Like any bona fide superhero, a comic-book movie that hopes to make a dent on pop culture needs a dual identity. On the one hand, it has to cloak itself in bright and shiny cliché; on the other, it has to stun us with something we’ve never seen before. That requires a tricky mix of safe formula and nervy invention, and Hollywood tends to have trouble with the latter. That’s why Kick-Ass, which opens this week with blockbuster hype, is not a Hollywood movie. Every major studio turned down the script. It was too violent, too profane, and no one knew what to make of its most sensational character—a savage 11-year-old caped superhero named Hit Girl who swears like a sailor and kills a whole lot of people with brutal relish. One studio executive told the filmmakers to turn Hit Girl into a 20-year-old, or lose her entirely.
Scottish producer-writer-director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Stardust) wouldn’t compromise. Financing Kick-Ass independently, he shot it in Toronto and the U.K. on a relatively modest budget of US$30 million, then sold the finished movie to Lionsgate for a reported US$45 million—after a bidding war among the same studios that had rejected the script. You can see why it caused a fuss. To coin an obvious blurb, Kick-Ass kicks ass.
Based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar (Wanted), it’s about a teen comic-book nerd (Aaron Johnson) who tries his luck as a real-life superhero named Kick-Ass, armed with only a truncheon and a mail-order scuba suit. As his bumbling exploits win YouTube notoriety, and the girl of his dreams, he meets a pair of hard-core crime fighters—Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a demented ex-cop in a Batman get-up, and Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz), the daughter he has honed into a lethal weapon. She’s learned to play with guns and knives the way most girls play with dolls.
Candy-wrapped in the tropes of romantic comedy, this naughty, blood-filled concoction is surprisingly sweet. In the end, it’s an unlikely crowd-pleaser, a feel-good Molotov cocktail of comic provocation. But it does invite controversy. Kick-Ass, which carries a restricted rating, goes where no movie has gone before. We’ve seen kids cast in R-rated fare: Linda Blair in The Exorcist, Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. But this is the first time we’ve seen an 11-year-old blithely using the c-word. As Hit Girl, little Chloë Moretz yells to a room full of adults, “Okay, you c–ts, let’s see what you can do now!” It’s shocking, but no more so than the gleeful brutality with which this little killer shreds her foes, in a visceral ballet of bullets, butterfly blades, kitchen knives and martial artistry.
Two years after shooting the film, Moretz, who’s now 13, sits in a Toronto hotel room discussing the role that has made Hit Girl Hollywood’s new It Girl. Dissecting the remains of a ketchup-slathered clubhouse sandwich, she’s smartly dressed in glossy black tights and a silk polka-dot ensemble, though still looks more like a child than a teenager. When she opens her mouth, however, she displays a poise beyond her years.
Asked if she expects her use of foul language in the film to be controversial, she explains, with an air of slightly bored patience, “It’s a role—it’s not meant to be taken as real life. I was raised to think cursing makes you look unintelligent. As Chloë, I can honestly say I’ve never uttered a syllable of a curse word, not even behind closed doors.” Hit Girl, she adds, “was brainwashed from a young age to become this vigilante superhero. But she’s innocent and all for girl empowerment. That’s how I connect to the character.”
The youngest of five children, and the only girl, Moretz has been acting from the age of four. Her mother is a nurse, her father a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. She followed her eldest brother into the profession; Trevor, 23, is her acting coach. For Kick-Ass, Moretz says she “trained with ballerinas, gymnasts, martial artists, ex-Marines—and at the Toronto Circus School.” So does she worry about missing out on a normal childhood? “C’mon, look at me!” she says in disbelief. “I’m like a three-year-old! When I’m with my friends we have popcorn fights.”
Her friends, however, can’t see her movie. “I strongly advise no one under the legal age of 18 to see it,” Moretz says solemnly. But she’s seen it. She even texted a friend from the industry screening to say how excited she was. A security guard came over and threatened to confiscate her phone. “I’m so sorry,” she said, then pointed to the masked killer onscreen. “That’s me!”