Pity the poor geek in superhero movies like Kick-Ass. His is a world where Spider-Man never went big at the box office, where comic books never enjoyed a trendy rebirth as “graphic novels,” and where dweeby, horn-rimmed glasses aren’t sold at American Apparel. For this kind of geek, life sucks. It’s enough to make a kid want to fight for something.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a true geek: He reads comic books religiously, hangs out with his hapless fellow nerds, and strikes out regularly with girls. Bored with the everyday life of a high school kid, Dave decides to answer the question he’s always wondered about: “How come nobody’s ever tried being a superhero?” One internet-purchased wetsuit later, Dave becomes Kick-Ass, an amateur vigilante whose weapons of choice are two homemade batons and whose Bat-Signal is a MySpace page. Dave soon learns real life isn’t like the comics—real-life bad guys have blades and bullets—but Kick-Ass remains undaunted. Even after landing himself in the hospital, Dave returns to the world of crime fighting, racking up YouTube hits, and scoring victories for the little guy.
It’s only when he meets fellow crusaders Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and the pint-size, pugnacious Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) that the real danger starts. Nothing is as it seems as Kick-Ass finds himself tangled in a revenge plot against crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Another superhero, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a.k.a. Chris D’Amico, volunteers to be his sidekick, all the while working undercover for the family business, and the beautiful and elusive Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca) finally shows interest in him...platonically. Dave realizes that maintaining a double life is harder than it looks.
As Dave, Johnson possesses a gawky, foul-mouthed kind of charm, as he balances the character’s relatable desire to, well, kick ass with the deeper problems of identity and morality that his superhero persona throws at him. Likewise, Mintz-Plasse’s Chris/Red Mist successfully recycles the actor’s “McLovin” schtick into a deeper and darker (though equally nerdy) teenager. But the film’s truly dynamic duo is that of Cage and Moretz. As Big Daddy and his nebbishy alter-ego Damon Macready, Cage relishes the two sides of the homebrew superhero (his gravelly, halting, “disguised” voice is a clever jab at Christian Bale’s Batman). Moretz has a tough job for a nine-year-old, playing a nimble, vicious assassin with a killer potty mouth and a propensity for flashy knives. She ably brings Hit Girl to life with just the right mixture of brashness and vulnerability to avoid crossing into self-parody.
Based on the comic by Mark Millar & John S. Romita, Jr., Kick-Ass does much to stay true to its halftone roots. Narrative titles appear, comic-book style, in the corners of the screen, and superheroes and obscure Japanese manga get name-checks. Yet true to any Hollywood version of a comic, the movie deviates rather sharply from the original canon in a few key places. While this alters some of the character arcs and changes the story’s original ending, it also makes for a vastly more viewable version than a direct translation would have been. The film also retains a good sense of humor about itself: In a tongue-in-cheek nod to the meta-status of the movie-based-on-comic-about-comics, Dave’s local comic store puts up a sign boasting “Kick-Ass: The Comic Book...coming soon!”
Visually, the film pops, with bright colors everywhere from the sags in Kick-Ass’s turquoise wetsuit to Hit Girl’s violently violet bob to the candy-apple hue of Red Mist’s getaway car. While the film’s final fight scenes were well-choreographed, gory fun (thanks in part to the upbeat music), some of the earlier, less fantastic ass-kickings are grittier, with painfully realistic bone-crackings, stabbings, and hit-and-runs. But their lack of elegance is effective, driving home one of the film’s main themes: Even behind a mask, your nose can still break. And, if the title weren’t enough to tip you off, Kick-Ass is emphatically not a movie for kids, in spite of the young age of most of the cast.
Despite its violence and almost-too-earnest attempts at geeksploitation, Kick-Ass ends up an enjoyable film, with a surprisingly genuine amount of heart—not to mention blood.