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

The Comic

Kick-Ass: How does a ten-year-old girl get her hands on a flamethrower?
Hit-Girl: eBay.
--Kick-Ass #8

The movie may be an adaptation of the comic book, but both film and initial four-color story arc were developed at the same time. Still, the comic book appeared first.

The premise initially concerned a real-world teenager, a comic-book-reading nerd, who decides to become a superhero, despite a lack of powers or even especially noteworthy fighting skills. He assembles a costume which, like all superhero costumes, looks absolutely ridiculous outside the pages of a comic or the cells of a cartoon. Still, with a mixture of naïveté and attitude, and inspired by his tights-wearing role models, Dave Lizewski heads out into the world.

He gets his ass kicked.

He also removes his costume before the ambulance comes. Look, real-world superhero might make an interesting graphic novel, but I don't know it would work in an ongoing series. For the most part, the series would consist of someone getting beaten down, issue after issue, and eventually killed.1 Appealing though the premise may be, it's somewhat misleading. No, Kick-Ass, as written by Mark Millar and drawn by John Romita, Jr., contains as much stylization as any comic book. It's just a different kind of stylization than one might find in, say, Spider-man, the mainstream character Kick-Ass most recalls, as he leads his double life and gets the attention of a local girl, Kate Deauxma.

Millar also doesn't bother giving the characters much more depth than one might find in vintage Marvel Comics, though his writing is frequently witty— and nasty and violent and deliberately inappropriate. Millar explores and revels in the violent ethics that motivate vigilantes.

Romita illustrates with gleeful sadism scenes of torture and dismemberment. Spumes of blood fly from the panels. Fredric Wertham, who attacked comic-books and, in particular, their perverse violence, would feel vindicated— a fact which this comic book touts on some of its covers.

Over the course of the first story arc (#1-9), Lizewski heals, returns to crime-fighting, becomes a Youtube sensation, and gains the attention of the girl of his dreams—though not for the best reasons. He also meets other heroes. Two of these, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, appear to have actual super-level fighting skills.

They're also more than a little bit deranged.

However, as Kick-Ass has drawn the attention of local mobsters, he's going to need their help and in any case, they're not leaving him many options. He pitches in with their crusade, complete with the slaughter of criminals, or they publicize his secret identity.

Big Daddy is Frank Castle without the moderating influences of mainstream Marvel continuity, Bruce Wayne without unlimited resources, Rorschach with a daughter in tow. He's as nasty a piece of work as any cold-blooded killer he hunts down. Hit-Girl appears to have more than human abilities, but she's also been trained from childhood, and further motivated and enhanced by political propaganda and stimulants.

At the end of the first story arc, she retires (for the present, at least) and returns home to her mother. Lizewski gets beaten up by Kate's friends but he revels in having made the world more like his beloved comic books.

As the second story arc started, promising additional nihilistic gore and dark humor, a Hollywood movie hit the big screen.

The Movie

All right, you cunts. Let's see what you can do.

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. Kick-Ass (2010) goes where films forty years ago could not, but next to the four-color version, it also seems mild, and it cheats the premise entirely, and somewhat chillingly, in its final act.

Aaron Johnson plays Lizewski as slightly less of a loser than the comic version, a naïve dreamer who believes he can make a difference by putting on a spectacularly dorky costume. The film begins with the same darkly playful mockery of comic-book conventions, and sends Kick-Ass into the same violent tailspin that will land him in the hospital. Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) befriends him shortly thereafter. Rather than being the vacuous bitch from the comic (though I concede, her anger at being misled has some justification), she has an entirely different life, personality, and role in the film.

The comic plot develops involving Youtube, mobsters, and other heroes. Nicolas Cage's Big Daddy has less edge. He's more of a Dark Knight tribute, with a deadpan impersonation of Adam West's bat-voice. He's also been given a darker backstory that makes his violent attacks on crime more comprehensible.

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 Hit-Girl doesn't take stimulants, but she delivers death blows and witty retorts. They've taken the Buffy syndrome to an 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 movie2– in between feeling the sheer visceral thrills.

As with much of the film, Hit-Girl 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 with guns and other deadly tech isn't appropriate. No, I shouldn't overlook my reservations merely because the film makes the slaughter look so stylish.

But dang, the girl hits a nerve.

