By Richard von Busack
There are two schools of thought about comic books. One is that they serve our hunger for folk-tale simplicity. The friction of passing time magnetizes these stories, making them attract elements of world religion: Superman, who began as part Golem, has (per Alex Ross) been illustrated to look like Jesus.
Various comic-book writers have likened Batman to Anubis, St. Michael and—the fanciest reference of them all—the self-castrating Greek deity Attis (in the book Arkham Asylum). Another example: the uncharacteristic burst of reverence by author Cintra Wilson that led her to dedicate her book of political outrage, Caligula for President, “to Batman.”
As for the second school of thought? That would be the thought that if it’s not about guys in cool suits kicking ass, I don’t want to hear about it.
Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, hiding in the safety zone right down the middle of these two theories, should be a big hit. There’s a ferment over the film on the Internet, and the amped-up violence will also sell. The sequence about a Robin-the-Girl-Wonder type getting the tar stomped out of her is something new. Generally, children don’t get beaten up badly in the movies, and if there’s anything we’ve learned over the years, it’s that any new sensation will boost a film’s box office, no matter what side of the moral line it inhabits.
The homage to all cartoons and cartoon movies is seen during the opening titles: a flight through an audio bubble of tag lines of superhero shows and movies, a murmur of overlapping voices as the computer-animated camera sails through the clouds. We also see the reverence in the film’s last line, a quote from, yes, Batman (the Burton version).
In the middle comes the nasty fan-boy quality, a hermetic focus that doesn’t see anything but beating bad guys bloody. The ass-kicking gets enhanced even as the film tries to show how much it respects traditions, but Vaughn seems to be making a critique of comic-book violence, too, as when he indulges in the ironic gesture of using Elvis’ “An American Trilogy” for a “glory hallelujah” chorus during the film’s explosive finale.
Working from a comic-book series by silver-age cartoonist John Romita Sr. and writer Mark Millar, Kick-Ass starts us out with Dave (Aaron Johnson), a teen without qualities, beyond masturbation and comic-book reading. He decides to become a costumed vigilante. He orders a green scuba-diving suit and names himself Kick-Ass; on his first patrol, Dave gets squashed fast by bullies. The doctors who put him back together give him a metal skeleton. He’s had enough nerve damage that he feels no pain.
Resuming his patrols, Dave encounters the genuine item: a graying Batmanesque figure, portly, with a biker’s mustache. He is called Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). His partner and beloved daughter is Mindy, known as Hit-Girl, played by Chloë Moretz, who was the wise little girl in (500) Days of Summer.
The two heroes are doing right what Kick-Ass does at an amateur level. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl have a large armory, a definite target and the good sense not to host a website. They’re both zeroing in on the crime boss of the town, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), a savage in a penthouse who keeps (nice detail) the leathery, preserved head of one of his rivals in a vitrine near the elevator door. Strong, soon to be Green Lantern foe Sinestro in the upcoming film, adds to an already fine résumé of villains. He’s Italianoid this time, with scars that look like parentheses on his forehead: considering the material here, the scar ought to have looked like quotation marks. The thug also has a pampered son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), antsy to get into the family crime racket.
It’s been said that Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies demonstrate how superheroes would work in a real world. But the violence in Nolan’s films is still swift and cartoony even as his backgrounds are all plausible cityscapes. The fight scenes in Nolan’s Batman movies are meant to take care of business, not agonize. And Millar doesn’t even have the cityscapes here.
Vaughn, who directed Layer Cake and Stardust, has the problem of disguising Toronto the Good as New York the Ugly during the street beefs. Johnson’s studious lack of personality adds to the lack of a center: he’s a D.C.-style blank alter ego in a Marvel-style movie. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are the urgent part of the movie; they vanish when Dave narrates, telling us about his friends and the girl (Lyndsy Fonseca) he likes.
Cage is an actor who, once upon a time, took his stage name from a comic book, and he’s in tune with the flamboyant mania of comics. He shows us the monstrousness underneath the mask: Big Daddy bent his daughter to the mission of climbing up walls and shooting people. (One sequence is full of sick-humored material when he coaxes Mindy into trying out body armor.)
Moretz’s grit and oddly gravelly voice—she never seems annoyingly precocious—will make a star out of her. The scene in which Hit-Girl cleans up a hallway loaded with gunmen to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” might be some little girl’s dream; there are plenty of bloody-minded little girls out there, and thank heaven for them.
But it’s nuts to call Kick-Ass the next Watchmen. Vaughn uses the comic-book tropes wholesale, but he has no feeling for the romance or the mystery underneath them. The slamming violence and the dullard noms de guerre these obsessives picked for themselves are presumably meant to show a comic-book tradition at the end of a line. Cage carries all of this movie’s ambiguity, but Kick-Ass is a film that makes you feel beat up afterward.