I was probably destined to either love or hate Kick-Ass.
On the one hand, I have a great fondness for superheroes.
On the other, I have a great annoyance with the oversaturation of superheroes.
On the one hand, I have absolutely no interest in anything Mark Millar writes. (Exception: I’ve heard his Swamp Thing was pretty good.) Nothing I read about the Kick-Ass comic persuaded me to even look at it.
On the other, I absolutely adore Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust.
Clearly, there is no room for middle ground here, unless it all came together in a hideous mess of mediocrity. But while I suspect most people will fall into the love/hate dichotomy, I must declare that I absolutely fucking love Kick-Ass.
Kick-Ass is no one’s idea of a realistic movie, but it starts from a fairly grounded premise: What if a regular guy decided to become a superhero? The answer quickly presents itself: He would get his ass kicked.
But what Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) lacks in skill or training, he makes up for in enthusiasm and good intentions. His motivations might not be entirely pure – it’d be nice if some girls paid attention to him – but he does genuinely want to help people. It’s the essence of the modern superhero: Do what’s right and help people even in the face of overwhelming odds.
Both Dave’s earnest heroism and the film’s grounding in the real world dissolve at the halfway point when Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) enters the picture. While Dave is just a regular kid in a costume, Big Daddy gets the hardcore superhero origin: An ex-cop who was framed by a mobster, he plotted his revenge from jail. Now that he’s out, he’s striking back at crime with the help of his 11-year-old daughter (Chloe Moretz), who’s been honed into a lethal killing machine.
They’re both entertaining stories, but the energy and excess of Big Daddy and Hit Girl overpower Dave’s story of optimism and courage. Dave’s a nice guy and an endearing hero, but it’s hard to get too excited over his clumsy
crimefighting when an 11-year-old girl is slicing and dicing drug dealers like The Bride on amphetamines.
The stories come together, naturally, but they don’t quite fit. Dave is generally relegated to a sidekick who needs to be rescued, which isn’t a great position for your protagonist. When he finally, predictably, saves the day, it’s with the help of two amply foreshadowed technological deus ex machinas, and not much about Dave’s bravery or good intentions.
But a good beginning and ending can help you forget some of the muddle in the middle, and Kick-Ass ends with a hell of a bang. Most of the final half hour is given to Hit Girl, who by the end of the movie deserves to be mentioned among the best movie superheroes of all time.
It shouldn’t work. A gun-and-knife-wielding 11-year-old vigilante dismembering the mob seems too ridiculous to pull off in real life. It might work in a comic book, but falls in that nebulous category of things that can’t be taken seriously when done with real people.
But it’s a riveting finale, and a ton of the credit goes to Chloe Moretz. She manages to become a cold-blooded instrument of vengeance without forgetting that she’s still a child. She likes hot chocolate, bowling, playing with toys (even if they happen to be knives), and wants her father to love her.
(Digression for those concerned about an 11-year-old girl being associated with profanity and violence:
- Chloe Moretz does not actually kill anyone. They use stuntmen and fake blood.
- Jodie Foster was doing much more disturbing stuff 30 years ago.
- No one would have voiced any concern if the character was Hit Boy, so shut
What’s most impressive about Kick-Ass is Vaughn’s ability to balance the optimism and the cynicism. Too much of the former, and it’s just another Spider-Man knockoff; too much of the latter, and it becomes parody. It’s not perfect – Dave gets a monologue referencing Lost and Sin City that both dates the film and pulls the audience out of an intense scene – but Vaughn frequently manages to walk the fine line and make everything work.
The down side to this approach is that the studio may not have known how to promote it. Most of the trailers bore a strong resemblance to Mystery Men, but Kick-Ass boasts a much darker tone, both in its humour and its drama.
While Kick-Ass can veer into excess and absurdity, it maintains a strong, even admirable core: Take responsibility for your actions. Help others. Never give up. Kick-Ass goes back to the basics of what makes people love superheroes, and wraps it with humour, action, and a lot of fun. It’s a great superhero movie, and a pretty darn fine film in its own right.