Director: Matthew Vaughn
Writers: Vaughn, Jane Goldman (script), Mark Millar (comic)
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz, Mark Strong, Nicolas Cage
Cinematographer: Ben Davis
Studio/Run Time: Lionsgate, 118 min.
Putting the graphic in graphic novel
In 1954, psychiatrist and social commentator Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a sensational rant against the comic book industry that helped fuel a U.S. Congressional inquiry. In the book, Wertham arrived at such conclusions as Batman and Robin being gay lovers and that Superman is a fascist, but his de facto epiphany was that the superhero notion corrupted youth into violent, amoral vigilantes. In Kick-Ass, comic scribe Mark Millar and director Matthew Vaughn’s pitch-black love letter to the genre, Wertham’s greatest fear is fully realized in an irresponsible blitzkrieg of irony-tinged fun.
Kick-Ass’ origin began long ago when Vaughn, a massive comic dork, originally tried to secure the rights to “Tonight, He Comes,” better known today as the Will Smith vehicle Hancock. A postmodern look at the superhero convention—minus the “Here I come to save the day!” camp—was a provocative step forward in theory. The director’s missed opportunity gave him the chance to hook up with Millar, Marvel’s marquee golden boy, to rechannel the concept into Kick-Ass.
Millar’s premise is deceivingly simple: what if an anonymous kid put on tights and tried to fight crime? For Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), the title hero in the green wet suit, the immediate answer is a trip to the hospital. But the story’s Youtube-pixelated promise of Spider-Man written by Jack London is a mischeivous bait-and-switch, because Kick-Ass is about as realistic as a Tex Avery cartoon.
There’s a manic, uncensored energy that pulses through each raunchy line of dialogue and fight scene. This came at a price: Vaughn had to finance production himself, as the studio balked at a story featuring minors wielding butterfly knives. While the caution seemed like an extremely sane decision at the time, it’s ultimately their loss because Kick-Ass more than lives up to its namesake.
The greatest benefactor of Vaughn’s singular vision is Chloe Moretz (500 Days of Summer , the upcoming Let the Right One In remake), whose 11-year-old brawler, Hit Girl, puts Schwarzenegger and Stallone to shame. Moretz spits bullets and profanity in equal measure, laying lines like “contact the mayor’s office, he has a special signal he shines in the sky—it’s in the shape of a giant cock” with devastating wit. While this is probably the most “adult” role a young girl has taken since Linda Blair informed a priest of his mother’s infernal activities in The Exorcist, no one can deny that Moretz looks like she’s having an absolute blast. And so are we.
Despite the frequent impalements and catchy one liners, an emotional gravity ties the sympathetic cast together. The most “post-modern” aspect here is how the film incorporates the adolescent vulnerability of John Huges (and its recent Judd Apatow reincarnation) into Lizewski and his fellow cosplay misfits. The only difference now is that characters find self-realization through confronting crack-dealing thugs instead of character flaws. It’s a grand-sweeping display of meta, as super heroes by definition are every teenager’s 2-dimensional avatar to feeling empowered when the world is their super villain. And for the first time, these characters win the day without “radioactive spiders or refugee status from a doomed alien planet.”
Unfortunately, much of the endearing awkwardness and warm humor is pushed aside as the movie evolves into a particularly ridiculous brand of violent satire. Make no mistake, watching Nicolas Cage’s Batman analogue tear through gangsters while impersonating William Shatner is the closest we’ll come to Tarantino directing a tights flick. But Kick-Ass is a phenomenal teen memoir while it’s only a great summer blockbuster. When the two mix at the right moments, though, even Fredric Wertham would have to agree that it’s downright special.