When Kick-Ass hit theaters in 2010, it tainted comic book movies for me. Bringing a sense of gore and grit to escapism, it would come to color other caped members of the genre. The most recent example is Man of Steel which features a hefty, highly debated death toll, but doesn’t feature much time for reflection because, of course, they needed to have a female soldier comment on how hot Superman is at the end.
In a different view on the same neighborhood, Joss Whedon actually showed people being saved amid the destructive aftermath to his battle in The Avengers. Captain America earns the thanks of a grateful group, but is it realistic that an entire alien army stormed through downtown New York City with several flying football fields, but everyone was evacuated in a few minutes?
It’s difficult to shake the potential for a death toll when you fictionally destroy that many city blocks, but Kick-Ass made the loss of a single life seem grisly and as powerful as a steaming locomotive.
Director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman wisely steered clear of showing random bystanders getting tossed off like candy (with one the hilarious exception being a kid going to a costume party). Kick-Ass was a movie that successfully had its cake and ate it, too: embracing its colorful comic-booky nature while also maintaining some semblance of bloody, “real world” consequences.
That’s not an easy balance to strike. Even Christopher Nolan, a comic book realist and one of the best directors working today, often fell victim to the difficulties of portraying comic book violence – particularly in PG-13 parameters.
For example, when Batman saves Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight after his game of chicken with the Joker, Dent commented, “I’m glad he saved my ass,” through that beautiful smug smile of his. But is that really an appropriate comment for Dent and (and by extension, Nolan) to make after several cops are killed? A helicopter full of police offers dying made for a somber set up for Dent’s punchline.
There’s none of that in Kick-Ass. Vaughn mostly shows goons receiving their comeuppance, to cartoonishly (sometimes microwaveable) violent results, but there’s also the savage beating that gave birth to the hero in green and gold and the brutal, flaming end that sparks the final act.
When Big Daddy dies, there’s nothing funny about it. The detached ironic tone of the movie is played down. There’s reflection. The stakes are elevated. Best of all, the action becomes more personal from there on out. Unlike Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, Hit-Girl doesn’t give up after the death of a loved one, she’s spurred to fight harder.
Unlike most comic book movies, there isn’t a lengthy second act sequence where the characters give up or are left powerless for one reason or another (Green Lantern being the worst offender). There’s questioning from Dave’s perspective, but Goldman’s script didn’t waste time whistfully contemplating whether they would suit up againt to fight for justice. Of course they will. The heroes always do – making it the most boring answer to a generally boring conflict (except if your movie is Spider-Man 2).
When we see Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass fighting in the third act, the villain isn’t plotting to take over the city, let alone the world. Instead, it’s the simple, intimate act of the hero attempting to avenge her father. Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass take on a suicide mission not because the world hangs in the balance or because someone’s girlfriend is in danger, but because they wanted to. When you see Frank D’Amico fight Hit-Girl, it’s a grown man punching a kid, not super-powered people standing toe-to-toe. Vaughn, after having his violent fun, pulled the film and characters back down to reality.
As for the sequel, writer/director Jeff Wadlow mostly maintains that sense of grounding from the first movie. Even though the sequel takes the violence and characters to ridiculous extremes, there are constant reminders of genuine violence and loss to provide a balance to the more over-the-top gags. That’s what makes Jim Carrey not promoting the film all the more baffling.
His character Colonel Stars and Stripes is anti-gun in the film, opting instead for good intentions in his fight. His character represents everything this series says regarding its violence: seeing Colonel Stars and Stripes take on some mobsters with a bat is fun, but only because they are bad people. The born again Christian wouldn’t consider tossing a bad guy into a building if he had superpowers because he’d fear that someone innocent would get injured or killed. That’s one on Superman. When we see the main heroes in peril – and, in one instant, someone on the villain’s side as well – it’s not half as enjoyable as some random henchman meeting a painful end.
There is an occasional meanness to the Kick-Ass movies, which is inherently a part of Miller’s charm as a writer, but most of it doesn’t match the bloodless, off-screen cruelty of showing innocent civilians getting slaughtered as you aim for popcorn fun. The Kick-Ass series may slip on its message every now and then, but when the two films achieve it, they show a consideration for violence most films in the genre don’t.