I wasn’t brave enough to make Ghost Rider my first foray into the world of Cage comic book films, however I must admit something. When I first saw Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass in theaters, I was severely underwhelmed. In hindsight, my lukewarm reaction was probably more due to the original comic, specifically its author: Mark Millar. Back when I religiously frequented Monroe Street’s Capital City Comics (or maybe back when I didn’t realize $4.00 an issue was one hell of a get poor quick scheme), I tried following Millar’s work and just didn’t get it. The edginess was trying too hard. The volcanic blood splatter felt excessive. The streams of curses seemed forced.
Two and a half years later? It’s still Millar’s fault.
High schooler Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) has little in common with Peter Parker, but he certainly isn’t Oliver Queen, either. He’s just… another regular guy. What separates Dave from his apathetic classmates though is a single crazy idea, becoming local superhero Kick-Ass. Although his amateurish stunt-making secures him with an online fanbase, Dave’s moonlighting also incurs the wrath of New York mobster Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his criminal empire. Fortunately, Dave also gets the attention of ex-cop Big Daddy (Cage) and his sidekick daughter Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz), and their new alliance seems like it will put D’Amico down once and for all. Too bad the kingpin’s son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), would do anything to get in his father’s good graces. Chris poses as his own faux-hero, Red Mist, and in an undercover operation, hatches a plan to dispatch the masked usurpers once and for all. What follows is a lot of edginess, a lot of curses, and a lot of that blood splatter.
As I understand it, the source material’s “Icon” imprint is owned by Marvel Comics, however all of Icon’s creators have greater control over their original properties when compared to penning the latest Daredevil
story arc. In the case of Kick-Ass
, control is a good thing. Director Matthew Vaughn and Millar actually collaborated
on both projects simultaneously, but where it gets interesting is the resonance of Vaughn’s narrative changes: Dave’s high school crush Katie Deauxma isn’t a pain in the ass. Big Daddy’s actions stem from relatable motivations. Red Mist becomes more sympathetic. Gone is much of the contrived cynicism in Millar’s comics writing, and it’s for the best.
That said, Kick-Ass remains a severely self-aware film, and it’s quite proud of that, rejoicing in all its gory, edgy glory. Despite the garish color scheme — and the brilliance of the juxaposed aesthetic –this is not a pretty film. It looks bad. Maybe that’s because everything reeks of CGI, but I’d like to believe 2010 standards were higher than this. Computer-generated fire. Computer-generated blood. Computer-generated jetpacks. For a film that can feel so visceral and gritty, the penny-pinching and green screens were less of an uppercut and more of a tap to the nuts.
Fortunately, my 2010 standards didn’t align here either, because Kick-Ass does a lot of things right. As much as I rip on the CGI’ed blood, Vaughn arrives at the splatter with inventive knife kills behind flashy punk rock stylization. Yes, this is a self-indulgent film, but it’s mostly the good kind. What feels like a rarity for the genre, the action constantly one-ups itself. It’s also abbreviated, but not like, say, Batman Begins, where it’s impossible to see what’s going on at times. The cuts in Kick-Ass, and I hate to draw the comparison, truncate events like a comic page layout.
Did I mention the subject matter complements the action? “With no power comes no responsibility. Except that wasn’t true.” Now there’s a novel idea for a comic book movie. Dave Lizewski calls himself out. But he’s also calling out all of us. You, and me, and those onlookers in our would-be hero’s viral debut:
Rather than go out and do anything about the bad stuff, people prefer to shove culpability to some unknown other, shutting themselves in and writing on their sad, crappy blogs. It’s a fascinating dissection of the belief that being power-less isn’t synonymous with being powerless. Kick-Ass is actually more interesting when it’s not kicking ass, but rather when its characters are unmasked, or in this instance, when the concept itself ditches the theatricality.
Chloe Moretz, fantastic as Hit-Girl, is essential in elevating material that might be hammy in the hands of a less capable young actor. She pulls off dropping a few “cunts” as well as she pulls some real emotional heft in her moments with Cage, the latter of which one might consider an insult, provided they don’t already obsess over the man on a weekly basis. This is a damn great Nicolas Cage performance. He guffaws and chuckles as Big Daddy, but those fleshed out motivations Vaughn adds stop this vengeful ex-cop from being simply that. Big Daddy is driven by retribution not escapism — that’s more of Dave’s department anyway — so there’s a humanity behind every ‘aww shucks’ Cage delivers:
As we learn from his very first appearance, Cage plays a man warped from his own twisted ambition, but that doesn’t remove his warmth as a father figure. Of course he has a sick relationship with his daughter, but that’s a key ingredient in a film that is very much a discussion of paternal failure. In a surprise to precisely no one, many parents objected
to the prospect of a child slicing baddies’ throats in such a joyous presentation. But Kick-Ass
isn’t without its own internal conscience, much of which neuters the natural masculinity in the genre. Quite obviously, the biggest, ahem, ass kicker, is an eleven year-old girl, and she gets to be so bad ass because of her father’s obssession. That’s a problem, and it’s pointed out. On the other hand, Mintz-Plasse’s Red Mist is the bratty perversion of Bruce Wayne, using his resources not to do good or solve crimes, rather only to give the appearance of those things. Dave’s own motivations are ultimately seeded in the superficial. It’s an interesting commentary on the hero aesthetic and the public persona as much as it is a wink at the inherent nature of the genre’s built-in PR machine. That giant ‘S’ on Superman’s cape? It’s a symbol, but if you ask Kick-Ass
, it’s a flying billboard, too.
Side Note: On the subject of masks, it’s worth mentioning the futility of the superhero costume in Kick-Ass. I don’t know if Hit-Girl and Big Daddy knew Kick-Ass was Dave Lizewski because of their reverse IP trace, from a background check or whatever, but such a grounded concept — at least on paper, if not in the climax — really shouldn’t ignore this. As an example, Christian Bale’s Bat-voice sounds absurd because he doesn’t want to sound like Christian Bale. If I lived in the same town as a kid who talked like Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as soon as Red Mist opened his stupid mouth on live television, I’d probably think Hey, that guy sounds a hell of a lot like Christopher Mintz-Plasse. For a story so concerned with the consequences of donning a cape and mask, it really took me out of the film. Now if you’ll excuse me, I should probably lie down for a bit.
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