Dave Lizewski wants to know why more people don’t become superheroes. On the surface, it’s a pretty inane question, and one that his friend quickly and bluntly shoots down: Any normal person dressing up in a costume and fighting crime would wind up dead or hospitalized after their first day. But Dave is too driven by a desire to do good and engage conflicts and problems that are not his own, and so the awkward, dorky teenager buys a green and yellow striped wet suit on the Internet and, armed with a pair of batons, sets out to fight crime under the moniker Kick-Ass to disastrous results: After his first outing as a hero goes less than in his favor (though he does, to his credit, foil a crime, even if his reward for doing so is being stabbed and hit by a car), Dave recovers physically and goes back out to fight crime with frayed nerve endings and a skeletal frame bolstered by metal plates. He becomes a Youtube sensation and finds himself entwined in the plot of two fellow superheroes, an ex-cop (Nicholas Cage) and his daughter (Chloe Moretz) who “get bad guys” under the code names Big Daddy and Hit Girl, respectively.
The ensuing film, Kick-Ass, contains a mix of one part genre deconstruction and one part celebration of superheroes from the earliest days of comic books to today’s modern evolution of the medium. Directed out-of-pocket by Matthew Vaughn (ostensibly to avoid butting heads with studio executives over its content) Kick-Ass is vulgar, bloody, and electrifying, holding nothing back in any of its stupendous action scenes, but manages to be much more than just the sum of its hyper-violent parts. In fact, like the best satires (such as Shaun of the Dead), Kick-Ass critiques its own genre by being a genuine superhero movie right up to the last scene, and ends up feeling like as much an ode to superheroes as a comment on them.
Notably, Kick-Ass concerns itself with what impels superheroes to combat injustice in the first place by examining the dichotomy inherent in the origins of its different characters. To wit, the film contrasts Dave’s selfless motives with the more self-interested nature of Big Daddy’s campaign to destroy the criminal empire of Frank D’Amico (Mark strong), against whom the Batman lookalike holds a very personal grudge. The differing ideologies held by the three heroes constitute the film’s strongest theme: On one hand, Dave gets into the masked crime fighter gig for reasons classically heroic. He’s fed up with seeing good people get hurt while bystanders passively look on and do nothing. Dave wants to help the helpless when no one else will; he’s a hero of the people. If his ability to be a hero is somewhat limited, at least his heart’s in the right place. On the other end of the spectrum lies Big Daddy and Hit Girl, who aren’t motivated by a burning desire to help their fellow man, woman, or child. Damon/Big Daddy wants one thing and one thing only, and that’s to destroy Frank D’Amico’s life just as Frank destroyed Damon’s. Big Daddy’s and Hit Girl’s heroism is steeped in vengeance, something that the film goes out of its way to poke fun at in its first ten to fifteen minutes.
Their intentions might not be noble like Dave’s, but there’s no question that the father-daughter duo is the real deal in crime-fighting, while Dave is just an amateur at best. In fact, Big Daddy’s and Hit Girl’s exploits are so flat-out cool (particularly Hit Girl, whose talents for death, destruction, and swearing like a sailor make up the film’s great controversy) that they threaten to overwhelm Kick-Ass in his own film. And at times, they do. Undeniably, Big Daddy and Hit Girl push the plot forward in more tangible ways, and they are at the center of many of the film’s action beats. But while they push Kick-Ass forward, they only do so in service of the resolution of Dave’s arc, putting him in a position to attain self-realization and achieve his goal of becoming a bona fide superhero.
Kick-Ass also seems to have something to say about violence and consumer culture. At the very least it’s outright criticizing passive audiences for going out of their way to absorb reality-based violent media– when Kick-Ass and Big Daddy are tortured on live television, the news station cuts the feed and mentions that the footage can still be seen streaming live on the internet. Audiences watching the carnage immediately bee-line for the nearest computer to continue getting their fix. In this way, the film highlights our own morbid fascination with televised violence; it’s even possible that Kick-Ass implies that viewers deserve a share of blame in the perpetuation of violence in media by virtue of how much they crave it. (Though this seems less likely.) Certainly Kick-Ass has a great deal to say about how media violence can effect and influence children whose parents either are absent or encourage and feed their violent tendencies– 90% of the film’s violence is inflicted by or upon kids. These ideas permeate the entire film, even throughout the absolutely insane action sequences woven throughout.
