06/20/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Forest for the Trees: How Some Critics Missed the Complexity of Hit Girl

I don't think Kick-Ass is a masterpiece and I don't have issues with critics who choose not to like it. But what troubles me is how much of the criticism revolves around the simplistic and wrong-headed criticism of the character of Hit Girl. I've written from time to time about critics and pundits being so blinded by state-of-the-art special effects that they were unable to see the real movie that those effects supported. The critics in question would completely ignore the character work, storytelling, and/or social significance at work in films such as The Matrix, Beowulf, or Speed Racer, and then rip the films for being soulless, empty-headed FX spectacles. Ironically enough, when many of these films came to DVD, critics would find themselves SHOCKED to discover that those missing elements where right there in front of them, but that had missed them on the big screen due to the overwhelming razzle-dazzle.

The other circumstance of missing the obvious usually involves audiences overwhelmed by taboo elements or the appearance of ultra-violence. This is the odd situation when critics (smart and dumb alike) climb all over themselves to condemn Fight Club as an ultra-violent, anarchist fantasy without realizing that there's only one death, only a token amount of fighting, and a message that explicitly condemns the domestic terrorists while coming down firmly on the side of personal responsibility. It happens when the media proclaims Pulp Fiction as an ultra-violent gore-fest while blind to the fact that it contains a single-digit body count and only a token amount of onscreen graphic violence that wouldn't be out of place in any R-rated action film. And yes, it happens when critics and pundits decry the character of Hit Girl as nothing but a dangerous fantasy character. Why does she have no qualms about killing people? Why is the picture so cavalier about showing her being beaten to a pulp? Is she a dangerous role model for the young girls who will theoretically see this R-rated picture?

(SPOILER WARNING from here on out) Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman put a scene in the film where characters specifically discuss the immorality of Damon's actions regarding his daughter. It's made perfectly clear that she's been brainwashed from birth and a victim of what could only be called child abuse. Her father is training her to be a soldier in a war. Thus, she's been trained to view the mobsters in question as inhuman/sub-human, for whom killing of them has no real consequences. The movie works partially because it refuses to ignore the dark undertones at work. Sure, the movie didn't obsess on it or her possible PTSD stemming from the events of the film, but that's perfectly reasonable territory for a sequel to deal with. But Hit Girl is a supporting character in a movie with several major characters, so every choice that every character makes cannot be analyzed in full. The fact that Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and company took the time to acknowledge what a shockingly terrible parent Cage was, and what the long-term implications of turning his kid into a heartless killing machine should be enough. Critics cannot miss this obvious character development and then complain that the movie glamorizes an eleven-year old killing machine. The creation of Hit Girl is viewed as a tragedy, plain and simple.

The other two major complaints frankly have their roots in sexism and/or patriarchal condescension. The first deals with the climactic beat-down that Hit Girl suffers at the hands of lead villain D'Amico. Viewed objectively, the scene wouldn't be the least bit out of place in any other superhero adventure story. The climactic fight scene is a standard give-and-take of brutal blows scored by both hero and villain. At the very end, the villain gets the upper hand and starts to hammer at our heroine out of anger and fear. After all, this kid just wasted pretty much every henchman the guy has, why wouldn't he want vengeance? But the blows suffered by Hit Girl are no worse than those taken by Spider-Man in his climactic smack-down with the Green Goblin. And the violence is in fact far tamer than the vicious beating that Kick-Ass himself endures during the course of the picture.

The issue at hand is the double standard when it comes to female action heroes. Sure, we all say we want empowering female characters who can play in the action sandbox as effectively as the boys do. Yet we collectively cringe when said female heroes (and villains) receive the same kind of brutal violence that is commonly visited upon male action heroes and villains. We love watching the stars of Charlie's Angels overcome the villains in their path, but we protest when Crispin Glover momentarily gains the advantage. We say we want equality regarding gender and villainy in our genre pictures, but we constantly demand that only female heroes be allowed to do battle with female villains (Drop Zone, Die Another Day, etc). Television may have made great strides in this realm (The Powerpuff Girls, Alias, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc), but the movies are still stuck defending the violence visited on female characters even when they are playing murderous cyborgs from the future sent to bring about Judgment Day.

The final issue at hand involves the somewhat preposterous fear that young girls will find a way to see and decide that Hit Girl is a role model for their play fantasies. Damn right they will. And you know what? Who cares? We have no qualms about young boys idolizing murderous womanizers like James Bond or Tony Stark. We never bat an eye when an eight-year-old boy wants to dress up as that genocidal, galaxy-destroying, slaughterer-of-children known as Darth Vader. And that's not even counting the countless fantasy games based on horror-film boogie-men of the moment. More than once, I dressed up for Halloween as an undead former child molester turned murderer of teens who sliced and diced innocent kids using a glove with knives for fingers. I turned out OK. As I wrote last November regarding the Twilight series, no one complains when our nation's boys emulate somewhat immoral male protagonists from various mainstream blockbusters, but we're up in arms about the questionable morality of female protagonists. Let's trust our young girls just a bit more. Any young girl who watches Kick-Ass and thinks that she wants Hit Girl's life is probably just as wrongheaded as the countless young boys who grew up really wanting to be Batman or Spider-Man. Which is, of course, partially what Kick-Ass is really about.

But then, wrongheaded would describe many of the critics who are up in arms over the character. Yes, the character is a surprising one, and her actions and appearance are striking enough to make audiences react in a somewhat simplistic manner ("That's so cool!" or "That's so offensive!"). There's more under the surface of the character of Hit Girl than 'aren't we shocking' fluff. And it should be a critic's job to notice. If anyone should be able to see past the fog, it's people who get paid to watch and review movies.