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(Big) Daddy’s (Hit) Girl: Kick-Ass Controversy & The Art of Completely Missing the Point…

Last week I remarked on how ridiculous it was that people were getting freaked out by the use of a certain c-word (and, no, it’s not a misspelling of the words “kick ass”) by a certain pint-sized assassin in a certain superhero spoof movie. In said article, I had the audacity to state that – although I wouldn’t agree with it – I could understand if they were upset by the gratuitous violence the little kid commits, rather than her choice of language. It appears my appeals to sanity within the moral guardian community has been somewhat answered and various commentators have begun decrying Kick-Ass for the way it treats and portrays Hit Girl, the eleven-year-old sidekick to wannabe Batman by the name of Big Daddy.

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Note: This article contains slight spoilers for the movie and probably bigger spoilers for the graphic novel. You have been warned. But don’t worry, if you want to wait to see the film, this article will be here when you get back.

To give you an idea of the type of controversy the character is generating, I give you this quote from the Daily Mail:

She may not realise it, but she has been systematically abused by her father, brainwashed and turned into a pint-sized [the article doesn’t finish this sentence (seriously, check it out), I assume it was assassin]

She believes that her vigilante dad (played, simplistically, for laughs by Nicolas Cage) is a hero just as much at the end as she did at the beginning. Her attitude towards him doesn’t mature, which makes her pathetic, rather than cool. The fact that many people who see the film are going to think she is cool is one of its most depressing aspects. The movie’s writers want us to see Hit-Girl not only as cool, but also sexy, like an even younger version of the baby- faced Oriental assassin in Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1. Paedophiles are going to adore her.

One of the film’s creepiest aspects is that she’s made to look as seductive as possible – much more so than in the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr comic book on which this is based. She’s fetishised in precisely the same way as Angelina Jolie in the Lara Croft movies, and Halle Berry in Catwoman. As if that isn’t exploitative enough, she’s also shown in a classic schoolgirl pose, in a short plaid-skirt with her hair in bunches, but carrying a big gun. And she makes comments unprintable in a family newspaper, that reveal a sexual knowledge hugely inappropriate to her years. Oh, and one of the male teenage characters acknowledges that he’s attracted to her.

[I’ve deleted line breaks because I don’t want you scrolling all day to read maybe seven lines of prose]

And, for once, the Daily Mail isn’t a voice in the wilderness – these sentiments are echoed throughout the web. The core concept of the argument seems to be that what father Damon Macready does to his daughter Mindy is a horrible form of child abuse, and therefore the whole movie is absolutely horrible.

I think it’s very hard to argue with the former. What Damon does to Mindy is a horrible form of child abuse. He turns her into a child soldier. He teaches her to use weapons to kill and maim, but convinces her – in his own words – it’s “a game”. It’s horrible. It really is – it’s not exactly a style of parenting that any sane person would condone.

However, the suggestion that containing this plot thread somehow makes the movie unsuitable completely misses the point. Precious, a Best Picture nominee, contains some fairly harrowing (and more physical) forms of child abuse. Surely that movie should be banned for containing such perverse and disturbing material? “Of course not,” will come the reply from the exact same sources decrying Kick-Ass. When you ask why, there will be a pause and a fumble for something resembling a reasonable excuse before they eventually come back to you.

“It’s all about context,” they’ll say. “Precious treats its weighty subject matter with a weighty weightiness which it deserves. Kick-Ass dresses it up in some silly lycra and pretends that it’s cool.”

There are two obvious, equally valid responses to it. Or, at least, two which won’t land you in prison (seriously though, I’m a non-violent person, and I’m joking, before people claim Kick-Ass made me violent). The first response is simply to observe that nobody will leave the cinema convinced that this is a way to raise a child. Nicolas Cage won’t suddenly become a parenting icon with his dopey glasses and moustache. And, if there is anyone convinced this is the way to raise a child, they’d probably come out of Precious feeling the same way. The fact that Mindy doesn’t hate her father at the end of the film doesn’t mean the film condones what he does – characters aren’t objective flawless cyphers for moral judgement. That would take the fun out of drama. Just because a character can’t recognise a mistake or a horror doesn’t mean it isn’t really a mistake or a horror. The fact Mindy doesn’t recognise she’s been abused makes it even more tragic.

The second reasonable response is to observe that we are capable of dealing with heavy subject matter with a light touch. The Producers features a Nazi-themed musical number, but doesn’t condone Nazi-ism, for example. Hell, every Looney Tunes cartoon ever condones animal violence if you pick it apart. Not withstanding that, dealing with things in an interesting and lateral way sometimes offers the best exploration of the material. Dr. Strangelove is a comedy about nuclear holocaust, for example.

Wholesome family fun...

But let’s get down to brass tracks here. Those complaining about the movie are completely missing the point. Big Daddy and Hit Girl don’t represent a hip and cool approval of the style of parenting Damon adopts, they’re a fairly loud condemnation of exactly the types of dynamics that comic books have been selling us for years. The comic book costume for Big Daddy skirts the issue, but the movie makes no bones about it: Big Daddy is Batman, for all intents and purposes.

