), reminding us why child killers still have the capacity to be engrossing and entertaining even if they’ve lost the ability to be outright horrifying: because they play on our society’s veneration of childhood innocence, replacing the ignorant bliss of childhood with benevolent, malicious intent to do harm to the much taller individuals that surround them.

But child assassins are quite different from the overall category of child killers. And while two recent films in two subsequent spring movie seasons that feature child assassins, Kick-Ass and Hanna, hardly constitute a trope as far-reaching as child killers in horror films, they do seem to be rising with their own rules of representation that constitute a possible emerging trend of their own.

Rule #1: Contextualize and Thematize a Loss of Childhood

Unlike child killer horror films where the cause of killing is situated as a factor outside the child’s autonomy (possession, uncontrollable superpowers, not being a child at all), and this explanation provides a quick shorthand rather than thoroughly logical exposition, Kick-Ass and Hanna labor over the fact that childhood has been lost as a result of the selfish intervention of adults and each film attempts to contextualize this factor in a world of movie plausibility.

For Hit Girl, her father’s inability to let go of his wife/her mother’s murder motivates him to essentially brainwash his own daughter so that her sole objective in life is revenge for her mother’s (and, eventually, her father’s) death. Her lack of a normal childhood is illustrated throughout the film with playful irony, as a childish “la-la-la” pop song plays when we first see her kill and she uses perceptions of childhood innocence (pigtails and all) to lure her newest victims. While her father deals (somewhat) with the guilt of preventing her from having a childhood, she seems to pay no mind. While we see Hit Girl attending school at the film’s end, everything before this has told us she’s hard-wired to do one thing and one thing only, and thus, to make the jump to real adolescence would require years of therapy that suppresses her killer instincts. However, since a sequel is supposedly on the way, she won’t have to deal in any meaningful way with everyday life for too long.

In Hanna, the titular character is the product of genetic experiments in the intent of creating an army of super-soldiers. After these experiments are shut down, Hanna becomes a piece of evidence that must be sought out and destroyed. Her childhood, then, is spent in isolation, learning, like Hit Girl, almost exclusively those things that will benefit her most in both physical and intellectual combat. When she emerges from that isolation and must confront reality, she gets a quick crash-course in female adolescence: a sleepover with a girlfriend, kissing a boy, and a family vacation. Towards the end of the film, Hanna is surrounded by decaying childhood objects at a run-down theme park, as if the point needed to be driven home any further.

Rule #2: The Appeal of Watching Children Kick Ass

The fact that we’re dealing with very young characters for whom any chance at a life of normalcy has been forced away from them by the self-interest of adults doesn’t have to preclude us from enjoying the spectacle of watching them kill adults, and it is this – not any depth, or lack thereof, that can be surmised from the films’ themes of lost childhood innocence – that is the center of the appeal of Kick-Ass and Hanna.

While either of these films are “better” for young women than, say, Sucker Punch, it’s difficult to argue that this spectacle is empowering for such an audience, for each of these characters are essentially trapped, enslaved in a lifestyle not of their choosing. This logic, oddly enough, makes their violence permissible for audience enjoyment. Rather than bloodthirsty forces of evil enacting violence on an undeserving prey, these girls are operating in (varying degrees of) self-defense. They have no other choice. In being “empowered” enough to kick ass, these child assassins must, in truth, have no power at all.

Rule #3: Fuck Realism

Another important factor that makes enjoyment of child assassins permissible for audience enjoyment and allows us to deal with what would otherwise be the overwhelming burden of watching a character who lost their opportunity at a normal life, both Kick-Ass and Hanna eschew any attempt at realism or plausibility. Real child assassins look like this, not like this. The former doesn’t make for a fun time at the movies, but the latter does.

Sure, Kick-Ass attempts to deconstruct the superhero genre by ostensibly making “plausible” superheroes, but Matthew Vaughn’s filmmaking evokes more cartoonishly heightened comic book-style aesthetic sensibilities than many comic book movies do. For Hit Girl to exist in a realm of the possible is simply a careful combination of movie logic (though a consistent one at that) and a suspension of disbelief. The over-the-top end of Kick-Ass finally unveils itself as the straightforward comic book movie it always was.

Hanna, meanwhile, is almost overburdened with Joe Wright’s style. While the film was (at least for me) aesthetically very impressive, complete with a great Chemical Brothers score, it constantly places its style front-and-center. It’s not the type of movie that you can get lost in and forget you’re watching a movie. This works in the movie’s favor, however, as the lack of plausibility in Hanna’s very existence, much less her killings, is simply a part of the artifice that permeates the style encompassing the film.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the movie both Hanna and Kick-Ass are most indebted to is Luc Besson’s The Professional, but this movie focuses much more of the fatherly mentoring training process (a plot component that only comprises the initial acts of the films examined here). We never really see young Natalie Portman fully “become” an assassin the way Hit Girl and Hanna do. I’m a big fan of Hanna, and I do think both films do intervene in combating certain stereotypes of young femininity (though wouldn’t it be great if in one of these movies the child assassin was trained by a female?), but in order to do so they each follow a strict, shared logic that permits their subjects to exist spectacularly as characters in a consistent movie-logic universe. Thus, like any trope of any genre, child assassins have their limits and rules to follow.

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