And really, that’s what you’re here for, isn’t it? To hear about how great the action is? Well, there you have it. Kick-Ass might end up being one of the very best action movies of this decade; it easily trumps even some of the best efforts of the last few years. Part of this is just because Vaughn is a talented, intelligent, and economical director who knows how to stage a really effective action scene, and part of it is that the way that the violence escalates from more believable realms until finally exploding into something completely batty and unabashedly fun. There’s no uniformity from action scene to action scene; each feels totally unique in terms of style and setting. From the parking lot of a 7-11 to the penthouse suite of D’Amico and his gang, Kick-Ass keeps its action fresh, self-innovating the whole way through.
This quite seamlessly leads into a discussion of the film’s violence, and make no mistake, this is a pretty blood-soaked picture, but that’s about it. People are shot, or stabbed, and blood sprays quickly and quietly and…that’s all. One or two people are blown up here and there, and a limb is severed, but we’re hardly talking about Ichi the Killer territory here. I’d half expected to walk into a movie where every action scene plays out like a blender of human viscera; this is far from the case. Maybe what makes the violence disturbing is that it’s all carried out under the guise of heroism, and if that’s behind the general revulsion for Kick-Ass‘s violence, I suppose I understand. I would, however, argue that all superheroes employ violent tactics under said pretenses; they simply never employ lethal force. The biggest difference, of course, between your average superhero and the characters of Kick-Ass is that the latter are totally human– even Big Daddy and Hit Girl have to wear bullet proof vests and engage thugs following rules such as, “always keep your back to the wall”. The heroes of Kick-Ass are vulnerable. Spider-Man isn’t as much so.
Keeping the entire film grounded is its absolutely stellar cast. Aaron Johnson’s only flaw in the lead role is that he’s a bit too jacked for a teenage geek in way over his head, but it’s a physical performance. I can’t fault him for having muscle. The British-born Johnson does such an impeccable American accent that most of you out there may not realize that he was born in England (even Vaughn thought Johnson hailed from the US at first), and his ability to slip into the character’s dual identities so effortlessly is incredibly impressive. It’s hard not to admire the heart that Johnson imbues Dave with; even if he’s a flawed and ineffective superhero, we respect his quest and want him to save the day the whole time.
Johnson is a solid lead, but the film’s real treats lie in the performances of the supporting cast. Nicholas Cage is absolutely delightful to watch as Big Daddy, hamming it up as a corny, dorky father out of costume and doing his best Adam West impersonation when he’s fighting crime, and Mark Strong turns out a truly memorable villain as Frank D’Amico, balancing a dominant tough guy routine with a genuine father of the year persona. He’s as quick to have disloyal flunkies summarily executed as he is to admonish his son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to finish his oatmeal. And as good as Cage and Strong are, it’s Mintz-Plasse and Chloe Moretz who really steal the show; Mintz-Plasse makes a full-fledged character out of a completely one-dimensional one and gives Chris D’Amico a lot of humanity, so much so that even when Chris becomes his own superhero, dubbed Red Mist, to lure Kick-Ass into a trap (just to impress his mob boss dad), we still feel for the guy. Chris desperately wants his father to respect him and be proud of him, and even though he’s a bad guy, we can understand and empathize with his ordeal. Meanwhile, Moretz is probably the best thing about the entire film, the eye of a backlash storm against her death-dealing, foul-mouthed, pint-sized assassin. Maybe there’s novelty in an 11-year-old trained killer, or maybe I just appreciate things that are totally awesome, man, but whether you like her or find her character offensive you cannot deny that Hit Girl is utterly unforgettable and iconic.
Those are two words that I think describe the film completely. There’s an enormous amount going on in Kick-Ass, between the social commentary, the exploration of superhero tropes, and action set pieces so thoroughly satisfying and entertaining that they are sure to be referenced by subsequent action films and comic book films in this year (and this decade). If nothing else, Kick-Ass sets high the bar for the superhero movies that will follow in its wake; above all, Kick-Ass understands what drives these characters and makes people gravitate towards them. Did Vaughn mean to create one of the best comic book movies ever when he funded Kick-Ass with his own cash? Probably not, but there you have it– Kick-Ass is an instant classic in superhero cinema.