Cast your mind back to 2010 and the comic book film landscape was quite different from today. The early Spider-Man and X-Men films had proven that the medium was ripe for adaptation and studios had smelled the lucrative possibilities. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had started two years prior with Iron Man but had taken a misstep with the second attempt at an Incredible Hulk film, and DC was enjoying a lot of success in the wake of Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Into this mix came a little film based on a lesser known comic that gave the superhero genre a swift kick in the spandex pants.
Kick-Ass is simultaneously a love letter and a giant middle-finger to the world of comic book superheroes. It charts the tragically mundane life of hormonal teenager Dave Lizewski, his journey to becoming masked crime-fighter Kick-Ass, and what happens when he gets in way over his head with the mob. It’s a story that feels very much grounded in our modern reality, with Kick-Ass finding fame thanks to YouTube and answering requests through Myspace, the latter feeling a little dated nowadays but substitute it for a Facebook page and it fits in nicely. It shares a small amount of its DNA with Watchmen which posed the question of what the classic superheroes would be like if they were real people. Kick-Ass is about real-life superheroes too, but it answers it in an entirely different way.
As opposed to the thoughtful slow-burn of Watchmen, Kick-Ass approaches its story with a bundle of exuberant energy and then some. It just throws you in and bounds along from there. The pacing is one of its strengths and there’s something different happening every few minutes. Like a sped-up version of those rides at historical museums, you’re never shown anything for too long and you’re always moving forward. This exuberance is best appreciated in the fight sequences which are often punctuated by thumping popular music; they start off realistic and quickly turn outrageous to the point where they’re on the verge of utter baloney. They’re also wildly entertaining…as long as you can stomach the violence, and those of a queasy disposition should be glad that director Matthew Vaughn didn’t adapt the comic panel-for-panel. This all exudes a teenage sensibility that grates from time to time. Profanity is applied liberally throughout the dialogue so much so that it loses any sense of comedic impact to the point where every character is just chronically foul-mouthed. Swearing can be done creatively (see In The Loop) but it’s juvenile in the hands of Vaughn and Millar. Their characters fare better though. Aaron Taylor-Johnson mixes naivety and optimism to make Dave a likeable lead and Nicolas Cage is perfect in a role that requires him to be off-kilter, in and out of his Big Daddy persona.
Kick-Ass is undoubtedly a fun ride while you’re in it, but once it comes to an end it leaves some niggling issues. It’s caught between two worlds in more ways than one. From the start it seems to be a realistic look at an every-kid trying to be a hero, but in its final act it takes off the shackles and goes full comic-fantasy, indulging in what it seemed to be railing against. The same is true in its approach to violence. There are dire consequences for beating up people that come to a head in quite a disturbing scene heavily inspired by the way terrorists use the internet, but the film still delights in lopping limbs and spilling blood in an entirely playful way. The film wants us to get behind the ‘good-guys’ as they slaughter their way through a small army of thugs, shedding more blood than the mob in the process. Double standards much?
If you can find your inner teenage boy – and many of us still have easy access to him – you’ll like Kick-Ass. I know I still do. It’s a film that is raucous, brash, and completely unapologetic about being so, but it doesn’t quite get away with it. It’s weirdly summarised in the line from Lizewski’s narration, “With no power, comes no responsibility. Except that wasn’t true”. You can go all-out and over-the-top if you want, but it might just leave a sour taste in the mouth once you’re done.