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.

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In 2007, as Millar and Romita were plotting Kick-Ass, Vaughn, who had directed the very Tarantinian Layer Cake as well as Gaiman's Stardust, was already working on the script with Goldman. Shooting the movie, he hewed closely to the story but adjusted the visual style, from Romita's dark evocation of New York to a poppy, more colorful clarity — less Taxi Driver than Spider-Man. When every studio Vaughn approached said no, he raised the $30 million himself. That meant a big financial risk for Vaughn the producer and blessed filmmaking freedom for Vaughn the director.

Kicking Ass and Making Names
The Kick-Ass cast is a mixed bag of Americans (Cage, Moretz, Mintz-Plasse) and Brits (Johnson and Strong). Except for the usually dominant Strong, whose oddly toneless role gives him little room for nuance, everyone has a fairly complex character to inhabit and does so without italicizing every gesture into camp. For ages now, Cage's film roles have channeled one of two personalities: pensive stalwart in action pictures like The Rock and National Treasure, mopey nutso in Leaving Las Vegas and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans. As Damon Macready and Big Daddy, he gets to do both, satisfyingly — and adds vocal inflections from Adam West, TV's Batman, in subtextual homage.

While Johnson, who played the young John Lennon in the biopic Nowhere Boy, may be a tad too dishy for Dave, he understands the ordinary teen desperation that triggers a radical makeover. But Moretz, now 13, and just 11 when she made the film, is the breakthrough presence here. Think of the young Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, with the sexual predation replaced by a no less creepy yet still affecting father fixation. Her star-is-born scene comes when she first appears in her black leather Hit-Girl outfit, complete with purple wig and personalized HG belt buckle. Bursting into a room of drug dealers who are about to kill Kick-Ass, she spits out a few obscenities, brandishes her swords and leaves the walls splattered with death and entrails.

A few movies have head-swiveling, WTF? moments — Cameron Diaz's sperm hair gel in There's Something About Mary, the resuscitation of an ODing Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction — that at first seem outrageous but soon become templates for their genres, turning the transgressive into the routine. The elfin Hit-Girl's instant Armageddon is one of these. More important, it's not just a gory frisson but also a key to two memorable characters in a film that is as self-reflective as it is wildly enjoyable. Kick-Ass moves with such bloody assurance that you'd be forgiven for not seeing how smart it is. But smart it is. Smart, important and deadly.

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