When any syndicated critic calls a film “morally reprehensible,” it ends up as a kind of reverse-endorsement, the sort of thing you have to pay to see to believe. That goes at least tenfold when said critic is Roger Ebert.
The film Ebert was condemning was Matthew Vaughn’s vastly condemnable Kick-Ass, a gratingly moronic superhero fantasia based on series of comics written by Mark Millar and illustrated by John Romita Jr., published through Marvel’s creator-owned Icon imprint between 2008 and February of this year. As someone who spends far too many hours skimming reviews and film criticism on Rotten Tomatoes, Reverse Shot, Variety, Aint it Cool News, and a handful of other sites that dedicate themselves to that kind of thing with varying degrees of seriousness and critical pedigree, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read Ebert disapprove of a film in such resounding terms. (Excluding, of course, his polished takedown of the Ben Stein-hosted, creationist agitprop piece Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which so exceeded the expectations of film criticism, effectively addressing the whole endemic of Conservative Christian reactionaries butting heads with Darwinists and Dawkinsian atheists, that it doesn’t really count.)
But then, after a few moments of noodle-scratching, I remembered exactly when Ebert has slammed a motion picture with such conviction. It was back in 2001, when local boy Tom Green made bad with Freddy Got Fingered, his defiantly tasteless big screen debut (which he wrote, directed and starred in), a film perhaps best remembered for its several (read: more than one) scenes of equine and pachyderm masturbation. Awarding it a score of zero of a possible five stars, Ebert called Freddy “a vomitorium consisting of 93 minutes of Tom Green doing things that a geek in a carnival sideshow would turn down.”
I mention Green’s film—even calling it a “film” as if it’s something like any other series of recorded moving images ever committed to celluloid, digital tape, or zoetrope cylinder always seems a little off-the-mark—not merely because both it and this recent Kick-Ass both earned Ebert’s mighty ire. They share more in common than that.
Ebert, like many other critics shouting “think of the children,” took particular issue less with the film's overwhelming dullness, stupidity, and inability to adhere to the source comics with any degree of faithfulness, but with one of its handful of costumed crusaders: Hit Girl. Like the titular Kick-Ass, Hit Girl is a “real” superhero, which is to say, she possesses no real superpowers, and we’re expected to believe that she could exist in something like “our” world, despite the film’s facile explanations as to why. Unlike Kick-Ass, a teenage comic dweeb played by Aaron Johnson, the latest in an ever-expanding line of sub-Cera purveyors of “aww shucks” awkwardness, Hit Girl dishes up lethal doses of violence: filleting goombah mobsters with butterfly knives, mutilating Scary Black Drug Dealers, and capping all the other bad guys through the eyes with sharpshooter precision. And also unlike Kick-Ass, Hit Girl is an eleven-year old girl with the sort of latrine mouth more becoming of a seasick sailor.
Sitting here, fourteen seasons into South Park, you may think the arbiters of moral authority wouldn’t be getting their constrictive Victorian pantaloons all twisted up about a scrappy little runt with a penchant for four letter words. But Hit Girl (played by relative newcomer Chloe Moretz) is worlds apart from the school-of-Bart-Simpson brand of iconic underachiever. It’s the violence she visits upon her enemies, and which is in turn visited back upon her, which has made her such a lightning rod for controversy.
Where Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s comics possess at least pretensions of something that you might call “gritty realism,” the film plays violence with all the preposterous overkill of an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. Hit Girl, who in the comics reads as pint-sized psychopath indoctrinated in the violent vigilantism of her sidekick father (here played by Nic Cage, who in affecting the exaggerated herky-jerk vocalizations of Adam West’s kitschy ‘60s Batman exists as the film’s one leavening touch), comes across on screen as what we’re supposed to believe is a real-deal hero.
Where the comics seem to want the reader to consider her for all the reasons you’d want to consider a pre-adolescent assassin undisturbed by the violence she gleefully dishes out, Vaughn’s movie wants us to root for her: to cheer every time she slices up a baddie (and she does plenty of that), and then to buy the Hit Girl poster (and if you live in any major city besieged by the film’s aggressive promotional campaign, you’ll know there are plenty of those too), pin it up, and pretend that she’s not a problem. But what makes her such a problem? Well let’s look back to Freddy Got Fingered.
‘Cos why not, right?
