Kick-Ass (2010)

Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, May 2010

Synopsis: New York City, present day. Regular high-schooler Dave Lizewski decides to become a costumed hero by the name Kick-Ass. Dave’s first crime-fighting encounter leaves him hospitalised, although the resulting metal plates and damaged nerve ends actually improve his fighting skills. A passer-by films Kick-Ass’ second clumsy engagement with street thugs, and the hero quickly becomes an internet phenomenon, attracting the attention of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, a highly professionalised father-and-daughter team of masked vigilantes devoted to bringing down crimelord Frank D’Amico and his gang.

Hoping to impress classmate Katie Deauxma, Kick-Ass pays a home visit to a dealer who has been hassling her, but only gets out alive thanks to the bloody intervention of 12-year-old Hit-Girl. Frank now believes that Kick-Ass is behind the murders of his footsoldiers, and calls for the hero’s execution. Frank’s son (and Dave’s schoolmate) Chris assumes his own superheroic identity – Red Mist – to lure Kick-Ass into a trap, only to find that Big Daddy has murdered the waiting gangsters before the trap can be sprung. Dave reveals his secret identity to Katie, and they begin a relationship. Red Mist tricks Kick-Ass into giving away Big Daddy’s location, and Big Daddy and Kick-Ass are captured by Frank’s men.

As the pair’s torture is broadcast live, Hit-Girl arrives and kills their tormentors. Big Daddy dies of his injuries. Hit-Girl enters Frank’s headquarters and goes on a killing spree inside, while Kick-Ass jetpacks up to Frank’s floor to help her, finally blasting Frank out the window with a bazooka. Hit-Girl reveals her civilian identity to Dave, and becomes a pupil at his school. Chris, dressed in full Red Mist costume, takes his place at his late father’s desk.

Review: Speaking in his witty, self-deprecating voice-over, comics-loving high-schooler Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) sets out the premise of Kick-Ass: he is becoming a superhero despite being “just a regular guy” without any actual superpowers (apart from “being invisible to girls”).

It is a crux which, like everything else in Matthew Vaughn’s film, should not be taken too seriously. For while Kick-Ass, like the Mark Millar comicbook series on which it is based, defines itself by its differences from the adventures of more familiar superheroes (many of which Millar has himself helped shape in previous work for DC and Marvel Comics), in fact its similarities to these are just as striking. Dave may insist that “no radioactive spiders” motivated his transformation into the costumed Kick-Ass, but nonetheless his geeky struggles with adolescent empowerment leave him flirting endlessly (and expressly) with the closeted identity of Peter Parker/Spiderman. Meanwhile Dave’s fellow crimefighter Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) not only has the tools, wealth and Batman-like costume of vigilante Bruce Wayne, but even adopts the hilarious vocal mannerisms of Adam West’s camp 1960s version of the Caped Crusader. And while all the characters here may emphatically lack genuine superpowers, nonetheless in the film’s pumped-up climax, Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) manages to defy all the normal laws of gravity as though she were a member of the supernaturally skilled Fraternity from Wanted (2008) itself adapted from another Millar comic.

Everything in Kick-Ass comes back to comicbooks. Dave and his schoolfriends hang out in a comics store. Big Daddy writes his memoirs in the form of an illustrated ‘origins’ story and pins up sketches of his criminal targets hand-drawn in a comicbook style. Heroes and villains from other comics are regularly name-checked. Framed, handwritten captions (‘meanwhile…’, ‘some time later’, etc.) appear as links at the bottom corner of the screen. And with all these comicbook motifs come comicbook sensibilities, chiefly ultra-coarse language and ultra-violent assaults, jaw-droppingly married in the unlikely person of the sweet-looking pre-adolescent Hit-Girl. First encountered by a wide-eyed (and out-classed, if that’s the word) Kick-Ass as she addresses a roomful of dealers and users as ‘cunts’ before slashing, stabbing and skewering her way indiscriminately through their number, Hit-Girl matches a diminutive size to jarringly disproportionate aggression.

It is Dave’s schlubby perspective that grounds such escapades in a discomfiting reality – and also makes them deliriously funny. Like any fanboy, he thinks Hit-Girl and her Big Daddy are ‘awesome’  – but his own, less competent efforts at crime fighting serve as a constant reminder of the extreme naïveté that informs his superheroic aspirations. Hit-Girl may perfectly fulfil the titular promise of cinematic ass-kicking, but she has also, as her father’s former police partner Marcus (Omari Hardwick) observes, been abusively ‘brainwashed’ by her father into acts of ‘vigilante justice’ and ‘mass murder’, with her own lost childhood as collateral damage. Indeed, Big Daddy’s special brand of tough love includes firing live rounds into his terrified daughter’s chest to inure her to a Kevlar vest.

So while Kick-Ass may deliver fully on the violence that it prompts its viewer to desire, it also exposes the base irresponsibility of such desire. After all, our nearest analogue within the film is the grinning comic-shop audience that regards a live broadcast of torture and execution as just another sensational entertainment – while, conversely, a sequence where a ‘child’s entertainer’ dressed as Kick-Ass is gunned down in the street shows any impressionable viewer minded to copy Dave’s extra-judicial conduct just how fatal the ‘real-world’ consequences of such imitation can be.

Like Watchmen both the comicbook series and Zack Snyder’s 2009 film adaptation – Kick-Ass is an intelligent meta-comic that deploys familiar superheroic tropes and archetypes to explore all that is fractured and flawed in our decidedly non-super humanity. The big difference is that Matthew Vaughn’s film, with its combination of graphic violence and nodding-and-winking humour, goes out of its way to please the very crowd that it so slyly dresses down. Call it cake-eating – but it is a cake with a decidedly bittersweet aftertaste.

Anton Bitel