Movie Review: Kick-Ass Ushers in a New Era in Superhero Films

Film: Kick-Ass
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Mark Strong, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Nicholas Cage
Written by: Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Rating: 8 out of 10 / A-

Review by: Johnny M

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a typical American teenager with a healthy love of comic books. One day, he decides to put on a wetsuit and become a real crimefighter, even though his only super power is “being invisible to girls.”  Dubbing himself Kick-Ass, Dave’s exploits are captured on camera phone, and he becomes an overnight internet sensation, attracting both the attention of local crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and costumed vigilantes Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Dave is soon swept up into Daddy and Hit Girl’s personal war against D’Amico’s empire, as is Frank’s own son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who is also the superhero-wannabe Red Mist.

Based on the comic book by veterans Mark Millar (who’s Wanted was also made into a film) and John Romita, Jr., Kick-Ass is by no means a parody or satire of comic books. On the contrary, there’s a lot of love for the medium in the film with a good balance of comedy, action and drama. However, it’s also a deconstruction of the myth of superheroes, but on a much more microcosmic level than epics like Watchmen. Kick-Ass, like that film, asks what would happen if superheroes really DID operate in the real world, and the results are shocking, intriguing and entertaining all at once.

Matthew Vaughn stages each scene with a good deal of respect for his actors and the material. Vaughn also worked with writer Goldman on Stardust, and like that film, Kick-Ass is full of memorable, very human characters. Dave has a tremendous amount of self-doubt about his new vocation: he has no parents to avenge, no paranormal abilities, just a healthy amount of wish-fulfillment and young bravado. Well, that, and the fact that after he was brutally beaten, stabbed and hit by a car during his first attempt at heroics, his bones were laced with titanium and his nerve endings were deadened so he doesn’t feel pain (“I’m just like Wolverine!”).

There are a few nod-nod-wink-wink moments in the film, but most of it is played very straight. It makes the ultraviolence in the film (and there are more than a few moments of it) all the more shocking and brutal. While the action scenes are staged as mini-rollercoasters, they’re also unflinching in their carnage. The fights are not stylized, clean and PG-13. They’re graphic and occasionally disturbing while also displaying a hypnotic, balletic grace. Imagine Kill Bill‘s fight in the House of Blue Leaves if Tarantino were making a statement about the amorality of vigilante justice instead of a wuxia homage.

The cast is all fantastic. Aaron Johnson is very “movie nerd” attractive—he just needs to take off the glasses and tousle his hair—but his Kick-Ass is a very sympathetic hero with very real problems. Nicholas Cage is better than he has been in a long time, doing his best Adam West as Big Daddy, and Mark Strong is (as always) a reliable and alluring villain. The stand out, however, is the soon-to-be iconic Hit Girl. Chole Grace Moretz does a brilliant job, showing us that even though Hit Girl is a foul-mouthed, pre-teen, hard-ass killing machine, she’s still an 11-year-old girl. She has the moves of a dozen martial arts grand masters, wicked aim with any gun and a deep love for hot chocolate with marshmallows. Oddly enough, parents’ groups are more concerned that Moretz speaks in a constant stream of profanity than the fact that Hit Girl slaughters dozens of people with ease. Moretz works very well with Cage, and one of the only faults in the film is that the relationship between the two (and how he turned her into the deadliest tween in the world) is never explored as fully as it should have been.

Some talk has been made of homophobia in the film, but it’s completely unfounded. After Dave recovers from his first failed heroics, the kids in his school circulate a rumor that he’s gay. This prompts his crush to warm up to him, thinking she can confide in a new gay BFF. Dave, of course, plays along, and his friends give him grief for it, but the homophobic comments aren’t any worse than you might hear from a typical high school boy.

There’s not a whole lot of playing to the camera here, and there aren’t a whole lot of shout-outs to the world of comics (unless you count an all-too-brief cameo by Witchblade‘s Yancy Butler as D’Amico’s wife or Big Daddy’s Batman-ripoff costume). Kick-Ass longs to stand on its own merits as a new kind of take on superheroes, and in that it succeeds spectacularly. Comedic without being farcical, thrilling without being empty-headed, and dramatic without being mawkish, Kick-Ass may very well be the future of superhero films.

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