Kick-Ass kicks up controversy

By Andy Tybout

We Americans live in relative peace, but sometimes walking into a theater —… We Americans live in relative peace, but sometimes walking into a theater — particularly one playing movies like “Kick-Ass” — can seem like entering a war zone.

It’s an oft-heard complaint that movie violence has become increasingly pervasive and graphic in recent years (see “The Human Centipede”), flooding the screen with carnage that is often carried out in the name of justice.

The latest affront to decency seems to be the former film, which features, among other gory gimmicks, an 11-year-old named Hit Girl who dispenses justice by way of knives and bullets.

Even worse, the film seems to lack any context with which to justify the insanity, from my impressions of it.

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Inevitably, critics like Roger Ebert took issue with Hit Girl’s antics.

In a scathing one-star review of the film, Ebert begins by asking, “Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool?” He continues to condemn the film as “morally reprehensible,” enraged that an 11-year-old pulls the trigger.

Ebert and others’ criticisms sent the stars scrambling.

Director Matthew Vaughn sought to trivialize the carnage as “‘Tom and Jerry’ violence,” and Nicolas Cage went as far as to defend Hit Girl as “a pop icon of [feminist] strength.”

If the box office is any indication, this justification didn’t help. The film fell to No. 5 after only a week.

Feminist undertones aside, there’s no doubt that “Kick-Ass,” endorses violence, at least in its own world — as do hundreds of other recent films.

Discarding, for a moment, the issue of an 11-year-old as a vigilante — really, would she be any worse an influence on children than other action heroes? — it seems pertinent, at this juncture in cinema, to ask if filmic celebrations of violence can ever be justified.

My answer: It depends on a film’s end.

Even if a movie approaches violence from an “excitement” angle — if it makes viewers clap, rather than cringe — it can redeem the audience’s bloodlust by relating to a point that’s more mature than a simple endorsement of force.

Take last year’s “Inglourious Basterds” for example.

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film finds his characters at their most depraved — scalping Nazis, carving swastikas into foreheads, plotting to burn one another alive — all to an encouraging soundtrack.

Yet for all the stylized bloodshed for which Tarantino is notorious, “Basterds” manages to embed the carnage within a clever, postmodern play on the Western genre — and, depending on how seriously you take it, a fascinating parable of revenge.

True, some might take the carnage of “Basterds” as a simple sanction of brutality. But such potential misreads shouldn’t discredit a film. A director can’t control whether an audience perceives an intellectual portrayal of violence as simply “awesome.”

With “Kick-Ass,” on the other hand, awesomeness is the sole intent. There’s purposefully little to elevate an audience’s thoughts beyond a simple “Hell yeah” or “Holy sh*t. He just got blown out of a window by a rocket.”

It’s just violence for the sake of violence — pure bloody conquest. In this case, it would be hard to argue the violence is somehow redeeming. It simply furthers our desensitization, albeit with enjoyable effects and lovable characters.

So to return to the brunt of this debate, is “Kick-Ass” a great evil, as Ebert as suggested?

No. But is it a little one? Probably. I would put it on par with a cigarette. It has no wholesome qualities, but you should be allowed to partake in it at your own risk. The alternative — censoring certain films for unwholesome content — would inevitably lead to unwarranted intrusions on truly artistic endeavors.

For the sake of the great art, pulp must pass unfiltered into the theater.

But that isn’t to say everyone should go see these movies.

As a citizen of a (mostly) censor-less film market, you have to be sure you’re stable enough — perhaps smart enough — to separate the cartoonish bloodshed onscreen with the tragic, irreversible horrors of real life. If you can do that, then, if you must, have your fun.

So to answer Ebert’s query, yes, you should have feelings when watching movies like “Kick-Ass.” That means at least you haven’t been numbed.