Friday, April 23, 2010


Prior to the feature, as the restless Chicago multiplex audience settled into their seats for Kick-Ass, we were treated to a preview for Edgar Wright’s forthcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The very first shot in the trailer shows Michael Cera glancing awkwardly and lovingly across a crowded room at an impossibly beautiful girl. The world, according to my Kick-Ass audience, has turned on Michael Cera: the groan emitted at the sight of his face was one of boredom and fatigue. “Not another one!”

I found this a fascinating prologue to the experience of Kick-Ass, which (not just because of its explicit reference to the comic book series from which Scott Pilgrim has been adapted), might have been a slog for an audience sick-to-death of the Ceratype. I don’t know if anybody else made the connection; it was the kind of boisterous crowd that had me fearing a sea of cell phones during the movie, but we all ended up engrossed. I’ll be damned if there isn’t an awful lot going on in this thing.


Our hero, Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson, presumably because Cera was unavailable due the Pilgrim production) is cut from the same troubled cloth as Nick Twisp, Paulie Bleeker and the imitable George Michael Bluth. In want of either a raison d’etre or his own impossible hottie (ideally both – perhaps they might overlap?), Dave dons a superhero costume bought off the internet and sets out to make the world a better place in the assumed persona of “Kick-Ass”, the real live superhero.

Dave’s journey is only one of several intertwining storylines: there are four other principal leads. Christopher Mintz-Plasse makes a mediocre return as Chris D’Amico, who will become a faux-superhero all his own in the guise of "Red Mist". His father, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong, making a far better impression here than he did in Sherlock Holmes), is the big boss coke-lord who rules the city.

At first related only indirectly to Dave/Kick-Ass are "Big Daddy" and "Hit Girl", a father-daughter superhero team bent on avenging wrongs done to them in the past by D’Amico. Hit Girl is only seven years old but she curses and kills with the best of them – her father has been raising her with only superheroism in mind. As a novelty, I find her somewhat tiresome. I’ve heard the word “cunt” before and I’ve heard precocious kids swear before; if I’ve never heard a seven-year-old girl say “cunt”, it almost feels like I have.

However, as with much of the film, the novelty isn’t the point, despite what the desperate trailers might've lead us to believe. Barely a comedy and only sporadically an action film, the premise of Kick-Ass is a double-edged sword: the superhero mythos has been dissected and poked to death in the mainstream all to often in the recent past, as have vulgar children, horny male adolescence and daddy issues. The movie lives and dies not by the trenchancy of its ideas but by how gleefully and earnestly it executes them.


Remember how in The Dark Knight all those Batman impersonators keep trying to do their part and end up with their asses handed to them? For much of Kick-Ass’ running time, the film feels like that same story told from the wannabe’s perspective. In the twist on a familiar genre trope, this recalls something like The Baxter or one of Gregory Maguire’s gimmicks. Immediately upon his conception, Kick-Ass becomes embroiled in the actual superhero vs. supervillain plot between Big Daddy and Frank D’Amico.

Unfortunately, this seems to destabilize the film’s founding notion that a skinny adolescent twerp with glasses can alone change the world if he just puts his mind to it. Right up to the end we are being told that Dave has inspired a world full of superheroes, but he wasn't the first and he wasn't even the best. He was just the first to be so clumsy as to end up on YouTube.

In one of several examples of the film negating its own premises, after a first-act discussion of the implausibility of superhumanity due to [one] superpowers being fictional and [two] Bruce Wayne, the mortal exception to the rule, having a lot of expensive gadgets that don’t exist, the characters proceed to equip themselves with [one] ‘plausible’ superpowers and [two] ridiculous gadgetry. And for all the talk of changing the world and inspiring heroism in the everyman, the story of Kick-Ass sure is contained to the small-potatoes drama of one drug lord and one framed cop bent on revenge.

The real pathos of the story belongs to Big Daddy and his daughter, who he has raised to be a fighting machine. He lives to avenge the death of Hit Girl's mother, for which he holds D'Amico responsible (see, it doesn't even really have anything to do with the drugs). That Nicolas Cage’s masked vigilante is a clone of Tim Burton’s Batman must be read as a subliminal 'fuck you' to the producers that failed to let him play Superman for Burton himself all those years ago. When Big Daddy kicks ass for vengeance, it’s a searing testament to what could’ve been, and one of the great thrills of the film is watching Nicolas Cage chew it up in this role. And impressively, Chloë Grace Moretz, as Hit Girl, is more likely to stumble over a naughty word than she is to let Nic Cage upstage her.

That both Kick-Ass and Hit Girl have lost their mothers is never something that comes up between the two of them; this pain is reserved for Hit Girl and Big Daddy. Their family is broken, and living in a cold steel apartment wallpapered with weaponry, waging war is all they know. Their story doesn't have anything to with Kick-Ass until he stumbles into it, and in fact their plans would likely have gone off a lot smoother without our hero's interference.


