After years of superhero films stuck in in PG-13 epic sameness, Deadpool managed to change things up. It was violent, irreverent and proved that audiences were ready to accept a superhero that wasn't anywhere near perfect. Iron Man had introduced that into the standard Marvel universe, but it was about time that a movie understood that those who went to see these movies were not just the comic book fans - something Bryan Singer had understood with his X-Men films.
Of course, this was not the first time this was attempted. Watchmen managed to adapt Alan Moore's comic of the same name. In many ways it was successful, but not at the box office. Neither was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, despite it's eventual cult status.
Still, there was one movie that still proved that it could bridge that gap, and it was Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of Mark Millar's comic book Kick-Ass. In many ways the movie version is a bit of a strange amalgam of all three movies I mentioned above, and should have been a lesson that was learned early on. Where this was a modest success, I'm surprised the Ryan Reynolds had to fight so hard to get a less underground character to the screen.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a nerdy teenager, not even the one that stands out among his friends Todd (Evan Peters) and Marty (Clark Duke). He spends his time mooning over an unachievable girlfriend in Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), hanging around a comic shop and getting mugged. Then, one day, he starts wondering why people don't try to be superheroes for real.
He designs a costume, settles on the name Kick-Ass and decides to rid the streets of crime. After a knife in the belly and a good amount of surgery later, he finds out why masked vigilantes are typically left in comic books. Despite his early failures he continues, eventually achieving internet fame. He also attracts the wrong attention, largely from mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong), who is having frequent shipments of cocaine stolen from him by a guy in superhero garb. After a number of his men are killed he blames the budding crime fighter.
What neither D'Amico nor Kick-Ass knows is that New York truly does have a pair of professional heroes in the form of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), a father-daughter team bent on bringing down D'Amico's organization. Another player enters the fray in the form of Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), originally created by D'Amico's son Chris as a way to draw Kick-Ass out into the open.
Kick-Ass doesn't promote the vigilante lifestyle. On the contrary, many characters meet excruciatingly violent ends, including one of the heroes. While at heart a dark comedy of what happens when a pretend vigilante meets the real thing, and also while a good deal of violence that happens to the bad guys is played for laughs, director and writer Matthew Vaughn often brings it back to earth by showing realistically what would happen if someone tried to do something along these lines. Even years of training in weapons and martial arts ultimately doesn't keep bad things from happening.
Dave Lizewski is not as quirky as Scott Pilgrim, which is a relief since Kick-Ass is less of a fantasy film than Scott Pilgrim. Physically his only attribute is that he came out of surgery with nerve damage, so he has a higher pain threshold - and that's about it. No martial arts training, barely can use the batons he carries and may know which end of a firearm to point away from him. Normally this wouldn't be much praise, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson gives Lizewski that bland normalness needed to sympathize with such a character. It also says something about either his resolve (or his stubborn stupidity) that he continues to pursue his goals even though he knows from the first meeting with real superheroes that he is completely out of his depth.
Despite the title of the film, it's Chloë Grace Moretz that steals the show as Hit Girl. She's endured much more than a 13-year-old should, but she doesn't seem to outwardly regret the way her father brought her up. Instead, she embraces what she is, which is a pint-sized killing machine. She takes out entire legions of bad guys with ease, and (in a scene that says much more than it probably intended) has no more feeling for those she kills than someone would playing a video game and blasting away at faceless bad guys. In many ways it is played on the comic side, but I can see no way that this wouldn't affect her growing up. Some hints of it come through as it often seems her own identity often comes secondary to her alias.
One thing Kick-Ass has above its more mainstream competitors is a villain that is truly evil. Mark Strong plays D'Amico over-the-top, but ultimately he's not a coward hiding behind henchmen; instead, he's a final-level boss. He's the head of a large organization, but not above getting his hands dirty, and his own training makes him quite formidable. Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays his son Chris not as a lonely, isolated teenager, despite the fact that his father makes sure he has no friends. Instead, the reason for his father troubles is that Dad won't let him in on the family business. His transformation into Red Mist allows him a rare connection outside of the family, but also allows him to achieve his goals in his own way.
Apart from the characters this is one of the few comic book movies that doesn't try to make everything a monochromatic nightmare. From Hit Girl's purple hair to Red Mist's ridiculous wig, and even Kick-Ass's silly wet suit, the colors associated with the heroes are bright and garish. The one difference being Big Daddy, who seems more interested in functionality and impact. If there is one thing it proves it's that "gritty" doesn't always mean everything has to be washed out.
There are some definite weak points. One of those is Nicholas Cage. He gets a great action scene taking out some of D'Amico's bad guys, but his performance is pure latter-day Cage. It seems completely out of step with everything else that is going on. Supposedly he tried to imitate Adam West a bit for his character, but he instead sounds like me doing my horrible robot imitation. Big Daddy is quite important to the story, which makes the performance even more painful.
The other problem is going to make me sound like a broken record, but I feel that I and everyone else railing against it need to continue. That's CGI blood instead of squibs. I really don't care if it ends up looking like bright red paint the way it often did in the '60s or '70s or just sometimes looks hilariously ridiculous, but blood effects should always be practical. Digital blood will always look fake, and it's even worse when the movie is about a decade behind on the technology. The red paint look actually doesn't appear as fake in comparison.
Speaking about almost a decade behind, there are going to be some cringe moments, especially references to how many friends Kick-Ass has on MySpace. It's the danger of making specific cultural references in a world that moves forward as fast as ours does today.
Kick-Ass is still a movie that lives up to its name, although it never really got a chance to evolve; three years passed between this movie and its sequel, and while this was originally a labor of love by Matthew Vaughn, he didn't return for the second movie. If Kick-Ass himself had been a bigger draw in the comic world I'm sure Ryan Reynolds would have had less of a problem convincing the powers that be that Deadpool was a great investment, but ultimately everyone had to relearn what Kick-Ass had already taught us: not every superhero film has to be a hollow, computer generated epic.
Time: 117 minutes
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Young, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nicholas Cage, Mark Strong, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Director: Matthew Vaughn