This article is a part of our September focus on Violence – you can access more content from this issue here
By Sam Ryan
Violence has become as synonymous with Hollywood films as popcorn.
As problematic as that may be, to argue that it has no place on screen, or is inherently bad and negatively influential would be wrong; many films have used, even required, the depiction of violence to deal with difficult and important questions about violence and aggression in our culture. The stomach-turning brutality of American History X cannot be judged alongside the mindless, testosterone-fuelled violence of Crank.
Part of the premise of 2010’s Kick-Ass was to shock and provoke, challenging the audience’s very responses as they laughed (or didn’t) at absurd and unsettling scenes. Co-writer and director Matthew Vaughn cleverly managed his material, based on the comic book by Mark Millar.
Vaughn constructed a framework for the film – based on a compelling plot, interesting themes, well-developed characters and witty dialogue – that provided a place for the violence to exist within the context of a unique and almost unsettlingly enjoyable film. It seemed ridiculously feasible in this world that a loving father would train his sweet 13-year old daughter to be a cold-hearted killer.
The sequel … succeeds only in offering a stark contrast between the two films, and a study in how excessive and absurd violence can turn a bad film into an uncomfortable one.
Though walking a fine line, Kick-Ass didn’t glorify the actions of the protagonists – it was possible to enjoy the film without enjoying the acts of violence per se.
Kick-Ass 2, however, feels like a film based on the hype of the first, rather than a decent idea. And much of that hype centred on the edgy use of violence and language.
The story picks up a couple of years after the first, though little has happened. Mindy/Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) is juggling the burden of secret crime-fighting while pretending to live a normal life under the care of guardian Marcus; Dave/Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is itching to get serious about life as a vigilante and find comrades; and Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) remains patiently desperate to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Kick-Ass.
The sequel is again based on Millar’s comics, but this time written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, who succeeds only in offering a stark contrast between the two films, and a study in how excessive and absurd violence can turn a bad film into an uncomfortable one.
It was perhaps this realisation that caused Jim Carrey, a vocal gun control advocate, to distance himself from the film.
“I did Kickass [sic] a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence,” he tweeted in June. “My apologies to others involved with the film. I am not ashamed of it but recent events have caused a change in my heart.”
Carrey had obviously read the script, and loved the first film, according to Millar. Though given his role is not a major one – and possibly the most admirable and interesting – his view may have changed upon seeing the final product in full.
Many people are killed off – or ‘murdered’ – in such ridiculous ways it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to be shocking or funny and usually winds up being neither. Yet, as outrageous as the film adaption tries to be, it actually toned down some of Millar’s comic book brutality. One scene that lingers uneasily does so because of how Wadlow avoided a violent act in the comic.
While he rightly deemed a gang-rape scene inappropriate for the film, rather than remove the entirely unnecessary act he turns it into a schoolboy joke. The main antagonist becomes the butt of the joke as he awkwardly tries to ‘get himself in the mood’, but when the camera flicks back to his chuckling henchmen, the helpless victim they are holding down becomes essentially invisible as the audience is encouraged to laugh along with the would-be agressors.
With neither wit nor anything of consequence to say, Kick-Ass 2 fails because it relies too heavily on the comic book violence itself to entertain.
Some may see this as an innocent joke, but the somewhat disturbing approach speaks to the broader attitude of the film towards violence – sexual, verbal or physical.
There are brief moments of self-awareness and reflection: a hospitalised vigilante wonders why, if all they were trying to do was make the world a better place, has it become worse; Mindy agonises over which way to take her life; the loss of someone close to Dave causes an extraordinarily brief mourning period.
Responding to Carrey’s statements, Moretz said recently that: “If you are that easily swayed, you might see The Silence of the Lambs and think you are a serial killer.”
It’s logic that doesn’t quite follow, but is excusable from a 16-year old. Like the film itself, it confuses the point. With neither wit nor anything of consequence to say, Kick-Ass 2 fails because it relies too heavily on the comic book violence itself to entertain. That such a formula is financially successful in Hollywood is unsettling and worthy of discussion into what it means culturally.
Sure, it’s a long bow to suggest Kick-Ass 2 would actually encourage anyone to walk the streets in scuba gear, become a vigilante, or even hurt someone, but it is worth asking what the commercial success and proliferation of such films in popular culture says about our attitude to violence. Is it an indictment on our acceptance of the depiction of violence; are those of those who wonder such things just prudish snobs; or is it just a bad film that missed the mark?
The answer is hopefully that violence isn’t entertaining; skilful filmmaking is.