Kick-Ass: Redefining the Superhero

Smart, scrappy and very, very violent, Kick-Ass redefines the superhero-movie genre

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Lions Gate / Everett Collection

Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz and Nicolas Cage in Kick-Ass.

Comic-book heroes are the Greek gods of a modern kid's mythology. At once superhuman and all too human, they rise from meager surroundings to an Olympus of grandeur. Indeed, their powers are born of their afflictions: Peter Parker's spider bite, Bruce Banner's radiation overdose, the useful mutations of the X-Men. So why wouldn't a teen, inspired by heroes he's seen in comics and movies, want to be one? In the first scene of Kick-Ass, a guy in a cool Aztec-deity costume stands on a skyscraper ledge and majestically dives off. Alas, his metallic wings don't work and he crashes — splat! — into a parked car.

Don't try this at home, kids.

Kick-Ass — the 2008 comic written by Mark Millar and drawn by John Romita Jr., and the new film directed by Matthew Vaughn, with a script by Vaughn and Jane Goldman — could have ended in a big, ugly blood puddle too. Instead it soars, jet-propelled, on its central idea of matching a superhero's exploits with the grinding reality of urban teen life and on the aerodynamic smoothness of the film's style.

To apotheosize the clichés of the genre while subverting them is a neat trick, but the Kick-Ass cadre pulls it off. This is a violent R-rated drama that comments cogently on the impulses — noble, venal or twisted — that lead people to help or hurt others. Kick-Ass kicks beaucoup d'ass, in some of the dandiest, most punishing stunt work this side of Hong Kong, but it forces the grownups in the audience to acknowledge that the action is as troubling as it is gorgeous. (Preteens should definitely wait a few years before seeing this.) The result is a work that spills out of itself to raise issues about all superhero characters, all action pictures. Millar isn't boasting when he writes in the making-of book that Kick-Ass could "redefine superhero movies in the same way Pulp Fiction redefined crime movies."

Millar, one of the most gifted writers in comics, did the Wanted story that became a snazzy film in 2008. So he'd already done his share — along with Alan Moore (Watchmen), Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Frank Miller (Sin City) — of redefining the action-movie cosmos. Here, though, he addresses basic questions: What is the effect of popular culture on the young who consume it? Does a kid just devour superhero stories and then void them, like fast food in paper or disc form? Or does he take them to heart, as a life guide? And if he does, say, create a costume and, with no special skills, confront the bad guys — what are the consequences?

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