The advent of the superhero was a bizarre comeuppance for the American dream.
–Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes.

All right, you grunts. Let’s see what Kick Ass can do.

Title: Kick-Ass

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Written by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar.

Cast

Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass
Chloë Moretz as Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl
Nicholas Cage as Damon Macready/ Big Daddy
Lyndsy Fonseca as Katie Deauxma
Mark Strong as Frank D’Amico
Garrett M. Brown as Mr. Lizewski
Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris D’Amico/Red Mist
Clark Duke as Marty
Evan Peters as Todd
Elizabeth McGovern as Mrs. Lizewski
Sophie Wu as Erica Cho
Stu “Large” Riley as Chief Goon

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb

Premise:

A more-or-less ordinary high school senior decides to become a superhero. Although he gets his ass kicked, he becomes a Youtube sensation and an inspiration. His life grows more complicated when a local mobster blames him for the carnage unleashed on the underworld by two actual, if deranged, superheroes.

High Points:

Hit-Girl, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, has drawn considerable criticism. I understand that. The actress, twelve when she made the film, does an extraordinary job, one an older performer could not have improved upon. This is the Buffy syndrome taken to the extreme, the most vulnerable of females transformed into an ass-kicking superhero. In a world with more than its share of violence, I find it compelling to watch someone who would usually be the victim take control of the situation. I’ve been a mentor of sorts to a young woman who lived, as a child, through the Siege of Sarajevo. I thought about her a good deal after I watched this movie1— in between feeling the sheer visceral thrills.

As with much of the film, she raises difficult questions: her ability to use comic-book physics places her in the realm of pure fantasy, but some of her other methods remain disturbingly plausible. No, a twelve-year-old engaging in the mass-slaughter of criminals by using guns and other deadly tech isn’t appropriate. I shouldn’t overlook my reservations merely because the film makes the slaughter look so stylish.

But dang, the girl hits a nerve.

Low Points:

Roger Ebert called this film “morally reprehensible.” That’s a strong statement, given that this man (whose opinions I respect) has lavished praise on The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and the Tarantino oeuvre.

The film suffers from (1) our culture’s often uncritical obsession with violence as the first solution and (2) its own schizophrenic tone. At times, the violence goes so entirely, cartoonishly over the top one cannot respond to it seriously. At other times, it’s plausible. At times (most notably, the start), the film cleverly satirizes the conventions of comics, videogames, and violent movies. At other times (most notably, the conclusion), it celebrates those conventions. I enjoyed Kick-Ass. Even my wife felt that charge at seeing evil people stylishly killed by underdogs.

But I find it worrying. I find its unabashed celebration of violence both exhilarating and chilling. I’ll find the inevitable videogame worrying. And I cannot help but remember Anthony Swofford’s comments on war movies in Jarhead:

Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in Omaha or San Francisco or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready….
–Anthony Swofford, Jarhead.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6. Kick-ass borrows from sources too numerous to mention, and does so fairly openly. Even its approach, superhero conventions turned inside out and then applauded, anyway, has been mainstream for some time.

Effects: 6/6.

Story: 4/6. The story moves along rapidly, propelled by its own twisted logic. It becomes a little too conventional in its third act, which shamelessly celebrates the conventions the film had initially satirized.

Along the way, the title character’s story becomes secondary.

Acting: 5/6. The main cast put in fine performances. Nicholas Cage does a hilarious impersonation of Adam West’s Batman.

Production: 6/6. Despite the high-energy craziness and comic-book stylizations, a viewer can still follow the logic of the movie’s action sequences.

Emotional Response: 4/6. If the trailers offended you even a little, I assure you, you do not want to see this film. If you can accept the violence and problematic themes, you will enjoy Kick Ass. You won’t, however, find much depth in it. It may be the best inappropriate popcorn movie you’ll see this year.

Overall: 4/6. I enjoyed this movie, despite my reservations. However, I don’t know that I’d bother with its inevitable(?) sequel.

In total, Kick-ass receives 32/42.

Lingering Questions

1. The film has actually muted the violence and nihilism of the source material—it the comic can be called a “source,” since both this film and the comic’s first story arc were developed together. Is this a good thing? Would the film be stronger, morally and satirically, if its upbeat ending had been muted? Of particular note: Katie Deauxma has an entirely different life, personality, and role in the comic. Millar writes her as a vacuous bitch who turns on Dave when she learns the truth about him. Vaughn and company make her an essentially good girl who eventually becomes the hero’s girlfriend.

2. Once upon a time, films like Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange drew criticism for their shocking violence and criminal protagonists. A generation or so later, they seem mild by comparison. Are we better or worse off because it takes so much more to shock us? And will the trend continue? Or am I, after all, comparing apples with oranges?

3. How much does it hurt the initial premise that Dave really isn’t, in fact, an ordinary teen? He battles on after circumstances that should have caused massive damage or even death. Or do we just accept that, point in fact, this is a parodic comic-book reality, but a comic-book reality nevertheless?

4.

Personal Note

1. “Singularity Girl” was thirteen when I met her, and is in her late twenties now. I used to refer to her as my “teen sidekick.” I recently discovered she still identifies me as “Giles” in her e-mail. Pop culture shapes us in unusual ways indeed.