Dreaming of being a superhero is pretty standard for young comic book buffs. After all, if you didn't enjoy fantasize about being a larger than life crime fighter, why were you even reading these books to begin with? As someone who was addicted to comics as a kid, I wore more than my fair share of superhero-themed Underoos and I'd be embarrassed to admit how old I was before I finally came to terms with the fact that I was never going to be the bearer of a real Green Lantern power ring. I knew that I'd never be Superman because I was pretty sure I hadn't been born on Krypton but it was permissible in my far-flung imaginings to think that becoming an approximate version of one of my favorite superheroes wasn't out of the question.
Getting older, though, those goofy dreams of adopting a superhero persona for real fade away - or, for some, become relegated to live action role-playing games. In the new movie Kick-Ass, however, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) - the adolescent comic book fan at the heart of the story - wonders why no one has ever taken the obvious-but-bold leap to become a real-life costumed hero. When he decides to be the first, he receives a brutal beating at the hands of some ordinary thugs - a beating that lands him in the hospital with metal plates now installed in his body and some serious nerve damage to boot. This, after all, is what happens when someone really tries to fight the kind of battles that comic book heroes have been fighting for years. What happens - especially if you're a scrawny adolescent kid - is that you get your ass handed to you.
After that savage first beating, the "this is how it would really be" portion of Kick-Ass is over. One swift alley fight is all the reality that this movie can tolerate. What follows is every bit as fanciful as anything found in the Marvel or DC pantheon. Forget radioactive spiders, forget alien power rings - in the real world, what really would've happened after Dave's first try at being a superhero is that he either would've died (or been permanently crippled) thanks to his injuries or else he would have pulled through intact but would never want to be Kick-Ass again. Instead, Dave recovers and actually feels motivated to continue with his one-man war on crime (he compares the new steel in his body to Wolverine's adamantium skeleton, natch). More incredible than that, he soon finds out that he isn't the only costumed avenger in the city of NY and that these other heroes are hardcore.
Operating on a level that Dave can't hope to touch, the mysterious duo of Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage, turning in one of his best performances - his Adam West-style delivery while in costume is pure gold) and Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz, soon to be seen again in the Let The Right One In remake) are a sociopathic father-daughter team who have a special hate-on for the city's biggest gangster, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). These two new heroes are so ruthless, well-trained, and well-armed that they pose a serious threat to D'Amico. Dave, on the other hand, muddles through his new hobby as a self-made superhero on behalf of his pie-eyed dream of helping others. Despite his lack of ability, Dave really is hero material - mostly for the fact that he cares. He doesn't need any Uncle Ben-style shock to teach him a lesson - he already thinks it's a good idea to help his fellow man.
As an adaptation, the movie's script - written by Jane Goldman along with director Matthew Vaughn - represents a vast improvement over comic scribe Mark Millar's smug, cynical source material (material redeemed on the comic page by some of legendary artist John Romita Jr.'s best work - one of the high points of the film, in fact, is a segment featuring J.R. Jr.'s art in limited animation). However, in making Dave a much more altruistic, morally grounded person than his unpleasant comic book counterpart, it also opens up a hole in the narrative. It was easy to accept the troll-like Dave of the comic going along with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl's wholesale slaughter of criminals but in the movie, one has to wonder if this is really what Dave had in mind when he dreamed about being a superhero.
First of all, it'd be more correct to call the self-styled costumed characters of Kick-Ass vigilantes rather than superheroes. If you'll let me get comic book geeky for a minute, there's an important difference. Superheroes, traditionally, don't kill. It's what separates them from vigilantes. The Punisher, for example, is a vigilante while Spider-Man and Captain America are not. Sure, you could say that anyone operating outside the law is, by definition, a vigilante. But to be a superhero involves a code of conduct. Batman might strike fear into the hearts of criminals but he never kills. A criminal might die in the midst of a battle with the Cowled Crusader, but never as the direct result of Batman's actions. The day Batman kills is the day he stops being Batman.
Given that, Dave's attitude towards murder is something that should've been addressed. We see that he's taken aback by Big Daddy and Hit-Girl's actions but he never suggests that killing shouldn't be a part of a hero's repertoire. Now, had he expressed a moral issue with using lethal force, Kick-Ass might've had his naivete thrown back in his face and he might've had to accept through bitter experience that a one-man war on crime can't be fought according to gentleman's rules but that should've been incorporated into his character's arc, seeing him go from an idealistic fanboy to a hardened superhero in the real world. The comics that inspired Dave ultimately prove useless to him (on the other hand, they prove to be good research for D'Amico's son Chris, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and it might've been interesting to see him abandon his interest in comics as his illusions are stripped away.
Directed with plenty of panache by Matthew Vaughn and stocked with vivid performances, it's easy to get swept up in Kick-Ass but at the same time, I couldn't help but feel slightly put off by the movie's break-out character, Hit-Girl. While I didn't want any harm to come to the character (honestly, who wants to see a little girl get hurt?), and I liked Moretz's performance, the whole concept of the character rubbed me the wrong way. It's a kid with a foul-mouth, a blasé, too cool for school attitude when it comes to taking lives and who has advanced fighting skills that make most ninjas look as fleet as wounded elephants. Dave and his relatable insecurities was interesting to me whereas Hit-Girl was just a cartoon character seemingly created whole cloth from a checklist of what fanboys would find cool. Long before the climax, the whole movie has gone the cartoon route.
As cartoons go, however, Kick-Ass does a mostly super job. It's fun, on a certain kneejerk level. But like its pretend heroes, it's not quite bulletproof.