When Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. created Kick-Ass, they reinterpreted superhero escapism for a modern audience, one used to being entertained by the various violent excesses of games like Grand Theft Auto and TV shows like 24. With the movie adaptation of Kick-Ass, director Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman have managed to bring the same spirit to a wider audience, skewing every superhero convention going and giving geeks everywhere a character they can relate to. In every way that matters, this is a film that speaks our language.
Kick-Ass ostensibly asks the question “What if superheroes were real?” and answers it. Not in the same way that Watchmen did, by deconstructing the politics and very human motivations behind vigilantes. No. Kick-Ass answers by saying , “Well, they’d get the shit kicked out of them, wouldn’t they?” And such is the kind of ride you’re in for over the film’s two-hour running period. Graphic violence mixed with dark humour. Genre-puncturing without ever descending into spoof or parody.
You’re probably familiar with the story by now: inspired by the superheroes he loves to read about, suburban teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) dons a costume and mask to become a crimefighter. Cue much pummelling and traction. Along the way, he fights gang members, answers calls for help on his MySpace page, and meets other costumed vigilantes, including Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nic Cage), who might just be the real deal.
Although rooted in superhero fiction, the movie wears its videogame influences surprisingly on its sleeve. Structurally, it escalated from a single street fight, through more and more excessive settings. A hilarious first-person night-vision sequence looks like any number of gangster-slaughtering console shooters, while the climactic third act of the movie is practically a dry run for a Grand Theft Auto movie, as Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl fight their way from the base of a skyscraper to the penthouse ‘boss’, leaving an unlikely body count in their wake.
In case it isn’t clear from such a description, Kick-Ass doesn’t labour itself too earnestly to make a point, which is fair enough, since it isn’t bothered about teaching any kind of moral lesson to the kids. Those morals that it does pay lip service to are harvested from existing superhero comics anyway, used to add texture to the characters rather than serve as the thematic centrepiece.
For all its apparent immaturity, Kick-Ass addresses its audience as adults, mixing satire and self-indulgence in a way that includes the audience in the joke. You can only imagine that whoever’s rebooting the Spider-Man movies is going to have a hell of a time putting the genre back together in the wake of a film like Kick-Ass, which occasionally threatens to pull it apart completely.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t explore the idea of heroism at all. Dave’s character hinges on the idea that being a superhero is not just possible, it’s a completely logical response to the world, and that’s what drives him, even though he doesn’t have any powers. Like all the best costumed heroes, Dave’s strength isn’t that he can’t be knocked down. It’s that every time he does, he gets back up, eventually. That’s the kind of heroism that people can identify with, and that’s what makes this film such gloriously escapist fun.
Part of what makes it work is that there are very few moments where anything completely, physically impossible happens in Kick-Ass. Or at least, Vaughn makes it seem that way with his direction, which hugs the boundaries of films like Spider-Man and Watchmen even as its script drags it more towards the likes of Juno and Superbad.
By avoiding any reliance on wire-fu and CGI gunplay, the movie retains the plausible air it needs to make the audience believe that a man can – if not fly – then at least take a few solid punches and come back for more.
For all the emphasis given to Dave, and all the believability every member of the fantastic cast manages to instil in their characters, it’s Chloë Moretz as Hit-Girl that people will come away talking about. As a profanity-spouting, weapon-twirling underage vigilante, she’s practically the star of the film, and it’s never more enjoyable than when she’s on screen.
Admittedly, there are a few moments where Moretz’s youthful acting ability is stretched slightly further than it can handle, but in the majority of cases she more than holds her own against the demanding material. The title of the film might be “Kick-Ass“, but in the absence of any substantial development for Dave, it functions almost as her origin story. The biggest character arc in the film is undoubtedly hers.
For readers of the comic, there are no huge twists to be found. The changes from the graphic novel are largely structural. One major change is that the film’s romantic subplot goes in completely the opposite direction, but comparing the optimistic revelry of the film against the black humour of the comic, it feels like a sane decision, even if it doesn’t quite pull it off.
Dave’s infatuation with Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) does work to begin with, but when Kick-Ass becomes popular and Katie finds herself needing his help, the realism deflates when the time comes for him to reveal his true identity to her. The resulting scene ends up playing out so much like one of the film’s earlier masturbatory fantasies that you can’t help wondering if Dave has actually died, and the remainder of the film occurs in the last flickering moments of his consciousness. There are comedic moments to be had, but for a film that needs us to believe that its hero is no more special than anyone else in a universe similar to our own, it stretches credibility just slightly too far.
Of all the film’s changes from the comic, the biggest is probably made to Big Daddy. Visually, the character goes from being a rather generic masked vigilante to a delicious parody of Christian Bale’s Batman, complete with a note-perfect Adam West impression replacing Bale’s gravelly throat.
Despite this improvement, one of the few unwise alterations the film makes from source material is in jettisoning the character’s origin-revealing punchline. Arguably, this does leave him, as Dave initially supposes, as the real deal, but learning the truth behind him in the comics was so brilliant that it’s a shame not to see the scene included in this film, particularly when Nic Cage is playing him (and I suggest reading the graphic novel if you want to know what I mean!).
Despite a few moments of weakness, Kick-Ass largely succeeds in all it sets out to do. There will be those who are shocked and offended by its content. There will be those that will find it a little too wilfully brainless and cynical. And there will be those who simply get it, from start to finish. And how can you tell which camp you’re in? Well, if you, like Dave, have ever genuinely wondered why people would rather be more like Paris Hilton than Peter Parker, reserve your tickets now.
It might just be one of the best superhero films yet.
Read Mark’s Kick-Ass review here.