Movie Review – Kick-Ass (2010) [Helen Geib]
by HELEN GEIB
Kick-Ass is the “superhero” alter-ego of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson). Dave is pretty much your average American teenager. His background is urban lower-middle class. He lives in an old city neighborhood with a troublingly high crime rate and goes to a typical big city public high school where security guards man metal detectors at the entrance. He’s a good kid who stays out of trouble. He has two close friends and the three of them hang out together a lot at the local comic book/snack shop. He’s a little bit geeky, but nothing out of the ordinary, and less so than his comic-relief buddies. He has the rail thinness of teenage boy growth spurt and exuberant curly brown hair. He has a crush on a beautiful, popular classmate named Katie.
Getting mugged (not for the first time), and knowing that someone saw it happen but did nothing to help, spurs Dave to do something. Where his father would do something like joining a neighborhood watch group, Dave’s something is fashioning a superhero costume out of a wetsuit and looking for opportunities to help people out. The scenario is weirdly plausible. Contemporary teenager Dave’s mind is informed by popular culture, by comics and movies; the invention of “Kick-Ass” is completely in character.
The film, co-written by director Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman and adapted from Mark Millar’s comic, shares its hero’s absorption in pop culture. It further assumes that its audience shares it as well, or at least is enough aware of it to be in on the joke. The film is highly referential. It is self-consciously formulaic in establishing Dave’s situation and throws out a stream of pop culture references in the visuals and dialogue. The script supplies a voiceover narration by Dave that is referential in itself and in content. The references are often seriocomic, like the passage in the narration when Dave reminds us that the fact he’s talking to us now doesn’t mean he’s going to escape the imminent threat of death; haven’t we seen Sunset Boulevard?
The story creates a productive tension between Dave’s Kick-Ass fantasy and the reality of his life that throws the appeal the fantasy holds for him (and us) into sharper relief. He does not have superpowers, and does get himself badly beaten up more than once. His impulse to do good is admirable; the way he acts on it, absurd. He knows the sensible thing is to stop, but he keep on with the masquerade. Dave is fully aware of this tension- he revisits it frequently in his narration. It plays out as well in Dave/Kick-Ass’s relationships with other “superheroes” and their various targets and fans, while the other superhero’s individual stories hold up a fractured mirror to Dave’s.
Kick-Ass eventually becomes entangled with father and daughter team Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, the superhero alter egos of Damon (Nicolas Cage) and Mindy Macready (Chloe Moretz). Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s story takes the film’s fantasy-reality dynamic to its extreme limit. The high concept is The Punisher with a pre-teen daughter fighting- and killing- alongside him. Their ultimate object: to kill the mob boss who framed good cop Damon and caused the death of Mindy’s mother. Their subsidiary object: the annihilation of his organization. The crusade for vengeance-justice plays out in intensely exciting action sequences prominently featuring Hit-Girl in action.
Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s personas (costumes and high-tech equipment) are derived from Batman and Robin. Damon and Mindy’s story is tragic and their mutual devotion palpable. Damon is plainly deranged, Mindy too young to realize it. Cage and Moretz are scene-stealing perfection.
The tension between fantasy and reality is ultimately resolved within the film in favor of fantasy. Dave’s story is a teenage male fantasy at heart, most obviously in the construct of Katie and Kick-Ass’s instant celebrity (via a Youtube video, natch). The brutal action finale is unabashed fantasy, the potent, bloody nods to the reality side of the equation notwithstanding. Kick-Ass neatly sidesteps the inevitable uneasiness over Mindy as Hit-Girl/indoctrinated child-soldier, and both its and our pleasure in the comic-book movie spectacle of which she is the undisputed star.
Stardust is a family-friendly film from director Matthew Vaughn. Notwithstanding the presence of young children at the screening I attended, and doubtless at many other screenings around the country, Kick-Ass most definitely is not.