The story moves along rapidly, propelled by its own twisted logic. Along the way, we see endless tributes to comics, action movies, comic-book adaptations, and videogames. It becomes a little too conventional in its third act, by which point the film shamelessly celebrates the conventions it had initially satirized. This may be the biggest problem. The stylized comic may be repulsive, but it forces the reader to ask questions. The film ultimately buys into violence as entertainment, and the first solution to a problem. Yeah, it's funny to see a really evil guy brought down by excessive force.

Really. We do it all the time.

Roger Ebert calls 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. Perhaps, in the end, violence cannot be depicted without being celebrated. We're only human, after all. 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 (5-6).

Let's hear it for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl. Fire that freakin' bazooka! Yeah!

If you can accept the violence and problematic themes, you will enjoy Kick-Ass. You won't, in the end, find much intrinsic depth in it. It may be the best inappropriate popcorn movie you'll see this year.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Written by Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, Mark Millar.

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

1. If you look at a lot of the people who are actually doing this, they avoid getting killed by avoiding confrontation with crime. The late Captain Sticky used the superhero shtick to draw attention to issues. Polarman of the Canadian north shovels driveways. New York's Terrifica assists drunken women in bars.

Most of them seem entirely aware they look like idiots in their costumes. It's sort of like internet handles.

UPDATE: I recently met The Presence, a "real-life superhero" from Michigan who really does go after criminals. He has serious fighting skills, upper body armor, and an awareness that what he's doing is fundamentally crazy. However, he also acknowledges that most of the time, he just ends up walking a beat. He has intervened with a number of street crimes. I found him strangely likable, if slightly scary.

2. 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 contact list. Pop culture shapes us in unusual ways indeed.

Kick-Ass is a superhero movie based on the comic of the same name by Mark Millar. It follows the exploits of a frustrated teenager named Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson) who decides to become a superhero after getting mugged one too many times in New York. Dave is eventually joined by two other superheros with a grudge against a local crime lord -- Nicolas Cage as Batman Big Daddy, and Chloë Grace Moretz as the show-stealing Hit-Girl. The movie is funny, thrilling, and overall very entertaining; but there's one major gripe I have that stops the movie from being truly great.

Matthew Vaughn does a good job directing. The action scenes are colourful and inventive in a way that's awesome rather than just silly -- though it is a bit silly in a way that's appropriate for a film that's mostly a spoof of the superhero genre. The film has a very modern look without turning its action scenes into an incomprehensible series of blurry close-ups like so many movies do nowadays. It also features a voice-over from the main character (a narrative device I'm in love with for some reason, so bias ahoy). The movie is technically very well-made: Big Daddy's big action scene, in which the camera zooms through a security recording and smoothly pans across a large rectangular room, is particularly memorable both as a technical achievement and as an ingenious storytelling device (allowing us to see the entire room without being confined to the security camera we're supposed to be looking at, without losing visual coherence).

The story takes a leaf out of Christopher Nolan's idea trough, following Dave's transition into the masked vigilante Kick-Ass, how he gets known across the city, and how he takes on the mob first and a supervillain second. Like Batman, the movie keeps to a sketchy sort of "realism" which is just barely realistic enough to fit the theme. Kick-Ass gains worldwide popularity through a MySpace page and a shaky YouTube video, becoming famous in the course of a few weeks.

If you asked Bruce Wayne how he picked his costume, you'd get a vague, "Well, bats are kind of scary I guess." If you asked Dave Lizewski, you'd get the more succinct, "I dunno." Keeping in mind that the movie is not supposed to be especially serious, I give it points for cutting the crap and getting right to the point. In fact, that's the main thing I like about this movie. It really doesn't mess around at all. Dave becomes a superhero less then fifteen minutes into the film, flatly cutting through that "first hour of the movie is an origin story" bullshit that every other superhero movie does.

The only thing that bugs me about it, the aforementioned "one major gripe", is the last fifteen minutes. After a startlingly effective tonal shift from comedy to drama during the rising action, the actual climax of the movie is very disappointing. Instead of resolving any of the movie's themes or being at all consistent, we have a huge fight scene that isn't even focused on the main character -- instead, it's focused on Hit-Girl, now playing the Steve Urkel role of over the top show-stealer. It's okay until the last few moments, when the movie suddenly remembers that Hit-Girl isn't the protagonist, at which point Dave spontaneously appears out of nowhere, having now gained the superpower of not going deaf when firing two Gatling guns on either side of his head.