The whole point of Kick-Ass isn’t, as has been suggested, an attempt to bring superheroes to the real world (seriously, did Big Daddy buy that crate from Acme?), it’s instead to explore what we would make of these tropes were they introduced today. The bulk of the clichés in Kick-Ass are played straight, but juxtaposed against modern standards. It isn’t a jock or an athlete who dresses up to fight crime, it’s a nerd, for example. Kick-Ass basically asks us: if you could wipe away seventy years of history and introduce the characters today, what would we make of them?

Batman and Robin have a complicated relationship. Seriously, think about it. And not in a cheap “he’s a reclusive billionaire who lives alone with a teenager and an old British butler in a mansion” sort of way. Imagine the kind of man you’d have to be to take in a young teenager and train them to become a weapon in your own vendetta against crime. That isn’t a nice guy, if you think about it. He’s a man who robs you of a childhood without even telling you about it. You don’t even know it’s gone.

Sidekicks were introduced without thoughout in the forties as a way of appealing to younger readers. Nearly every character had one. Even the lethal ones. Think about that. In fairness, Ed Brubaker skirts the issue during his Captain America run (he also retcons Bucky’s age up to sixteen to make it more acceptable). However, these characters have become such accepted clichés and part of the genre that we don’t even think about them. Maybe we imagine how guilty Batman would feel if Robin got killed, but that’s really the depth of it.

Kick-Ass makes us think about it. I’ve put in bold to emphasise that. Of course it ramps everything up ridiculously to eleven, but that’s really the only way to grab our attention. There is no way to play this straight, which is why Robin will never work on screen. Basically, Kick-Ass manages to pull off what Frank Miller attempted with the beyond crap All-Star Batman and Robin (which featured Batman kidnapping Robin, repeatedly verbally and physically beating him and making him eat rats – seriously).

Miller wanted us to think about what a Batman/Robin relationship must really be like, but suffered from playing it entirely serious and straight – ironically it became too gratuitous and ridiculous (plus the writing sucked). Kick-Ass instead realises that we are engaging in a thought experiment here rather than dealing with a frequently occurring form of child abuse, so why should we play it straight? Despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe, audiences aren’t lapping it up and mindless applauding. Sure, we laugh at the audacity of it all – as we laughed at Dr. Strangelove – but we do think about it.

Spoiler for the graphic novel (highlight to read): In the comic book, Big Daddy is arguably even worse. Rather than being a police officer avenging a serious loss, he’s actually a mid-level desk jockey who thought it would be fun to train his daughter to be an assassin and lies to her from the out about who he is and – by extension – who she is. Which version is better or worse depends on you – I find the comic book a lot less ambiguous and borderline preachy. Whatever the case, he has robbed his daughter of her childhood. I stand by my remark in my review that he does think he loves her though – that doesn’t condone it or justify it or make it better in anyway.

Kick-Ass doesn’t point a finger at the audience and lecture. It doesn’t need to. As a rule of thumb, I consider it patronising if you feel the need to wag your finger and moralise at the end of your film – if you are condoning or condemning something, give your audience enough credit to recognise the difference.

Do you honestly think that people who have seen the movie will ever truly look at Batman & Robin the same way again (though, in fairness, Grant Morrison’s new Robin comes pre-weaponised)?

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5 Responses

  1. I thought The Increidbles covered the mindset of a sidekick credibly. Of course comparing that to Kick-Ass is like… well there’s no comparison.

    • I think The Incredibles does get overlooked. In many ways it made Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen somewhat obsolete, dealing with a lot of the themes in a surprisingly family-friendly way (by the way, best family-friendly treatment of adultery, ever). I think Kick-Ass looked at it from a different perspective though – I’m not going to pretend it was more mature (Kick-Ass is arguably much more juvenile, albeit violent), but I think Kick-Ass actually liked the idea of playing with the notion of what a child sidekick fundamentally is rather than the dangers associated with one and the bizarre hero-worship which must act as a foundation.

  2. good post i love it

  3. The Movie actually shows and Adult man beating on a preteen child. That is pure child abuse. If if you ignore the emotional child abuse and the violence of the character she portrays. it is simple scene of child abuse. Why was it allowed in theaters.
    Are you not bothered by viewing it? Do you see nothing wrong in it? then you have become lower than animals.

    • Hi there.

      The movie does show violence against a young child. However, so do fairytales and fables – the stories of young girls being gobbled up by the big bad wolf, or nearly being cooked alive by an old witch. Even the heavily sanitised versions we tell kids involve a very serious element of violence towards kids – more so if you look at the older versions of said tales.

      I don’t want to seem aggressive or condescending, as is quite possible in a discussion like this, but did you read the post above your comment?

      Kick-Ass is a deconstruction of the classic superhero sidekick fantasy. It takes the idea of Batman and Robin, filtereddown through pop culture through Adam West and Burt Ward, and dares to ask whether training a young kid to assist in a war on crime is a good thing? The answer is no, no it isn’t.

      Just because something happens in the film (the phsyical and emotional abuse) doesn’t mean that a film condones it. I don’t believe Spielberg is a Nazi for making Schindler’s List, nor Mel Brooks for The Producers. Mindy’s father is not a good person, he’s not a hero – that’s the entire point of the film.

      It’s a clever way of picking apart a myth that we’ve accepted, and asking if it’s really as sweet a fantasy as we like to think it is. It’s making the same points you are.

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