Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass takes a can’t-miss premise – why aren’t there any real superheroes out there? – and starts out as a biting comic book satire. But instead of exploiting the full potential of that premise, by the end it becomes the very thing it originally parodied: a hyper superhero action movie; I guess that’s about right, seeing how it’s based on a comic book by Mark Millar (The Ultimates) and John Romita, Jr. (Spider-Man, X-Men).
It’s all good: Kick-Ass works on both levels, thanks to a loving, authentic feel for the genre and fluid direction by Vaughn, who never lets things lag even when the script occasionally bails on him. It’s a real blast, a good-natured but graphically violent and surprisingly complex examination of the roots of the genre and the real-life application of superheroes.
Not that it’s without its problems, chief among them a lead who fails to really grab our sympathy or provide much of a rooting interest. Aaron Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a geeky high-schooler who is harassed by bullies, ignored by the girl of his dreams, and spends most of his free time masturbating and reading comic books. Dave starts to wonder: why aren’t there any real superheroes out there? You don’t really need any superpowers, just a spandex costume and a desire to do good.
So with some scuba gear and a couple batons, he’s out prowling the streets as Kick-Ass. A knife to the gut doesn’t deter him; it only makes him stronger by severing some nerve endings and dulling his sense of pain. He isn’t very talented or effective, but a YouTube video turns him into an overnight sensation.
Now, the idea behind this works wonderfully, but Lizewski/Kick-Ass himself? Nah, there’s never anything to really pull us into the character, and the film suffers a little with each minute spent on a subplot between Lizewski and the girl he has the hots for (Lyndsy Fonseca).
Thankfully, there are some characters to pull us in: the real, talented superheroes, who are out there stopping crime without the headlines. They’re the Batman-like Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his 11-year-old daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), who are out for revenge against the local drug lord (Mark Strong), whose son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) happens to be a classmate of Lizewski.
And while she’s playing a secondary character, Moretz just walks away with the film. Her Hit Girl is the best thing on display here, funny and charming and outrageously brutal and foul-mouthed: magnetic whenever she’s on screen. Cage is also fun, but he’s playing it broad, with a thick Southern drawl when he’s out of costume, and the full Adam West Batman when he’s suited up.
Roger Ebert vilified the film for its depiction of graphic violence dished out by and leveled against Hit Girl. What effect will this have on the minds of a young audience? I take the opposite stance. Here’s a film that attempts to show the result of becoming a real-life superhero, the effects of violence; young viewers might hurt themselves emulating a Superman, but few would try if they saw him leap off a building and face plant into a parked car 50 stories below.