Funny? Sure. Awesome? Okay, sure. Consistent? No. Annoying? Very much. I know I'm probably in the minority here, but this climax is so paint-drinkingly stupid that it completely stops the movie from being "great", in my eyes. Don't get me wrong: it's fine for a movie to be stupid. The problem here is that, even though the movie is a comedy, it isn't that kind of comedy. This isn't Spongebob Squarepants. The movie, except for this scene, sticks to that aforementioned barely-plausible realism that gave it a very specific theme: "If people tried to be superheros in real life, they would suck." It's fine to show Hit-Girl being an unadulterated badass and mowing down legions of mobsters with assault rifles -- precisely because she's Hit-Girl, the character we all know to be completely unrealistic and silly. Dave Lizewski -- even when he's Kick-Ass -- is supposed to be this ineffectual nerd who gets his ass handed to him in every scene. Turning him into a badass totally ruins the theme of the movie; at least, it ruins the theme I thought the movie would have.

With the climax taken into account, what is the theme of the movie? "Be a superhero because superheros are totally awesome"? Might as well watch The Dark Knight.

Even when it derails Dave's character for the sake of a great action scene, it squanders the potential that that could have had. Watching Dave murder a bunch of people with his testosterone guns is cool, but not nearly as cool as any of Big Daddy's or Hit-Girl's action scenes. His later fight with the supervillain is flat-out boring, basically amounting to a couple of sissy punches in a small nondescript room. Nobody even gets injured; they just knock each other out and fall asleep together like a couple of gay lovers.

There's a lot of nits to be picked if you're into that sort of thing. Many references are dated in a very head-scratching way. I understand that the movie is based on a comic book written by a 40-year-old man, but surely someone in the cast or crew must have used the internet in the last five years and realized that no one uses MySpace anymore. The film's story takes some rather huge liberties in adapting the story as it is, so a minor change like that should hardly be a problem. And what world do these characters live in where everyone has YouTube and iPhones, but comic books are considered a huge phenomenon? The comics industry is dead and has been for a very long time, as much as the writers would try to deny it; the fact that the movie doesn't even attempt to acknowledge this fact is sort of a missed joke.

Overall, you probably think I hate this movie, but I really don't. If I was asked to review my favourite movie of all time, I'd still find something to complain about. At the end of the day, Kick-Ass is hilarious, exciting, and very much worth your money. I just think it could have been a bit better.

Mark Millar is a comic writer who likes to take established concepts and turn them on their head. He’ll take something that is common place in the comic book industry and then make it ask a question. Such is the case with the arguably excellent Superman: Red Son where he asks, what if Superman had been raised in Soviet Russia instead of America. In Wanted (the comic, not the movie that mangled it) he asks, what if the supervilians had gotten together and killed anyone who stood in their way? In The Ultimates (before Jeph Loeb ruined it) he asks, what if Thor was Space Jesus and Tony Stark was slightly less douchey? In Kick-Ass Millar asks, what if we had a comic book superhero story without the comic book superhero universe?

Millar could be equated with Alan Moore—Hold up, let me finish!—in that Hollywood likes to take his comic work, glance at the plot, and then rewrite it without keeping in mind the initial reason why the comic was made…besides the money bit.

Like other movies where the print analog is developed at the same time as the movie, the movie and comic for Kick-Ass follow the same general plot, but they veer off from each other in some key points. Mainly this happens in the third act where the plot threads start paying off.

Warning: Spoilers Ahoy!

In both the comic and the movie Dave Lizewski’s friends tell him that he is crazy. You can’t be a superhero in real life because you’ll either get arrested or more likely killed. Real life and fantasy worlds function on completely different sets of rules. In the real world, life isn’t fair, and often no matter how well you plan things out, if you don’t start with a winning hand, the best you can hope for is to break even. This is a key theme that the movie throws out in the latter half in effort to bring about a more conventional Hollywood ending; the guy gets the girl, the heroes are justified in victory, evil is crushed.

