Kick-Ass was meant to be revolutionary, the final assault on the innocence of American audiences. In early previews, it presented itself as putting to rest all remaining cinematic taboos. Here was Hit-Girl (Chloë Moretz, 11 years old at the time of filming), annihilating adult men and, in the film’s final scene, brutally attacked by one herself. She addresses a roomful of gangsters as “cunts”; when another teenager (Aaron Johnson, playing the misfit who reinvents himself as the superhero of the title) asks how he might contact her, she tells him the mayor shines a light “in the shape of a giant cock.” It’s not the only Batman reference: Kick-Ass is an action movie based on a comic book in which everyone reads comic books and watches action movies. Superheroes aside, the movie invokes De Palma’s Scarface—“Say hello to my little friend,” a henchman gloats as he turns a bazooka on Hit-Girl. In an early scene, her father (Nicolas Cage as a former policeman who calls himself Big Daddy) quizzes Hit-Girl on the name of John Woo’s first English-language movie. Watching Kick-Ass is like taking a two-hour long Rorschach test. That part when a group of gangsters is ambushed from the air recalls the Atlantic City massacre in The Godfather, Part III, does it not? When Kick-Ass says, “with no power comes no responsibility,” that’s a Spider-Man reference, right? Many critics have likened Kick-Ass to Kill Bill, an analogy that seems vaguely offensive, when you consider how it sounds when inverted. A woman killing people? Why, that is as uncanny as a child killing people!
In a just world, these relentless references would cost Kick-Ass something. Allusion invites comparison, and in every face-off Kick-Ass comes out the loser: in fact, as soon as Cage mentioned Woo, I wished I were watching Face/Off. Good movies, or at least pleasurably bad movies, make the worthless ones even worse. They remind us that watching Kick-Ass was not inevitable, that there are other, better ways to spend a Tuesday afternoon, an afternoon that will not come again. Maybe you can get your money back but not your time, and so whatever worth Kick-Ass has is only as a memento mori. As the credits rolled, I told myself: You must change your life.
For everyone else, the experience appeared to be much more pleasurable. If Kick-Ass neglected a potential allusion, the audience provided it. When Christopher Mintz-Plasse (as Red Mist, a high school outcast-cum-supervillain desperate to prove himself to his father Frank D’Amico, a crime boss) appeared on screen for the first time, the man sitting behind me cried out joyfully, “McLovin!” His exclamation was met with murmured agreement from the rest of the audience. The sensation was akin to watching someone add a link to a Wikipedia page.
Much of the action in Kick-Ass takes place on, or because of, the internet. After a YouTube video of Kick-Ass taking on some ruffians in a parking lot becomes the “most watched clip on the internet,” his MySpace page and email account are inundated with requests from the fearful citizenry. It is through MySpace—not a penis lantern—that Kick-Ass communicates with Hit-Girl and Big Daddy. His celebrity inspires copycats. The costumed man Frank D’Amico murders turns out to be a Kick-Ass impersonator on his way home from a child’s birthday party. Repetition and imitation are key not only to Kick-Ass’s plot but to what it passes off as humor. The laughter it inspires is the laughter of recognition—of mem(e)ory. If people enjoy Kick-Ass, they enjoy it for the same reasons they use “teh” and “fail.” There is nothing hilarious about these words. They are simply signposts people use to indicate they are being funny. We laugh at them because they identify themselves as things to be laughed at. “Viral” is right. Replicating madly, these catchphrases destroy their host, whether it be a movie or an IM conversation. They crowd out the original content, if there was any; jokes give way to things that resemble jokes. “Funny” has been redefined to mean “familiar,” and we do nothing to fight this disease because it flatters us. When Kick-Ass’s screenwriters quote Stan Lee, they are saying: we know that you know that this other thing exists. How does the desperate guy seduce the stupid, pretty girl? Anyone who has ever seen a movie can tell you: he tells her she’s smart.
One of the major differences between Kill Bill and Kick-Ass—besides the twenty-seven years that separate Uma Thurman from Chloë Moretz—is that Kill Bill is good and Kick-Ass is bad. Tarantino’s action sequences are as elegantly constructed as a well-turned phrase. When Thurman kills Gogo Yubari, Gogo’s metal ball drops to the floor, ending their fight as neatly as a period ends a sentence. The only part of Kick-Ass at all worthy of comparison with Kill Bill is one that has drawn dutiful outrage from critics: Hit-Girl, dressed in a white blouse and plaid skirt, is granted entrance to D’Amico’s lobby by his guards, whom she shoots quickly and quietly. In a movie full of jet-packs and gigantic explosions and burning warehouses, the scene seems spare and refined. But the sequence is one reason why critics have called the movie’s violence pornographic.
Porn, however, involves a degree of reality—people who seem to be having sex are actually having it. Kick-Ass, however, is explicitly unreal. In one voiceover, Kick-Ass asks the audience if we’re telling ourselves he’s going to be fine just because he’s talking to us now. Haven’t we, he demands, seen American Beauty? As we listen to this, D’Amico’s underlings strap Kick-Ass and Big Daddy into chairs and beat them. The assault—intended to end in their deaths—is being broadcast on television. When the networks realize what is happening, they cut the feed, and everyone rushes to their laptops to watch what, if it weren’t for Hit-Girl’s interference, would be a live execution. The suggestion is not simply that, when it comes to real violence, television has higher standards of decency than the internet—that Kick-Ass is about to be the star of another viral video, one in which he will join the ranks of Daniel Pearl and Saddam Hussein. The American Beauty reference reminds viewers what they are watching is not real. People don’t die in TV shows or movies—they die on the internet. The myth of the snuff film has evolved since it originated. Now, the rumors put filmed murders not in Times Square but online. For good measure, the movie includes a scene in which Kick-Ass masturbates to internet porn.
Kick-Ass claims to be controversial, but is in fact conservative. It is part of old media’s attack on new media, a campaign whose other flanks include To Catch a Predator and a growing number of Lifetime TV movies. You guys thought watching people get hurt was bad, the battle cry goes, but the internet connects you with people who actually want to hurt you. (Red Mist, as a reminder, first contacts Kick-Ass online and his father’s associates are able to capture Big Daddy—who does, in fact, die—because of the message Kick-Ass posts on MySpace.) To protect yourself, all you have to do is stay in the theater. Download the movie for free and its soundtrack might include the bell-like peal of instant messages, whose chimes are your death knell. Kick-Ass is an advertisement for itself and for a frightened industry. Twelve dollars doesn’t seem like so much if what you’re buying is your safety.