“Kick-Ass” surprised me. I was expecting a pleasantly dumb spoof of big summer movies, something along the lines of “Mystery Men” or “Galaxy Quest.” That’s what the trailer promised; geeky kids in homemade costumes trying to be superheroes. Here’s the important tidbit I didn’t notice: it’s written by Mark Millar, one of the best, most original writers in comics. Some people would argue Millar deserves to be mentioned with Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman. And in “Kick-Ass,” Millar poses a funny question quite seriously: what would happen if ordinary people tried to be superheroes? The answers might well keep you up at night.
Aaron Johnson plays the geeky kid who insists he’s not a geek, but hangs out at a comic book shop and is invisible to girls. You do the math. Tired of getting mugged in the alley between the shop and home, he buys a green wetsuit and hits the streets to fight crime as the titular character. He gets his ass kicked by the muggers who used to just take his lunch money, and then he gets hit by a car. Maybe he should have just found an alternate route home. But once he’s out of the hospital– and bearing more metal plates inside his flesh than Wolverine– he’s basically impervious to pain. He hits the streets again. He still can’t fight; his primary talent – a lot like Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” – is his ability to take a beating and keep coming. Someone records his flailings against bad guys and posts it on YouTube, and Kick-Ass is a big hit.
His success encourages father-daughter duo Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz (aka Big Daddy and Hit-Girl) to go public with their own crime-fighting. But these two aren’t exactly ordinary people; he’s a framed ex-cop who stockpiles weapons and lives for his day of revenge, and she’s been raised to value Bowie knives over Barbie dolls. Moretz is incredible as Hit Girl; I’ve said before, and will stand by the statement, that most child-actor performances are overrated. But Moretz has to commit fully to being both 1)a cute, impressionable little girl who just wants to make her dad smile and 2) a totally committed, kickass crime fighter, and it’s amazing she pulls it off. I can’t imagine the stunt work and physical training she must have had to do. Anyway, Big Daddy and Hit Girl fight crime, which makes them good guys, but the line between “superhero” and “deranged psychotic serial killer” is a thin one. They aren’t bothered with the typical superhero code of ethics that keeps guys like Batman and Spider-man in line; the body count in “Kick-Ass” runs into “Rambo” numbers. I felt about Big Daddy and Hit Girl the way mainstream Republicans feel about the Tea Partiers; you’re not sure if they’re sane, or safe, but at least they’re on your side.
(In an entirely disposable subplot, Johnson gets a girlfriend (Lyndsy Fonseca.) I would like to take this opportunity to warn all would-be casanovas out there: it might be (indeed, it would be) incredibly stupid to dress up in scuba gear and try to fight crime, but that decision looks positively brilliant compared to pretending to be gay in order to get close to your crush until you can sneak into her bedroom and proclaim your love for her. Don’t do it. You’ll only get hurt.)
Somewhere in the middle “Kick-Ass” shifts from being a quirky indie film about regular citizens who decide to stand up for themselves into an all-out superhero action flick, complete with scary supervillains and high-stakes battles involving skyscrapers and jet-packs. The villain is Mark Strong, a local crime boss with a serious arsenal of his own. And a son (Christopher Mitz-Plass, aka McLoven) with a serious need to impress his father. They hatch a plan involving a character named “Red Mist,” which sounds like a Mountain Dew flavor to me. It mostly works, meaning someone important dies, and someone else important seeks revenge, and someone titular becomes increasingly irrelevant to the storyline.
“Kick-Ass” suceeds as an action film; its fighting sequences are the real deal – well-paced and choreographed, breathless and exciting. Still, there’s something deeply disturbing about watching an 11-year-old girl disembowel bad guys, and I think Millar intends his movie to work as social commentary. While this is movie is clearly marketed to teenagers, it’s one I feel has really earned its R rating – not because of its violence, which teens are more than used to, but because it requires a capacity for reflection and awareness of irony that many teens don’t yet possess. Though perhaps I, like the MPAA, am underestimating today’s teenager.
PS – Lyndsy Fonseca is in “Kick-Ass,” and so is Clark Duke. They were both in “Hot Tub Time Machine,” as well, meaning these two previously unknown actors are dominating April cinema. Weird.