"How come nobody's ever tried to be a superhero?"
"Boy, I don't know. Probably because it's impossible."
"Putting on a mask and helping people? How's that impossible?"
"Dude, if anybody did it in real life they'd get their ass kicked."
A gentle reminder to film directors: if you are going to make a film about superheroes who don't have superpowers then you have to actually, you know, remove the powers. First, Zack Snyder spoilt Watchmen (2009) by making Alan Moore's normal heroes into ultimate badasses. Now, Matthew Vaughn finds the urge toward superhumanly creative bloodletting similarly irresistible. In Snyder's case it undermined the whole point of the original work, in Vaughn's case it just exposes the weakness of Mark Millar's source material.
Vaughn initially made his impression on the world by a) shepherding Guy Ritchie's early films—Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000) and the disastrous Swept Away (2002)—into production and b) marrying Claudia Schiffer. He then changed roles from producer to director to make the surprisingly good Layer Cake (2004). I say surprisingly good because the last thing an already saturated market needed was another Mockney aristo playing gangster and turning out a witty but glib exercise in moral cretinism. Instead, it has a heft and gravitas which stands in noticeable contrast to Ritchie's last gangster film, Rock N Rolla (2008), and promised much. Unfortunately, after that he teamed up with scriptwriter Jane Goldman to film a starry, episodic and snooze-inducing adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust (2007). It is that same team who now bring us a very different adaptation from a very different comic book writer in the form of Kick-Ass.
Dave (Aaron Johnson) is an average, invisible teen; slightly geeky, not unattractive but anonymous, "not even the funny one" in his small group of friends. One day he decides to become a superhero. Having bought a snazzy scuba suit off the internet for a costume and practiced a few essential skills such as working up the nerve to jump the gap between two buildings, he is ready for action. His first foray into crime fighting involves trying to stop two thugs a couple of years older than him from breaking into a bar. As a result, he is beaten, stabbed and run over. There is a pleasing realism to this, a real attempt to answer the rhetorical question posed at the beginning of this review. Unfortunately this is the last such moment of realism.
After an astonishingly quick recovery, the only legacy (physical or mental) of Dave's traumatic assault is a bit of nerve damage and some metal plates in his body. Which reduces his susceptibility to pain and injury. Which makes him the perfect crime fighter: Weebles wobble but they don't fall down and, once the bad guys have tired out their fists on your face, you can pop them one with a night stick. Kick-Ass is born!
This is stupid.
In fact, this marks the bifurcation of one pretty good film into two stupid ones. The first is a geeky fantasy, although it also has queasy overtones of a teen sex comedy. The catalyst for this new and unwelcome element is that fact that as the paramedics cut Dave out of his scuba suit his last lucid words are to ask that his unorthodox clothing is unmentioned. Consequently, when Dave wakes up he finds the paramedic reported that he was discovered naked. This leads to an hi-larious scene in which Dave's anxious dad soliticiously enquires about the state of his sphincter and the persistent rumour going around his school that he is gay. In turn, this means that Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), the object of his affection who has never previously looked twice at him, suddenly wants him as a gay BFF. He goes along with this and it is as ghastly as you could imagine. I am spoiling nothing by noting that in the way of all teen sex comedies, this relationship based on lies, deceit, and stalking leads to ultimate happiness (i.e. penetrative sex) over the course of the next 90 minutes.
The second film, rather confusingly, is a straight superhero movie. Confusing because wasn't the whole point of Kick-Ass meant to be that it wasn't a straight superhero movie? If Kick-Ass is Millar having his cake and eating it then Hit Girl and Big Daddy are him ram raiding the patisserie and gorging on the contents in a frankly Roman display of gluttony; they may not be able to fly but their martial prowess is no less superhuman. Having been introduced to these two characters early on, we are then given their actual origin story in actual comic book form (stills with voice over for the captions). Damon MacReady (Nicholas Cage) was a good cop bent on taking down a crime kingpin. When he got too close a corrupt cop framed him and whilst he was in prison his pregnant wife committed suicide. Sworn to vengeance, he has raised his eleven-year-old daughter Mindy (Chloe Moretz) as a killing machine. Yes, it really is that cliched. Any veneer of subversion from Millar is here lost under a thick coat of the same old shit.
That kingpin, incidentally, is called Frank D'Amico and is played by Mark Strong. He has a lot to thank Vaughn and Ritchie for since he has now been the baddie in Kick-Ass, Stardust, Rock N Rolla and Ritchie's most recent film, Sherlock Holmes (2009). However, whilst they have kept him in work it has been a double-edged sword because—with the exception of Rock N Rolla's Archie—all these roles have been terrible. Here he has nothing much to do, sat in his penthouse surrounded by a comic book army of Italian-American goons played by Lock, Stock faces like Dexter Fletcher and Jason Flemyng. He scowls; at one point he is allowed to roundhouse someone in the head; he does what he can.
Cage, in contrast, continues to inhabit the zen-like irony-free anti-acting bubble which means he can drift from Adaptation (2002) to National Treasure (2004) to The Wicker Man (2006) whilst still just being Nic Cage. Before my screening of Kick-Ass I was treated to the trailer for Werner Herzog's forthcoming remake of Bad Lieutenant, which Cage stars in. After the initial WTF of being reminded of the whole mad endeavour there was the additional WTF of being reminded that yes, he is Academy Award Winner Nicholas Cage. As MacReady, he is dowdy and deadpan and gets a catchphrase; as alter ego Big Daddy, he has a glue on handlebar moustache and pitches his voice somewhere between Adam West and William Shatner. I image he is very happy.
Anyway, Kick-Ass and Hit Girl soon find their paths cross, fantasy meets reality (for certain values of reality) and the two halves of the film jar horrible. The initial engine of this meeting is the preposterous fact that Katie helps out in a needle exchange and is being hassled by one of New York's biggest drug dealers. However, once this is out of the way an even more extreme plot contrivance reveals Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse—who even I know as McLovin and I haven't seen Superbad ) as the true nexus of the two films. In addition to being Dave's rich classmate, he not only turns out to be the baddie's son but, in an attempt to prove to daddy he can take over the family business, he comes up with a plan to capture the pair by posing as a third underage superhero, Red Mist. Since the two worlds can't really be integrated it is no surprise that Mintz-Plasse is left as a bit of a spare wheel, occasionally necessary to move the plot along but just as often ignored as an inconvenience, In the end Vaughn and Goldman just shrug and take their cue from Millar's ongoing but delayed series by leaving open the unlikely possibility of his return as a supervillain in a sequel.
This is the second Millar adaptation following Wanted (2008), a film that wedded a preposterous plot about a magic loom to a vile misogynistic self-help theme. As with Kick-Ass, I haven't read the original comic but in Timur Bekmambetov's hands it was hateful trash. This film is infinitely superior; there is plenty of fun to be had here, even if it is sometimes hard to hear it over the grinding of the film's gears. Clark Duke and Evan Peters give nice, puncturing support as Dave's mates, Vaughn gets the tone right throughout meaning a lot of the jokes really do provoke laughs, and Hit Girl and Big Daddy really are quite a pair. Can anyone resist the thrill to be had from watching a prepubescent girl call a roomful of men cunts before chopping their legs off? I certainly can't. In fact, the first trailer I saw for the film only featured Moretz and that is half the problem: I would rather have watched Hit Girl than Kick-Ass.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.