Picture a foul-mouthed, sword-wielding, grizzled anti-hero — you're probably not envisioning a teenage girl. When Kick-Ass introduced us to Mindy Macready aka "Hit-Girl" (Chloë Grace Moretz) in 2010, it was quite a shock, though she filled the role of a big-talking, intimidating hero with ease. Critics of the film were uncomfortable with a thirteen-year-old girl throwing the C-word around while committing acts of mass murder (though I suspect many detractors might have felt differently had Hit-Girl been Hit Boy). Still, Hit-Girl became a cultural phenomenon: a strong and complex female character in a traditionally male genre.
It's exciting, then, to see Kick-Ass 2 (released earlier this month) focus squarely on Mindy as she overcomes the brutal murder of her father while struggling with her calling as a crime fighter alongside her obligation to her new family. The film excels here for numerous reasons, but most importantly it doesn’t completely "masculinize" Mindy. She faces the same problems as many other teenage girls — fitting in, mean girls, her first kiss — while still managing to waste a bad guy or 12. What's interest is that it's the everyday problems she contends with that makes her realize that she’s meant to be a hero. It’s a refreshing portrayal and one that allows her to be both strong and vulnerable.
Unfortunately, where Mindy succeeds, those around her fail. Writer/director Jeff Wadlow gives us a plethora of female characters to invest in, yet most are nothing more than stereotypes, seemingly less about genuine characterization than advancing the plot.
Much of the film is taken up by the so-called "mean girls" of Mindy’s high school. Led by Brooke (Claudia Lee), they are a cliché portrayal of teenage girls — shallow, mean, and ready to turn on you in a second if you deign to be better at cheerleading than them. It’s obvious that their two-dimensional purpose is to provide a foil for the deeper, more mature Mindy.
This underdeveloped portrayal of women extends to those in the film meant to represent strength: "superheroes" like Night Bitch. She fights alongside her male counterparts and looks good doing it. However, her role in crime fighting is simply a way of introducing her to Kick-Ass’ (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) world. Much like Mindy’s cohorts, Night Bitch only really exists to motivate Kick-Ass and their dynamic is particularly disturbing. Not only is Night Bitch the requisite love interest, she also becomes the damsel in distress. Without revealing any major spoilers, the primary villain — Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s the Motherfucker — attempts to exact revenge on Kick-Ass is by beating and raping Night Bitch. While the rape trope itself is problematic, the way in which the film attempts to bring "humor" to the attack is painful to watch (a "get it up" joke is involved).
Perhaps the filmmakers would argue that bringing levity to rape is consistent with the film's tone of gratuitous violence juxtaposed against crude humour. However, where the violence of the film may be equal-opportunity, life isn't — and this moment felt unnecessary at best. If Night Bitch and the rape had been omitted from the film, the plot wouldn’t have suffered in any way.
This doesn’t detract from Hit-Girl, who may not be the titular hero but is clearly the protagonist; and the reason Kick-Ass 2 is an interesting film.
It’s too bad the characters around her are so lacking. It seems the best we can hope for is one developed female character per film, and Hit-Girl hits the quota.
So can Hit-Girl save Kick-Ass 2 from itself? Not entirely, but it’s fun to watch her try.