In theaters.

The title Kick-Ass is something of a misnomer. Sure, wannabe superhero Dave Lizewski, a.k.a. Kick-Ass, is the ostensible protagonist, but the best he can hope to achieve is status as a sidekick. What’s more, he doesn’t have a good reason—an interesting reason—for wanting to be a superhero. In the opening narration, he bluntly acknowledges that he doesn’t have a traumatic past or a loved one to avenge; he just naïvely thinks costumed vigilante crime-fighting would be cool. But there is someone in the movie who has excellent superhero credentials, the training and equipment and open eyes, not to mention a darkly fitting rationale for following that path. For a variety of reasons, the movie is not titled Hit Girl, but no matter: she’s the reason to see it, think about it, be disturbed by it, and remember it. Hit Girl is what’s wrong and what’s right about the movie. Hit Girl is the movie, no matter its name.

While teenage Dave (Aaron Johnson) is prancing around in front of his bedroom mirror wearing a modified wet suit, eleven-year-old Mindy (Chloë Grace Moretz), a.k.a. Hit Girl, is studying martial arts and gun handling with her misguided but loving father, Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage), a.k.a. Big Daddy, a former cop with a very personal vendetta against local crime lord Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Skillfully and patiently, father and daughter are chipping away at D’Amico’s syndicate, but Kick-Ass’s reckless, virtually suicidal exploits are what catch media attention. D’Amico assumes that Kick-Ass is his nemesis, and when his neglected teenage son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), argues that only another costumed crime fighter could win Kick-Ass’s trust and bring him down, D’Amico finances Chris’s transformation into Red Mist. It doesn’t take long for Red Mist to realize that Kick-Ass is no one’s nemesis, but by that point, the fates of the two boys and the Macreadys are dangerously, explosively entwined.

I’ll be honest: I don’t care about Dave. He doesn’t have much of a personality (his friend Marty, played by Clark Duke, is a lot more entertaining), and his idiotic plan to let his pretty classmate Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) assume that he’s gay so that he can worm his way into her affections under false pretenses exasperates me to no end. But Mindy is intriguing. Sure, there’s the shock value of having a little girl participate in a gratuitously violent, foul-mouthed action movie, and yes, that’s kind of creepy. Damon’s decision to initiate his motherless daughter into his revenge scheme is clearly reprehensible, and you could argue that he’s created a sociopath: a girl who can kill without hesitation or remorse, without even flinching, is a girl with problems.

But couldn’t you say that about anyone so cold-blooded, regardless of age or gender? We wouldn’t bat an eye if this were a movie about a nineteen-year-old boy trained as a soldier in his father’s private war—that’s a completely normal action movie—and maybe we should bat an eye. Maybe any misgivings about Kick-Ass should apply to any popcorn flick in which lots of shit blows up and a ton of extras meet their ends in improbable, gleefully grisly ways for our amusement.

Or maybe not. Film violence is always a slippery issue, and what works in one movie might be abhorrent in another. It’s maddeningly subjective. So I can understand why some people have problems with the Hit Girl storyline, and I think they have a point, to some extent. And yet, there’s also a lot of good in that storyline, making the movie quite special as well as flawed, and if you focus solely on the negative, you miss the positive. 

First, the movie doesn’t sexualize Mindy. Yes, she wears a school-girl outfit at one point, but it’s a straightforward school uniform. (Think back to Britney’s wardrobe in the “…Baby One More Time” video from ages ago. That is how you tart up a school-girl outfit.) Knives and revolvers aside, Mindy is permitted to be a child, not forced to be a sex object. She is the rare female character in an action movie who earns her cool by being smart and capable and sharp-tongued, not by looking hot in leather and vamping around with phallic weaponry. That’s refreshing.

And second, despite the whole raising-her-as-a-stone-cold-killer thing (which, OK, in real life would not be so easy to set aside), Damon is a loving father who respects his daughter. Like a dad teaching his kid how to ride a bike, he shadows her closely at first—training wheels on—and as she grows more confident and experienced, he gives her more and more room to excel; he prepares her to act on her own; he lets go. Cage and Moretz have a great rapport together, and in a weird way, given the context, the relationship they portray is touchingly innocent and beautiful—genuinely affecting.

Just for fun (and to exasperate certain male members of my family), let’s compare that to the father-daughter relationship in Taken. In Taken, the father, however loving, does nothing to prepare his daughter for the dangers of the world. She’s ready to grow up, and he’s not listening. He wants her to stay a child, and the movie reinforces that (and seems a little turned on by it, frankly). Taken is about a girl who will spend her life tucked away in a tower when she’s not tied to the railroad tracks—at least so long as her virginal innocence remains titillating. Kick-Ass is about a girl who, with her father’s guidance, is ready to graduate from the level of Robin to bona fide Batman-hood. The latter story may have its problems, but thematically speaking, I’ll take it over the former.

Especially because Kick-Ass is so much more fun: darkly funny and poppy with several energetic, well-choreographed action scenes. Moretz is delightful, embodying her character with self-possession and sensitivity and a girlishly punky attitude. Cage delivers a mannered but charming performance, riffing on Adam West’s Batman (or so Sean tells me—I couldn’t understand why he occasionally seemed to be channeling Christopher Walken’s speech patterns) and making the simple term of endearment “child” melt my heart. Mark Strong is far more effective as the villain here than he was in Sherlock Holmes (it helps that he has more to do than glower), and Mintz-Plasse makes aggrieved petulance more sympathetic than it often is.

If you can get past the twisted premise (and I’m not saying everyone can or should), it’s a fun movie—though Not For Kids, as they say. That said, I think I would have a gotten a kick out Kick-Ass as a young teenager. Because, really, why do people enjoy action movies if not for the vicarious thrill of invulnerability, invincibility, and indulged pyromania? Those aren’t the greatest impulses, maybe, but they’re not inherently bad, either, as a fantasy, a kind of occasional emotional indulgence, psychic dessert. And as one who remembers only too well the trials of being an eleven-year-old girl—feeling so acutely powerless and awkward and defenseless that even my so-called friendships left me feeling bruised—I can’t help but cheer Hit Girl on. So sue me.

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