The 2008 comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was a wildly uneven, tonally scattershot whiff of a movie, redeemed considerably by one successful element: the subplot of Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), the father-daughter crime-fighting team of real bravery and skill, in contrast to the clumsy and frequently ineffective title character. It doesn’t seem like this was a solitary reaction; the trailers and clips were heavy on the Hit Girl, and when you hear people talk fondly about that movie now, they’re very seldom talking about how great Aaron Johnson is. Hit Girl was a classic case of a supporting character stealing the show — a supporting character who, by all rights, should have been the star. And now they’ve made a sequel, Kick-Ass 2, in which they made the same damn mistake again. She’s the crowd pleaser; by this point, the title seems like a joke.
To be sure, the pleasure of her character (and Moretz’s performance) isn’t enough to recommend the picture, which is mostly limp, uninspired, and rape-y (more on that here and here). And even Moretz’s subplot is deeply problematic. Though Mindy/Hit Girl promised her late father that she’d give up crime-fighting, she still ditches school for daily training, and eventually lets Dave/Kick-Ass come along (“Mindy beat me like morning wood every day for weeks”). It’s only after she’s busted by her guardian that she finally hangs up the mask, only to find her character dropped into a Mean Girls rip-off so blatant, they may as well have just had her rent that movie and point the camera at her TV. (“Fuck with the queen bee and you’re gonna get stung,” the JV Rachel McAdams tells her, in a shout-out to the book that was Mean Girls’ source material.)
The Mean Girls Lite subplot culminates with a sequence of mass vomiting and liquid fecal matter in a high school cafeteria, so there’s that to wrestle with. Yet even when the script lets her down, Moretz is a delight, and when they dispense with all the Sweet Valley High bullshit and let her suit up and get back to the business of kicking ass, it gives the picture an indisputable lift. The character and the performer are so infinitely more entertaining than the film around them, you can’t help but wonder why it’s not just a movie about her — to say nothing of why she’s billed third behind the dull Aaron Johnson and the way-past-his-expiration-date Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
So why, after Hit Girl stole the first Kick-Ass film, does she remain relegated to the sidelines in the sequel? Why not seize the one thing that worked in the initial outing and build a sequel around that? It’s called a spin-off, and it’s been done before: the Shrek sequels beget Puss in Boots, Forgetting Sarah Marshall gave us Get Him to the Greek, and most appropriate to this discussion, the X-Men series gave us not one, but two spin-off Wolverine movies.
But here’s the difference: Wolverine is a dude. For the ladies, you have to look at films like 2005’s Elektra, a spin-off of Daredevil. That under-performing movie is the example a hard-pressed movie executive might give for why female spin-off superhero movies don’t do well — that or Catwoman or Supergirl, none of which are relevant to the overall conversation because all were steaming piles of dung. It seems peculiar that the proliferation of comics into cinema is resulting in film adaptations of books much of the general public has never heard of, but there still hasn’t been, to give the most obvious example, a Wonder Woman movie.
I’d have more examples, but there aren’t many. There’s a shortage of female superheroes on the page and the screen, and it doesn’t make any sense; after all, as we’ve noted, women comprise a larger share of tickets sold than men. Comic creators will make excuses, as a panel at the recent Television Critics Association press tour did. “I think the bigger question is why readers are not interested in those characters,” insisted Punisher creator Gerry Conway. “Comics follow society. They don’t lead society, they reflect it.” But maybe it’s time for the industry to take the lead, since it’s difficult — dare I say impossible — for either comic book readers or mainstream moviegoers to get “interested” in characters that don’t exist.