Not even finger guns

Blog by Keir Roper-Caldbeck | 05 Apr 2010

“No guns. Not even finger guns.” These words, which I once overheard a mother say to her five-year-old as he went off to play, returned to me as I sat and watched Hit Girl, the eleven-year-old superhero of Kick Ass, slice and dice her way through a group of bad guys, severing limbs with casual aplomb. Dealing out extreme violence whilst using the c-word, Hit Girl was always going to be, well, a hit with the tabloids. It's not difficult to guess what the mother I overheard would make of her, but what should we think? Should we be shocked?

I've long been disturbed by the sadistic, often sexual, violence against children that is commonplace in novels, TV dramas and films. It often seems that the abuse and murder of children is the main engine driving the plots of contemporary thrillers. Perhaps, as Jane Goldman – who wrote the screenplay of Kick Ass – has suggested, it's a positive move to make a child the perpetrator, rather than the victim. The idea that children should be completely removed from the world of violence is a relatively recent phenomenon. Wars have throughout history been fought by boys scarcely older than Hit Girl. By instructing her in the arts of war her father, Big Daddy (Nic Cage), echoes the programme of education that Montaigne advocated, which included training in the use of weapons and required children to “be broken into the discomfit and hardship of exercise, in preparation for … gaol and torture. For [they] might fall victim even to these which, as times are, threaten the good as well as the bad”. There was no need to invent Gotham in the cruel world of 16th century France.

Kick Ass certainly tries to give an accurate depiction of the consequences of violence. Kick Ass himself ends up in hospital for six months after his first disastrous attempt at a superhero intervention, while the fight that later makes him famous via the Internet is a messy, low-key and believable affair. Driven by “a perfect combination of optimism and naivety” to emulate his comic-book heroes, he quickly realises that this will not be enough to make him a true superhero. When he encounters Big Daddy and Hit Girl he recognises that “they were the real deal. I was just a dick in a wetsuit.” Big Daddy, driven by a traumatic past to dress in a Batman-like costume and commit acts of brutal vengeance, is a direct descendant of the characters created by Frank Miller and Alan Moore; middle-aged, despairing heroes with no innate superpowers, who are perplexed by their own propensity for violence and fancy dress.

In Kick Ass Hit Girl emerges as the true superhero, her extreme youth allowing fantasy and brutality to be reconciled in the same character without compromising her innocence. Yet, of course, she is as much a wish-fulfilment figure as Superman at his inception. To allow her to kill and maim without consequence the film has to effect a sleight of hand. Whilst the violence visited upon Kick Ass and dealt out by Big Daddy is brutal and graphic, the first fight scene with Hit Girl is treated differently, the bloody mayhem given a comic undertow by the theme tune to The Banana Splits. In another, the fight is seen through her night vision goggles, reducing it to a first-person video game. It seems that in the end the children can only have finger guns after all. And for that, I suppose, we should be thankful.