Though it entered infamy for all of Green’s animal wank-offs, umbilical accessorizing, and workmanlike ability to fruitfully hump any surface at hand, Freddy Got Fingered also indulged a fair bit of kiddie violence. Throughout the film, there’s a young boy named Andy Malloy (played by Connor Widdows), who can’t be more than Hit Girl’s age, and who finds himself caught in the Oedipal crossfire between Green’s Gord Brody and his wigged-out dad (Rip Torn), resulting in a bruised eye, smashed teeth, and all kinds of other contusions.
I can never remember exactly how Freddy wraps up. My intiial attempts to see the film when it came out in 2001 were frustrated by its hard 18A rating, and the ticket-taker's staunch refusal to bend to any of the pleas or schemes undertaken by my friend Dave and I to get in (we paid guys to pretend they were our uncles, we actually bought those fake mustaches and glasses in a defeated attempt to pass as adults). When I did finally manage to see the movie on a bootleg VHS tape procured by a friend who had recently returned from a high school trip to New York City, the last ten-or-so minutes were interrupted by gay porn (which to my mind remains the more fitting ending for the film, all things considered). But here’s what I do remember: Green’s character gets a million bucks, spends a bunch of it buying precious jewels for his orally-fixated paraplegic girlfriend, and blows the rest orchestrating an elaborate plan to ship his daddy to Pakistan and spray him with the spore of the aforesaid pachyderm. After reconciling in a pool of elephant gunk, the two end up back in America—I think there’s some plot point where they become political prisoners or something?—and when they do, a blade from the helicopter they step off of flies loose and vivisects Andy (off screen), while his slack-jawed father gets drenched in his arterial spray.
It’s enough to make Kick-Ass look like a Shrek movie by comparison, but it still seems less troubling than the violence Hit Girl incurs in Vaughn’s film. Why? Because Green’s film is so knowingly tasteless that a little boy being chopped apart by a helicopter blade seems a passable offense. But Kick-Ass possesses none of the twisted morality of Freddy Got Fingered. Vaughn wants desperately to normalize Hit Girl within the parameters of his compromised vision where Kick-Ass gets the girl, people fly around in jet packs, and everyone lives happily ever after. (This, it should be noted, is a marked deviation from the comics, in which Kick-Ass gets his ass kicked in the end, and nobody even mentions anything as silly as a jetpack. I mean, what is this? Thunderball? Robocop 3?)
Ebert’s review of Freddy was also discerning in its understanding of the film as the only logical endpoint to the wash of comic tastelessness that had typified gross-out forerunners like Joe Dirt, Monkeybone, and See Spot Run. Kick-Ass had the opportunity to seize upon a similar moment, coming as it does at the peak of both blockbuster comic book movies and similarly popular correctives to the overblown anti-realism and preposterous physics of the superhero canon (Chris Nolan’s Batman franchise revival, Zack Snyder’s sluggish Watchmen and Peter Stebbings’ excellent Defendor).
Like the comics, Vaughn’s film had the occasion to explore the bent morality of vigilantism and extra-legal vengeance in post-Something-or-other America, but it instead opted to emerge as just another flashy superhero picture, with a harshly vibrant colour palette that seems more indebted to Spider-Man or Sky High than Batman Begins. Unlike Defendor, in which (SPOILER ALERT) the urban avenger played by Woody Harrelson deludes himself into thinking he’s invincible only be to gunned down in a scene that has real ramifications and real human fallout, Vaughn’s sugar-coated superhero fable punishes none of its guilty parties, save for all the one-dimensional Mafioso types who are about as realistic as the extras in Jane Austen’s Mafia.
It’s not even so much that Vaughn dumbs down Millar and Romita’s books (which already rely a bit too heavily on shock-and-awe), so much as that he fundamentally misunderstands them. Like any hackish mishandling of an otherwise fine source text, Vaughn’s film swaps the idea of “real” kids fantasizing about superheroism for another far-fetched superhero movie (complete with zoom-ins and orchestral cues when the caped crusaders introduce themselves), albeit one typified by very real, very graphic depictions of vigilante violence.
Is it “morally reprehensible”? I’m probably too desensitized by splatter films and urban revenge dramas to offer anything like an authoritative opinion on what does or doesn’t constitute an assault on our culture’s moral fabric. But I’ll say this: I’d rather watch Tom Green jerk off a horse than suffer through the stupidity of Kick-Ass again. Hell, I’d probably rather jerk off the horse.
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