Kick-Ass is a movie based on characters created by former Spider-Man writer Mark Millar and definitive Spider-Man artist John Romita Jr. Millar is known for a well-liked run on Marvel Knights: Spider-Man, for writing Spider-Man’s shocking (but temporary) unmasking in Civil War, and for generally bringing a sociopathic interpretation to a variety of Marvel’s heroes. Romita Jr., of course, has been a legendary Spider-Man artist for three decades, especially noted for his acclaimed stint with Roger Stern and for bringing Spider-Man into the 21st Century with J. Michael Straczyski. The result of this meeting of the minds is the depraved creator-owned comic Kick-Ass, now a film by Matthew Vaughn. I caught a midnight showing and now I share my impressions with you. Does Kick-Ass kick butt? Find out!
Kick-Ass is the story of an ordinary New York high schooler named Dave, played by Aaron Johnson (no, you haven’t heard of him), who one day decides its time someone in real life tries to be a super-hero. He orders a wetsuit for a costume, styles himself “Kick-Ass,” and goes out to beat up criminals like the vigilantes in his beloved comic books. The result? He gets his ass kicked.
Dave takes lengths to inform the audience that there’s nothing unique about his history, that he hasn’t made this choice because criminals killed his parents or because of any other defining tragedy. However, the film’s undertones make the point that Dave has in fact experienced something of a tragedy: the 21st century American childhood. Dave’s environment is run down, commercialized, and drawn into the information age to the point of being soulless. He walks through a metal detector in the entrance to his school and gets repeatedly mugged on the way home from the comic shop. His crush Katie (Lyndsy Fonesca) works at the needle exchange, and his widower father appears completely defeated by life. It’s no wonder Dave wants to bring some idealistic comic book justice into his world.
He finds out, however, that the world of Kick-Ass by no means lends itself to idealism. Our protagonist gets hospitalized after his very first attempt at playing hero, and his successive ventures don’t go much better, other than making him into a Youtube sensation. The movie works best when it’s tethered to reality like this, exploring what would really happen if somebody in our world mimicked comic books.
But that realism goes out the window when Kick-Ass meets the more experienced and bloodthirsty father-daughter vigilante duo of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, portrayed by Nicholas Cage and Chloe Moretz. These two gun-toting, wire-stunting psychopaths are so excessively vicious that I wasn’t sure if I should root for them or pray for Kick-Ass to realize they’re taking it too far and turn against them. What actually happens is that Kick-Ass idolizes them, which is where this movie completely departs from reality. If I see an eleven-year-old drop the C-bomb and disembowel a room full of gangsters, I’m going to go home and throw up, not faun over how she and her world’s worst dad are the “real deal.” After a scene of Daddy helping his little girl practice taking shots in a bullet proof vest, as darkly humorous as ironic as it is, I didn’t buy that these two were human beings with souls at all. Later in the movie, after a truly inspired origin story told through John Romita Jr. comic book panels and a turning point in Hit-Girl’s life, I started to at least like the girl better (Big Daddy’s irredeemable). The character of Hit-Girl isn’t just the gore and swearing that’s stirred up a half-hearted controversy among the politically correct; there’s actually a tragic backstory behind her that genuinely evokes sympathy and puts her twisted interactions with her father into context. Still, the ultra-violent, ultra-foul-mouthed shtick never quite fits in a story better served by realism.
At least the bad guys deserve the sadism. Mark Strong’s Frank D’Amico and his goons may not be the most scene-chewing baddies to show up in a superhero film, but they’re evil enough that seeing them dismembered offers a certain satisfaction. A particularly morbid scene involving a giant microwave comes to mind. D’Amico’s awkward teenage son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), often steals the show, as anyone who saw his performance as “McLovin” from Superbad would expect. Genuinely seeking to inherit his father’s criminal empire, but at the same time squeamish about what being a mobster entails, Chris is the most conflicted and compelling character in the movie. He eventually takes on his own costumed identity, serving as a linking point between the film’s several storylines.
Overall, the story of Kick-Ass is quite good. It isn’t very complex, and there aren’t many plot twists that’ll throw you for a loop, but it is ultimately a well-plotted revenge story. The presentation keeps the moderately large cast of characters easily managed by the viewer, and there weren’t TOO many annoying oversights from a storytelling perspective (the mental ineptitude of the evil headquarters guards was the only thing that kind of irked me). The love story subplot between Dave and Katie may be a little silly in where the filmmakers go with it, but that’s not what anyone is watching the movie for anyway. Fans of the comic have complained that the film delves too far into over-the top action toward the end, abandoning the source material’s gritty feel in favor of wire-fu stunts and a jetpack. It’s all about expectations, though. Kick-Ass the movie is all about outrageous entertainment with a mocking attitude, and it delivers that for two solid hours.
The tone of Kick-Ass will annoy the faint of heart and the easily offended. It’s a dark movie, darker by far than the marketing would lead viewers unfamiliar with Millar’s work to expect. To enjoy this film, you have to have a heavy appreciation of cynical irony and juxtaposition, and you have to understand the complex mindset of the millennial generation. Those who accuse Millar of being a mere peddler of shock value for shock value’s sake are missing something. He isn’t a great artistic mind, but he is perfectly in tune with the mindset of the generation that is about to inherit the Earth, a generation that is vastly empowered to communicate through technology but powerless to control the chaotic swirl of information that reality has become. For many, the only way to cope with this reality is to make light of its horrors.
Vaughn captures the zeitgeist just as well behind the camera. Visually, Kick-Ass has a slightly white-washed look, as if to match the film’s cheapened sense of existence. The cinematic depiction of the internet is slick and ingeniously edited. Several clever shots subtly hint at the undercurrent of hopelessness carrying the entire story. None of the acting is bad, and some of it is quite good. I especially commend Moretz for pulling off her character’s innocently unsettling dynamic perfectly and Mintz-Plasse for being a hilarious human being. As a production, Kick-Ass’s only true flaw is a couple of awful music choices in a few action sequences involving Hit-Girl.
Kick-Ass ends with an inspiring image of our heroes leaving the final battle. The film’s genre has completely transitioned into that of a traditional superhero action flick. At that point, the colors finally seem sharper, the city doesn’t seem quite so decayed, and the future looks bright. Perhaps the message is that there is something in these superhero comic books that can make the world a better place and help us overcome some of that hopelessness. Perhaps that isn’t true to Millar’s original vision, but I can’t say it wasn’t satisfying.
So what’s in it for Spider-Man fans? Well, besides the connection of the creators involved, Spider-Man is referenced several times. The most overt reference is made when Dave is contemplating revealing his identity (and his heterosexuality) to his love interest. He declares that the difference between Spider-Man and Peter Parker is that Spider-Man “gets the girl.” So if you want to use lessons from comic books to get you laid, Kick-Ass might have some pointers.
The bottom line is that Kick-Ass entertained me. It isn’t a perfect film, but it undeniably has a style and sensibility that’s fresh to super hero adaptations. I give it 4 out of 5. That isn’t an unqualified recommendation, though. I’ll freely admit my own tastes tend toward the very dark so consider yourself warned.
And people, if you have enough time to be outraged by a girl saying a few one-syllable words, then I’d respectively suggest finding worthier concerns.