Kick-Ass (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)

April 13, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Kick-Ass Poster

We have entered the world of post-modern superheroes, where the concept of someone with special powers doing battle against the forces of evil seems quaint, almost boring. Batman is The Dark Knight. Superman is on hiatus because the most interesting thing about him is the John Williams theme. And Spider-Man is in the process of being rebooted because no one could figure out where to take the character. Yet, despite the trials and tribulations of some of the best-known comic book heroes, the genre is insanely popular, and that popularity gives rise to projects like Kick-Ass, which mock and embrace the conventions with equal zeal. Kick-Ass is part hard-core action flick, part parody, and part comedy. Done poorly, this sort of thing can be painful. Done well, as is the case here, it's a blast. It offers a "have your cake and eat it, too" experience - you can enjoy the exploits of a superhero while at the same time showing your hipness by laughing at some of the sillier clich├ęs. There are so many self-referential layers in this material that it's almost dizzying to contemplate them all.

Kick-Ass transpires in neither the Marvel Universe nor the D.C. Universe, but in a world very much like our own where superheroes are found only in comic books. The film's protagonist, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), is a self-admitted "ordinary guy" - not a geek, a gamer, a stoner, or Mr. Popularity. He's gangly and a little awkward but lacks the hard-core nerd DNA that afflicts many teen male protagonists. His only superpower is "an ability to be invisible to girls." He travels in a small pack that includes two comic-loving buddies: Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters). Like many high school males, he has a crush on an unattainable girl - the pretty and popular Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), but Dave is realistic enough to recognize that she's out of his league and when she smiles in his direction, it's probably because one of her friends is standing behind him.

One day, it occurs to Dave how easy it would be to become a superhero- someone like Batman, who doesn't have any innate special abilities. The thought eats away at Dave until he takes the plunge and buys a costume. Then, after weeks of "training," he's ready to go into action as his rather cheesy-looking alter-ego: Kick-Ass. His first foray into crime fighting doesn't go well: he gets stabbed and is subsequently hit by a moving car. Recovery is a long, tedious process and the accident leaves him with nerve damage. But that doesn't stop Kick-Ass from making a return appearance and, on this occasion, kids are there with camera phones. The video of him being beaten up while nevertheless driving off the bad guys hits the Internet and goes viral. Suddenly, Kick-Ass is a national sensation. And, more than that, he's an inspiration. A gun-loving father-and-daughter team, Damon and Mindy Macready (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz), buy their own costumes and become Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. She's a small, nimble firecracker with purple hair and he's a virtual Batman clone (complete with Adam West voice). Unlike Kick-Ass, they're armed not with clubs but with guns, and they're not afraid to use them. And, while he's just a kid playing at the vigilante game, they take this very seriously. They're unflinching in their methods and their goal is to eliminate bad guys by any means possible.

The commercials for Kick-Ass make it seem almost family-friendly, which it most certainly is not. This film isn't just violent, it revels in bloody mayhem. There are no taboos. Hit-Girl, who's about 11 years old, is shown casually blowing away bad guys and, later, she becomes the victim of a vicious beating. So much for not putting little girls in danger or showing them doing unseemly things. Of course, in Hit-Girl's case, this is an opportunity for some father/daughter bonding. (Or should that be bondage?) On one occasion, when she tricks Big Daddy into thinking she wants a cuddly puppy for her birthday, he is crestfallen. She then reveals that what she really wants is a cool knife; he is suitably relieved.

As a superhero, Kick-Ass is an unmitigated failure, and that's what gives the film its edge. His popularity is not the result of things he does but of an image that replicates itself millions of times on computers and television sets. He's the ultimate paper tiger. Dave enjoys the notoriety but also feels pangs of jealousy with all the attention his alter-ego gets. Because he can't take ownership, he wallows in anonymity, which isn't necessarily where he wants to be. And, although his motivations for becoming a superhero are genuine, it doesn't hurt that it provides him with a chance to get close to Katie - even if she lets her guard down around him because she thinks he's gay.

Kick-Ass is sometimes very funny, but not in the cutesy way it is portrayed in the trailers and TV commercials. Those have sanitized this movie to a PG or PG-13 level when it's really a hard R. The superhero genre has given birth to a fair number of wannabe satires; with the exception of the animated The Incredibles, none has ascended as high as Kick-Ass, which bypasses most of the pitfalls that have tripped up many others. (My Super Ex-Girlfriend and Hancock come to mind, neither of which was awful, but both of which could have been better.)

The biggest name in a cast of character actors and relative unknowns is Nicolas Cage, who mostly stays out of the spotlight in a supporting role. It's an interesting choice for Cage, who was once tabbed as the next (post-Christopher Reeve) Superman before that incarnation of the hero went into turnaround. Here, he's playing a Batman-type, but his penchant for bloodshed makes The Dark Knight look like a pussy. Cage is clearly having fun with the role, even going so far as to imitate Adam West's voice.

The other heroes are Aaron Johnson, a British TV actor getting his first major big-screen exposure as the title character; Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who will forever be known as McLovin', as the devious Red Mist; and Chloe Moretz, who will probably get the most attention because of her age. Johnson's job is challenging - he has to convince us that an ordinary guy can kind-of, sort-of stumble into the superhero role without a Greatest American Hero suit - and he pulls it off. Mintz-Plasse plays Red Mist as a bit of a weirdo, which fits his carefully sculpted post-Superbad personality. And Moretz is tremendous as the perfect psycho Daddy's Girl. The only other notable performer in the film is Mark Strong, who is playing his second consecutive bad guy (he was a villain in Sherlock Holmes). Taking a look at Strong's list of upcoming films, it's safe to say that he's on his way to becoming very recognizable very soon.

The intelligence and irreverence of Kick-Ass recalls similar qualities in director Matthew Vaughn's debut, Layer Cake. And, although this movie is not wall-to-wall jokes, nearly every instance of humor works, which is a rarity even for the most adeptly crafted comedies. More importantly, care is taken by the writers (Vaughn and Jane Goldman, adapting from Mark Millar's comic book series) and actors to flesh out the characters into the kind of living, breathing human beings viewers care about and root for. The underdog factor is in play - we get behind Kick-Ass because he's standing in for us. The best superhero movie since The Dark Knight (and far less serious in tone or approach), Kick-Ass earns its name in every way.

Kick-Ass (United States/United Kingdom, 2010)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2010-04-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1