Consider Kate; Dave’s high school crush. In the course of the story, Kate comes to believe that Dave is gay, due to the fact that he’s skinny and weak and got beaten up by some guys on the street. I know. Terrible stereotyping, but I have met a few girls who’s Florence Nightingale reflex has overruled their ability to rationalize. Dave takes advantage of her misperception in order to get closer to her and show her that he is a good guy, sensitive to her feeling, and a better match than her boyfriend. Boys can be dumb. In the movie, once Dave reveals that he’s not gay, and is in fact the hero/pop icon Kick-Ass, Kate swoons, forgives him for the deception, and they bone a lot. In the comic, as would probably happen in real life, Kate gets royally pissed off, has her boyfriend beat Dave up, and then sends him a picture of her giving her boyfriend a blowjob.

Big Daddy and Hit girl are the two characters who end up moving forward any of the plot that doesn’t happen to focus on Dave’s life. They are real life superheroes, taking down the mafia, and actually doing something to make the world a better place. The reason why they are on this crusade is that the mob boss, in an act of retaliation against Big Daddy when he was a cop, killed his wife leaving Big Daddy a widow and Hit Girl without her mother. This is your generic comic book revenge origin. It’s a trope that works very well, if is sometimes overused. The thing is, while the movie sticks to this back story, the comic turns a dark cliche into something even darker. Big Daddy was an accountant not a cop. Big Daddy’s wife was never killed. The whole back story is a lie he told the daughter who loved and trusted him. Her mother had been searching for them for years. Big Daddy gets his money to fund their campaign, not from killing mobsters, but from selling off his collection of gold and silver age comics online. They had no initial connection to the mafia at all. Big Daddy essentially kidnapped his daughter from a safe normal home, turned her into an assassin, hunted down and killed dozens of people (some of them innocent of any wrong doing), nearly getting Hit Girl killed countless times, and eventually got himself killed just so his daughter could live an extraordinary life. I can empathize with wanting your children to have a better life than your’s, but god damn dude!

In the movie, Red Mist just wanted to prove himself to his father. He befriended Kick-Ass, and once he realized that Kick-Ass wasn’t responsible for the damage that Big Daddy and Hit Girl had been doing to his father’s business, he tried and failed to convince his father to let Kick-Ass go. In the comic Red Mist possesses no redeeming value. He pretty much just wanted to be a bad guy.

During the assault on the mob boss’s apartment head quarters at the end, in the movie we are treated to an over-the-top balls-to-the-walls awesome fight sequence. It is fairly unrealistic, and the only reason the audience can accept a little girl plowing through a large number of mobsters is because of all the training we’ve seen her undergo and by her making tactically sound maneuvers. In the comic instead, things are a little more down to earth. Hit Girl goes through the apartment clearing it room by room with a Hello Kitty flamethrower while high on cocaine and righteous fury. I said a little more down to earth. There is no ridiculous Gatling gun mounted jet pack or bazooka, but Kick-Ass and Red Mist end up having a similar fight.

In the end the mob boss is defeated, but Red Mist escapes. Hit Girl returns to her mother who is now married to the cop who was working her case (Big Daddy’s cop partner in the movie). Dave goes home and walks in on his dad in the midst of wild sex in the living room with the woman who had sent Kick-Ass on his first mission against the drug dealers from the beginning. Okay…that bit was kinda silly.

One other minor difference in the comic is that Kick-Ass ends up inspiring a lot of people to start dressing up as super heroes and fight crime. Most of these have varying amounts of success, even more just do it as a sexual fetish. Thank you, internet.

In the end Dave Lizewski got his wish by making the real world a bit more like comics.

Oh yeah, this is a review!

I actually like both the movie and the comic but for very different reasons. While they both have their flaws, I can easily recommend them. The movie is just testosterone fueled wish fulfillment. Everyone wants to see “the bad guys” knocked down a few pegs, especially those of use who felt lost and helpless and picked on through out the testing ground that is the public education system. And I just have to sing the praises of the fight choreographers, Peng Zhang and Rudolf Vrba. Also Nicholas Cage doing his Adam West Batmen impression is just hard not to smile at. The comic, on the other hand, differs from standard cape fair in bringing the story closer to home and, like Watchmen or Kingdom Come, does a decent job of addressing the ramifications of having superheroes in real life. Also, like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Kick-Ass is a big serving of schadenfruede. While most of Mark Millar’s work isn’t that deep, everything is well written and internally consistent. John Romita Jr.’s art is also consistent and provides the right mix of semi-realistic and visceral imagery that the book needed.

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