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"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."

Kick-Ass

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 [2007]) 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.



Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
13 comments on “Kick-Ass”

I agree. The film is a bait and switch job anchored to a really rather dull, unfunny, and unimaginative superhero film.
I was hoping that Kick-Ass would be the Scream response to America's Bush-era obsession with super heroes : The film that finally started the deconstruction process by pointing out how fucking ridiculous the whole genre is. But the super hero elements are mostly dealt with in a completely straight-faced manner. The humour never goes beyond laughing at the silly silly costumes.
I thought the splitting point was Hit Girl's initially appearance. Before that, the film handles violence relatively sensibly then the real heroes arrive and it's a hideous blood-bath. The kind of scene which, if you saw it in real life, would leave you scarred for the rest of your life. But rather than acknowledging that Hit Girl is clearly psychotic, the film simply accepts that hey... if you want to destroy evil then you have to deploy psychotic levels of violence -- Which is pretty much the Bush doctrine in a nutshell.
Kick-Ass's fundamental problem is that it is not as good at confronting the super hero mythos as the most successful of all super hero films : Dark Knight. That film does at least engage with the problematic aspects of vigilantism.
When a film that projects itself as tongue-in-cheek and post-modern is actually less satirical and less self-aware than the most commercially successful instance of the genre it is supposedly deconstructing then you have a major problem.
Kick-Ass is light-weight, timid and ultimately not very good.

Ted

Bad Lieutenant has already come out

That depends what country you live in.
Jonathan: As I suggest towards the end of my review, I won't even have minded unrealistic violence in pursuit of base entertainment if they had been honest about their dishonesty. The fact that in reality it would "leave you scarred for the rest of your life" is completely true but a broader and more pervasive criticism than I am interested in here. Your point about the film's relationship to The Dark Knight is utterly damning though.

paul

Sounds like a good film to avoid. Writing Police say do not rely on spell checkers alone. Image is spelt correctly unless you mean "imagine" and horrible is also correct, until you mean "horribly."

The problem wasn't so much the lack of psychological realism in the reaction to the violence and the missed opportunity it represented. Hit Girl's entrance - so at odds with the rather care-free feel of the opening act - is one of the most viscerally violent scenes I have seen in a film for a while. Off the top of my head I'd have to go back to Martyrs to find a violent scene that had as much of an effect upon me.
But instead of using that horrific violence as some kind of intellectual catalyst, the film effectively normalises it by suggesting that it is the kind of thing that 'normal' people can do. For me that was the point at which the film lost it.
I was thinking about this on the way home and, to a certain extent, I can sympathise with the film-makers as comics have been deconstructing themselves at least since Watchmen and Sandman. The super hero story has adapted to the post-modern cultural environmment in a way that few other forms have. It has internalised post-modernity but not actually changed that much for it.
This is partly a reflection of the way that comics are made : Characters remain the same but writers change and so every time a writer takes over an established character, he has to deconstruct it in order to make some space for himself creatively.
This means that super heroes are inoculated against the post-modern tool kit, like someone given enough of a virus to develop anti-bodies. You simply cannot use traditional deconstructive techniques against the super hero and expect any results. This is why The Dark Knight manages to be both intensely critical of super heroics and genre-definingly mainstream and successful at the same time.

Oh and Bad Lieutenant : Port of call New Orleans is a superb film with an astonishing central performance by Cage.
Cage's problem is not a lack of talent, but a weirdness of taste. He simply no longer seems to enjoy traditional dramatic parts - which leads him to take on all kinds of weird roles that he plays in increasingly weird ways. BLPOCNO is a success precisely because Herzog recognises Cage's fundamental weirdness and puts it to work.

Nick

"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. [...] in Vaughn's case it just exposes the weakness of Mark Millar's source material."
"As with Kick-Ass, I haven't read the original comic"
Given the second quote, I don't see how you can make the statements you do in the first quote. How do you know the director is to blame for the 'superpowers', and how do you know that Millar's source material is weak, if you haven't actually read it?
Reviewing the film as a film is one thing, but if you're going to apportion blame for content, or comment on how the film compares to the source material, then surely reading the source material before you do so is essential.
Also - and I suspect Wikipedia might be to blame for this - you refer to "Millar's ongoing but delayed series". The series is not ongoing, and while it was delayed it is now complete and available to buy as a TPB.

In an ideal world I would have read the source material. However, in this review I hope I have struck a balance between treating the film on its own merits whilst acknowledging that it is an adaptation. So, in your first quote, I am drawing a distinction between the depiction (Vaughn) and the concept (Millar). I think this is supportable from the film alone.
Throughout the review I hope I have held Vaughn (and Goldman) responsible for the film, not Millar, for the very reason that I haven't read the source material. For example, after I wrote my review I discovered that the romantic development I am so critical does of is an invention of Vaughn and Goldman. Aware of this possibility and finding the closing scene with Red Mist rather weird I wondered if they had made up the ending too. So I did look it up on Wikipedia to see if there was a plot synopsis of the orginal and in doing so got the mistaken impression Millar intended to continue the series. I knew it had been collected as a TPB but - given the cliffhanger ending - didn't realise this meant it was complete. So another lesson in the dangers of using Wikipedia as a research tool.
It does make the ending - and the fact Vaughn included it - even stranger. Presumably it is supposed to be a parody of superhero conventions which only makes the question of whether Kick-Ass is a subversion or indulgence of the tropes of the genre even muddier.