...which is why Dave/Kick-Ass is such a weird choice for main protagonist given the story that this is. I'm not sure it's the story director Matthew Vaughn quite intended to tell. Vaughn is a great populist filmmaker - his Stardust is one of the underrated, underseen gems of the aughts. But you can feel this story slipping out of his grasp.

It comes down to the stakes: in order to successfully follow the wannabe superhero riding the coattails of the real deal into battle, we must establish specifically why it is that the wannabe is acting so foolish. And returning to the cliché of the double-edged sword, Dave/Kick-Ass becomes too realistically drawn a character with too much going on for me to buy the crazy shit that happens to him in the third act. This is a kid who, in his opening monologue, informs us that his mother recently died and then denies that the film will be about that (which means it has to be, right?). He establishes a connection with a sexy girl (more on this later) and gets a huge self-confidence boost, rendering his heroic alter-ego moot.

But most of all, this is a kid so determined to ignore his own life (and maybe that's the key, right there) that, after coming this close to being dead the first time he tries the superhero act, he decides he's stronger than ever and heads out for more. Dave's initial criminal encounter as Kick-Ass is a hugely successful scene that sets up the danger he's putting himself in, but the film forgets this for the sake of cartoon theatrics and antic set pieces.

But despite its inconsistencies, one theme the film consistently nails is Dave's (or every character's) desire to improve himself through hard-work and determination and actually make himself the person he always wanted to be. Johnson does admirable, nuanced work – when, in his first outing as Kick-Ass that doesn't put him in the hospital, he spits at a gang of thugs that yes, he’d rather die than live in a world where three guys beat up one perfect stranger, he very nearly had me – but his struggle for validation almost seems to mirror the film's. Is dressing up as a superhero any less desperate an act than cuing up Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" to score the scene where the seven-year-old kills thirty henchmen?


One facet of the film that we can't ignore is the relationship between Dave and the object of his affections, Katie. Katie is played by the suddenly-ubiquitous Lyndsy Fonseca, who holds her own in a one-note role both here and in Hot Tub Time Machine; a month ago she was just the daughter on the couch in the beginning of every other episode of How I Met Your Mother. Katie is cute but she’s kind of dumb – an easy love interest, but with a guy like Dave I have to wonder what he continues to see in her after their consummation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: obviously, Katie is too hot to pay attention to Dave at the beginning of the film. What eventually gets him in the door is Katie’s mistaken supposition that Dave is gay, a role he happily plays if it means he gets to rub tanning lotion on a topless, braless, pantsless Katie.

It's not even the shock and nervous laughter that I have a problem with here (though I could easily call homophobia on my audience if I had the energy); the problem is that Dave putting his hands on Katie under the knowing guise of this fallacy – even if it’s her own dumb fault – is invasive and even a little rapey. Again, the film purports to take place in the real world; what would the real-world reaction be to a teenage male lying and deceiving his way into the bedroom of an unsuspecting, almost-naked girl? And to make matters worse, when Dave finally reveals to Katie both of his secrets (having snuck in her window and scared the bejesus out of her, no less), her shock at his deceit immediately ebbs and she allows Dave into her arms and, explicitly, into her something else.

Which is all well and good for Kick-Ass, whose alter-ego now has something to live for (fucking: it’s always the answer!). Later on, in the midst of a violent situation from which he could easily get killed, Dave muses that he doesn’t want to die because he wants to see what happens on Lost: this got a good laugh out of me, but there we go again. If Lost is all you need to live for, why should I care about your dead mother, your hot girlfriend, your lonesome father or any of your other existential crises with which this film builds it nest? Either Dave is too snarky for Kick-Ass’ ultimate good or the other way around: it’s a lot of really meaty character development stuck between wonder bread.


  1. I can't get over how much I liked this, and how close I came to skipping it entirely, and how terribly mis-marketed it has been. Wow. I'm leery of recommending this to people, honestly, unless I'm sure they can handle it because it's definitely not for everybody, but I just loved it.

    I didn't expect to like the main character all that much, but he's perfect: the actor is just awkward enough to be sympathetic, just together enough that we're willing to identify with and root for him. Great young actor, I liked him a lot.

    And as for Nicolas Cage, I'm not even a big fan but this is easily my favorite recent role of his. Amazing.

  2. The movie is going to prove too dumb for a lot of smart people and too smart for a lot of dumb people. It's easily a valuable expenditure of two hours, but honestly: I wouldn't know how to market it, either.

  3. I'm not sure, from a financial standpoint, this would necessarily be more effective, but I sure as hell would have cut a trailer that made clear the level of violence. That will turn off some people, but it will also bring in others, whether or not for the right reasons. Presumably most people may more attention to ratings than I do, but about two minutes in I literally had to check my ticket stub: "Wait a minute, this is rated R?!" It had never occurred to me that it was made for something other than a teen audience.

  4. i luv diz shit !

  5. Thanks for chiming in, Anonymous!