Kickass Movie, I walked into Kick-Ass expecting a superhero parody, something akin to Mystery Men or The Tick. I’m fond of both those endeavors and the prospect of adding another satirical riff to their ranks held considerable appeal. But Kick-Ass has more on its mind than just sending up the capes and tights. In its own lunatic way, it seriously grapples with the foundations of the genre and how some of us want very badly to see some inkling of them in the real world. In that sense, it aspires to something much closer to Watchmen, and while it doesn’t quite rank with that work, it certainly gets within shouting distance.
And it’s definitely not for kids, no matter how colorful the ads may seem. Its costumed heroes–an eclectic mix of the hopeful, the deluded and the barking mad–live in a world where violence is all too real. Hardly the place to don a bright green wetsuit and confront street criminals. But that’s just what earnest teen Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) does. Obsessed with comic books and curious as to why nobody’s tried it before, he invents a persona called Kick-Ass and heads out into the New York night to battle evildoers everywhere.
It doesn’t go so well, at least at first. The good news is that he’s so badly hurt in his initial outing that the doctors need to stabilize his bones with steel rods (making him much tougher), and the nerve damage renders him somewhat less sensitive to pain. It still doesn’t do more than let him take a beating with good cheer, but he keeps at it and soon becomes an Internet phenomenon thanks to some eager bystanders with iPhones.
As sympathetic as he is, however, director Matthew Vaughn saves the choicest morsels for another pair. Ex-cop Damon Macready (Nicholas Cage) has a score to settle with the mob, and he’s prepping his daughter Mindy (Chlo? Grace Moretz) to serve as his angel of vengeance. They carry a fully-loaded arsenal, know hand-to-hand combat better than most Navy SEALS, and adopt a pair of superhero personas to keep their identities safe. As Big Daddy and Hit Girl, the pair cut a swath of bloody destruction through the local underworld… and unfortunately, the thoroughly unprepared Kick-Ass gets most of the blame.
Their escapades encapsulate a mixture of exhilaration, empowerment, queasy violence and abject pathos, blended together and thrown at us like a hand grenade. As a balancing act, it’s exquisite. Put one foot wrong and it all goes to pot, and yet both the director and the performers dive into the challenge without a second thought. Cage always goes for broke in the roles he takes, and while he can’t always claim success, those few occasions where he rolls a seven are wonders to behold. So it is with Big Daddy, a deeply damaged figure who warps his daughter to the point where she thinks the brutality is all a game. His persona is pure Adam West caricature (right down to the weird inflection of his dialogue) and yet he holds real tragedy at his core.
Hit Girl intensifies that equation even further. She has no moral compass, and her “training” allows her to kill with cheerfully ruthless efficiency. The sight of a little girl butchering drug dealers with a machete will send more than a few viewers into spasms of rage, and yet Kick-Ass never forgets how thoroughly warped it is. Vaughn blends her harsh edges with a bizarre playfulness, as well as shining an uncomfortable spotlight on how we often adore such figures. Were Hit Girl an adult, we’d applaud her; how, then, can we feel so sick just because she’s a few years too young?
As battle between costumed crime fighters and their criminal nemeses heats up, Kick-Ass serves as our goggle-eyed surrogate. Like Mickey and the broomsticks, he can’t control what he’s started, and yet he still sees the possibility of good things emerging from this twisted mess. Vaughn doesn’t neglect the funnier side of the equation–I was laughing so hard at parts of Kick-Ass, I thought I was going to pass out on the theater floor–but just as often, he runs the humor straight into a brick wall of sad, sudden consequences.
Beneath it all, the film stays focused on fascinating questions. What would possess someone to do this? Are these people truly insane, or do they simply want to make the world a better place as their funnybook counterparts do? Is there a line where dressing up for Comic Con can verge into something much darker? Kick-Ass adopts a brazen, energetic and unapologetic tone in search of the answers, simultaneously upending the genre and championing everything it stands for. Considering how easily it all could have fallen apart, its overall deftness is a welcome surprise. Indeed, Vaughn’s willingness to push the edges of the equation vaults Kick-Ass into the upper echelons of the very genre it wishes to deconstruct. Let’s see Superman do that.