Nick

"So, in your first quote, I am drawing a distinction between the depiction (Vaughn) and the concept (Millar)."
I regret that I have to disagree with your distinction here. The comic is not just a concept, it is another depiction in itself. Thus in the comic, Millar could well have made the same mistake and had his 'normal' superheroes display superpowers after all. I'm afraid I'll have to stick with my first reaction here; whichever way you cut it, this is a distinction that can only be made and supported if you've read the source material as well as having seen the film.
"Throughout the review I hope I have held Vaughn (and Goldman) responsible for the film, not Millar"
See, the parts of the review that worked best for me were the parts where you just talked about the film, without apportioning any blame or responsibility to anyone involved in making it. Especially in the case of adaptions, and especially when talking about the story, I don't believe that blame or responsibility can be assigned without having some familiarity of the source material. That is, I think you can say 'This part of the film worked/didn't work for me' without having to blame anyone (with few exceptions, obviously: acting, direction, lighting - that which is clearly visible on screen).
Regarding the ending; Millar has form with outrageous endings. With "Kick-Ass" specifically, it may well be he's setting things up for a potential sequel somewhere down the line, but then, even if he is he may never get around to writing it. So I don't think it's wrong to treat "Kick-Ass" as a complete story. If you really want to see weird, you should read the original ending to "Wanted".

Nick Hubble

I wouldn't blame Martin - having read wanted, I certainly wouldn't want to read anything else by Millar and wouldn't fault anyone else for not doing so. Didn't realise there was another ending though...

Manta Oyamada

The movie DOES deconstruct to a degree, but it also revels in the mythos as well.
I.E. Kick-Ass has good intentions but bad things happen because of them, i.e. he lures Big Daddy and Hit Girl into the trap by trusting Red Mist...
And when he tries to woo Katie with his "Kick-Ass" sneak-in, he gets a face full of pepper spray
But in the end he gets the girl, because the filmmakers decided that the film can't be too negative.
I read the comic - it has a very unflattering portrayal of the hero, Dave Lizewski, AND in the end Dave doesn't get the girl and remains a loser. Also he wants to be a hero only to satisfy his ego, not to help people.
But the makers decided that the film could not be about that - the message of the comic is too nihilistic to put on film, so instead they made a more positive portrayal for the film.
Also they had Kick-Ass with the jetpack in the end of the film because the filmmakers wanted Kick-Ass to develop and become an effective hero at the end (Hit Girl did most of the work) - After he realizes being a hero is serious business (his naive trusting nature lead to Big Daddy's death), he learns how to truly function in the hero world

E. L. Wisty

This is a very odd film. It actually makes more sense if you imagine that Kick-Ass never recovers from the terrible injuries he receives early on, and spends the rest of the film in a coma dreaming an improbable wish-fulfillment fantasy. With a couple of tiny edits and a brief "It was all a dream" coda, you could make that scenario 100% plausible. I'm not suggesting that it should have been done, merely that the film is so illogically plotted that it could have been.
As soon as Kick-Ass gets hurt, everything starts going better for him in unlikely ways. He recovers totally from massive internal injuries in no time at all, with his physical prowess actually enhanced. He gets the girl in a highly implausible way, in a lengthy and completely irrelevant sub-plot that only ties in with the rest of the film through the absurd plot-twist whereby this very middle-class white girl suddenly turns out to have had some sort of relationship with an evil black drug-dealer from the ghetto without in any way ceasing to be "nice".
Kick-Ass meets two utterly implausible "genuine" superheroes - a comic parody of Batman, and a little girl with purple hair who turns out to be a lethal ninja, and achieves worldwide fame followed by national TV coverage in a strange torture sequence which, because of his nerve damage, doesn't actually hurt. And then he gets to do some real superheroic stuff, thanks to a jet-pack far better than any that exist outside Boba Fett's wardrobe, equipped with two miniguns, that was bought by - er, mail order...
Oh, and never mind the fact that dozens of people die - could you really attack a New York skyscraper with machine-guns in broad daylight and then fire a anti-tank weapon out of the window without the police noticing anything at all?
Of course, I'm joking, but does that interpretation really make less sense than a film in which the hero demonstrates very conclusively that real people cannot behave like Batman, and then, through a chain of increasingly amazing coincidences, gets to behave like Batman?

Manta Oyamada

"And then he gets to do some real superheroic stuff, thanks to a jet-pack far better than any that exist outside Boba Fett's wardrobe, equipped with two miniguns, that was bought by - er, mail order..."
The main order jetpack didn't come with the guns. Big Daddy installed the guns.
"whereby this very middle-class white girl suddenly turns out to have had some sort of relationship with an evil black drug-dealer from the ghetto without in any way ceasing to be "nice"."
Drug dealers do hang out at rehab clinics in order to stop people from kicking their addictions and/or to get them hooked on new stuff. He probably put an act on for her, and then became increasingly ugly and tried to control her.
In the comic book, Katie was not involved in that subplot; it was an ex-girlfriend who was an adult woman.
"achieves worldwide fame followed by national TV coverage in a strange torture sequence which, because of his nerve damage, doesn't actually hurt."
No, he says it hurts, **despite** the nerve damage.

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