KICK-ASS Directed by Matthew Vaughn

“I really want to be famous!!!!” reads the headline for a recent post to the message board for “i just don’t know how.” The writer, a 14-year-old girl identifying herself as “imdiffernt,” explains: “i really want to be an actress. i don’t know how to though. its my dream to be famous, i actually think i have a chance. i know this sounds crazy but i need this. i need this to feel complete. because i dont want to go through life like this. i want to feel like a somebody. i want to take acting classes for two years before auditioning for anything. i dont want to seem like a joke, i want to be very good. how should i dress? what should my look be?” As a curriculum vitae for acting work, her post doesn’t reveal much: stunted logic, sense of entitlement, lack of self-awareness, yearning for a received identity. But she should be able to sell her life story to Hollywood immediately.

Having watched numerous children’s movies with my eight-year-old son, I’ve noticed that their stories often center on the pursuit of fame, inexplicably presented as a virtue unto itself. In such kid pics as Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Spy Next Door, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and the TV movie High School Musical, fame is elemental, waiting to be liberated, like fossil fuel in the cave of our collective consciousness, by some enterprising young go-getter. Mirroring the all-or-nothing gamesmanship of Survivor, Project Runway, and countless other reality shows, these movies present the social milieu as a funny, life-positive cockfight. This odious permutation of social Darwinism invariably celebrates the savviest gamer, whose every relationship and calculation are effortlessly, holistically directed toward a big payoff on a big stage, with an audience, applause, and approval.

The desire for renown is at least as old as Homer’s Iliad, in which the hero Achilles weighs the pros and cons of exchanging his life on the field of battle for kleos aphthiton (roughly, “fame everlasting”). But this Homeric ideal of individual glory was subsumed by Athenian democracy, in which citizen-soldiers known as hoplites were not just entitled but obligated to participate actively in voting and warfare. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes the ambition for collective glory and influence that was central to the ancient Greek city-state. Bloody and imperialist as the city-state may have been, its ideal of communitarian participation, with the tantalizing promise of shared fame, has influenced notions of democratic citizenship ever since. As a boy I learned about Paul Revere, and today my son learns about Rosa Parks, but the lesson is the same: they may be famous now, but at the time they acted for the common good, with little regard for their own comfort or safety.

In the new millennium, though, it’s a different story. As globalism marches onward, blending or eradicating economies and cultures, a new model of citizenship has emerged, designed to encourage consumption and reach across every market culture on the planet. Outside the classroom, Paul Revere and Rosa Parks are no match for bottle-bronzed death machines like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, famous just for being famous and inspiring nothing more than a need for the spotlight. In the age of YouTube and American Idol, when social aspiration and civil discourse take the shape of TV talent contests and viral video, celebrity is the de facto expression of citizenship.

Talent contests are a particularly instructive example of this model, with common folk submitting themselves to the judgment of celebrity panels. We’re invited to anticipate the contestants’ fame while vicariously enjoying the role of celebrity judge and jury: who will be awarded a future audience, and who will be cast back into anonymity? The working stiff has the opportunity to feel a sensation of agency, rare in our fading meritocracy, without actually lifting a finger. In a world of ballot-rigging and billion-dollar bailouts, where entertainment products are globally synergistic and capitalism is synonymous with democracy (we’re supposed to be “voting” with our dollars), why wouldn’t our escapist entertainment celebrate the power grab?

All this makes Matthew Vaughn’s superhero adventure Kick-Ass a particularly timely story about civic-mindedness and the pursuit of fame. Along with a lot of potty-mouthed ass-kicking action, the film features a collection of urban white kids engaged in their own version of public service. Adapted from an ultraviolent comic book series by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., it revolves around Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a high school student who introduces himself in voice-over by enumerating his product preferences: “I liked Scrubs, Stereophonics, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Entourage. Snow Patrol, Heroes, and the movies of Ryan Reynolds.” His motivation for becoming a vigilante is muddled. On the one hand, he sees it as an altruistic flavor of celebrity, rhetorically asking his friends, “Why do people want to be Paris Hilton and nobody wants to be Spider-Man?” On the other, he privately reflects that “It didn’t take a trauma to make you wear a mask . . . just the perfect combination of loneliness and despair.” Maybe it’s both. He reinvents himself as Kick-Ass, a costumed crime fighter, and becomes an instant celebrity after his exploits are videotaped and posted on YouTube.

Dave sets up a social networking page for his alter ego, and soon he’s friending thousands of admirers and processing requests for help. Hoping to upgrade his sexual status from chronic masturbator to bona-fide ex-virgin, he responds to one such message from Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), his high school crush, which leads him into a bloodbath involving a bunch of drug dealers. Luckily for him, he’s bailed out by two other vigilantes, 11-year-old Mindy Macready (Chloe Moretz), aka Hit Girl, and her cracked father, Damon (Nicolas Cage), aka Big Daddy. When Dave gets a load of their hero act—a combination of homicidal combat and psychotic joie de vivre—he decides to hang it up. Aside from feeling outclassed, he’s lost the stomach for it; of all the costumed characters, he’s the one guy with a sense of responsibility and empathy.

Screenwriter Jane Goldman expands the story’s thematic reach by making Katie a volunteer at a needle exchange; this addition quietly introduces a civic sensibility to contrast with Dave’s more flamboyant and self-serving gambit. Sitting at a grubby help desk, she may not be a viral sensation, but in truth she’s doing more good than he is, without expectation of reward or acknowledgment. Likewise, she doesn’t find Dave’s secret identity appealing, and after he reveals it to her, she makes him swear he’ll retire from crime fighting. It’s interesting that Katie flies below the movie’s radar, because her decisions and general attitude are the most balanced and healthy.

The movie’s violent finale occurs, naturally enough, in the mediasphere; hoping to discourage other would-be vigilantes, the villain launches a streaming online video, picked up by TV news, to reveal the true identities of Kick-Ass and Big Daddy. The audience is presented with celebrity content that would never get past Standards and Practices, let alone Marketing: Kick-Ass gets kneecapped, and Big Daddy is set on fire. Once the torture begins, the TV station terminates the feed, sending rapt viewers scrambling to their laptops to continue watching on the Internet (no wonder ad revenues are plummeting). It’s pretty rough stuff, but not all that different from the suffering and humiliation people gladly endure on a program like Fear Factor.

At some point, however, even the global free market is trumped by the social contract. Millar and Romita’s cultish comic books are remarkably gory, with eyeballs, teeth, and genitalia getting blown out at point-blank range, and they trade on the spectacle of a sexed-up 11-year-old girl doling out extreme violence. Vaughn, a British movie maker best known for producing the laddish Guy Ritchie comedies, has toned down the comic books’ snuff-movie and child-porn aspects, exploiting their shock potential while carefully guarding his R rating. Our notion of the common good still provides a filter to protect us from the worst, though the common good seems less common all the time. If our fame-hungry friend from CosmoGirl wants a role model, she can preorder a Hit Girl action figure from Mezco Toyz; they haven’t made one for the girl at the needle exchange.    v

Care to comment? Find this review at