This review is about the film, rather than the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. comic.
Directed by Matthew “Layer Cake” Vaughn and co-written with Jane Goldman, this film elevates hyper-violence to the category of camp, in company with such films as Wanted and Shoot ‘Em Up. Roger Ebert called the film “morally reprehensible.”
Well, it is. And that’s the point. Kick-Ass is a parody by means of Reductio ad Absurdum. The violence and improbability of the premise is pushed so far that it falls into what I call the Moore Continuum, which condemns all superheroes as ultimately tending towards psychosis or fascism (or both). In this case, the superheroes fall by the side of Rorschach — sociopathic masochists guided only by their own moral code. The titular Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson) is the most moderate of these figures, far outpaced in his sociopathy by Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz)and her father/trainer Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, channeling Adam West’s Batman). The super-hero cast is rounded out by Christopher Mintz-Please (aka McLovin) as Red Mist.
In particular, the 11-year old Hit Girl is shown as brainwashed/raised with a worldview that desensitizes her to violence by interpreting vigilante slaying within the context of a game. A sequence towards the climax of the film gives us the action from Hit Girl’s POV in a manner evocative of a 1st person shooter such as Doom or Halo, complete with reload animations.
Big Daddy and Hit Girl are easily seen as analogues of Batman and Robin, and Big Daddy also parallels the Punisher. Since no heroes have actual powers, they fall into the “street level” hero category, where the vigilante aspects of superheroes are drawn with a sharper focus. The bad guys in street-level superhero stories are customarily thugs and crime bosses, rather than invading aliens or armies of secret cyborg nazis.
Kick-Ass addresses the question “why hasn’t anyone become a superhero?”
In our world, the answer is “they already have. But not in the way you’d expect.” Individuals like Mr. Silent and Doktor DiscorD (both in Indianapolis) and across the world with groups such as the World Superhero Registry are stepping up and pursuing the spirit of superheroics without breaking the law. Heroes such as Mr. Silent patrol the city and act within the law while working to allay fears and help people feel protected.
Kick-Ass goes far, far beyond the level of Mr. Silent or any of the Real Life Superheroes. Comics geek David Leziwsky orders a scuba suit off of the internet and intervenes in a carjacking. Given that he’s an untrained average teenager, he gets the living daylights beaten out of him, then stabbed in the gut. Massive surgery leaves him with metal plates in his body and head and nerve damage which becomes his “super-power” — he can take a beating and keep going.
In his mis-adventures, he becomes a YouTube and Myspace phenomenon, leading to ubiquitous Kick-Ass memorabilia and increasing his popularity. He runs across Hit Girl and Big Daddy, who have the actual training to take on large numbers of armed opponents. It helps that they use lethal force without remorse, stabbing slicing and shooting at whim.
I’ll end my plot recollections here for now, as there are some notable twists.
Kick-Ass is not for anyone who isn’t a fan of hyperviolence or ridiculousness. It leaps a jet ski over the top, then trampolines over a shark and never looks back. But as campy as the action is, the emotional reality of the situation is powerful for the characters. Kick-Ass confronts the idiocy of his attempts to be a hero when he doesn’t have the training or the equipment to succeed, and the reality of loss and revenge are keenly felt by Big Daddy and Hit Girl, who reprise a Punisher/Batman-style origin story of tragedy and loss. By counter-example, David shares his own tragic past — but instead of being murdered by a criminal, his mother died from a brain aneurysm. His rage cannot be anchored to a guilty party, unlike Spider-Man, Batman, Daredevil.
An unexpected surprise was the 3-D John Romita Jr. art during the recollection of Big Daddy’s story of loss. The camera zooms across 2-D traditional comic-panels, but as it turns and moves, the panels come alive in 3-D, giving greater depth and texture to the art of Romita Jr. (standing in for Big Daddy’s paintings on his half serial-killer, half police officer target/crime board.) It was a deft artistic touch that acknowledged the film’s sequential art heritage as well as highlighting the art of Kick-Ass‘ co-creator.
I’m not a big Mark Millar friend in general. I love his Elseworlds Superman story Red Son, which tells the tale of a world where Kal-El’s escape shuttle lands in the middle of Russia instead of the American Heartland, leading him to become a gleaming example of the triumph of Socialism, positioned as national foes with American hero Lex Luthor rather than as rival claimants on the American Spirit. In Red Son, the critique of the superhero flows naturalistically and doesn’t take arrogant pleasure in itself. In other Millar works, I find the aggressive testosterone-filled action to be smug and self-important (evident in later arcs of The Ultimates and in Civil War. In the case of the Kick-Ass film, the overblown testosterone-y action draws attention to its own faults and invites critique, where I feel some of his other works lack the same self-awareness.
If you’re a superhero fan, Kick-Ass is certainly worth your time and money — more and more superhero films are being made, and it’s films like Kick-Ass that show another part of the genre conversation than films such as Iron Man or The Dark Knight. As a genre rises, parody comes with it. Parody is a way for the genre to show its self-awareness and show that it’s aware of its blind spots and its pock-marks. Parody and deconstruction doesn’t necessarily lead to re-construction or reform, but it maintains the conversation and keeps artists and fans from consuming and engaging with stories in the genre without reflecting on its motifs and assumptions.