Kick-Ass

 

When you title a film “Kick-Ass”, you better be prepared to live up to that title. To be fair, the film is based on a comic book of the same name, but I would still say that the point is applicable. It doesn’t help that you have tradition against you, considering that cinematic comic book adaptations have all the qualitative reliability of Windows Vista. There are the surprisingly near great ones (Road to Perdition, American Splendor, Spider-Man 2), the really good ones (Superman, Ghost World, The Dark Knight), the “mehs” (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Sin City), and the downright dreadful (Batman & Robin, Captain America, Elektra). In Kick-Ass we have a comic that, like Watchmen, is as much a commentary on comic books, superheroes, and fantasy as it is a comic book, superhero fantasy in itself. Like Watchmen, it seems that those adapting it felt they could simply stick close to the comic and they would end up with a film version of equal quality, but there are problems with that theory on a fundamental level.

The biggest problem is that comics and films are inherently different mediums. The core of filmmaking being images in time (with the illusion of movement), while the core of comics is static images on a page. Film is based around the reality in front of a camera, while comics are based around the mix of abstract and representational art on a blank page. In a sense, the two mediums start at opposite ends of the art spectrum, and when you consider the element of time (and what impact this has on pacing, editing, etc.) it becomes clear that it takes a lot more than simply transplanting images from a page in front of a camera. But filmmakers continue to forget this. Snyder’s Watchmen is a perfect example of a film that desperately tries to stick close to watch on the page visually, narratively, and character wise, but fails (to a certain extent) because the unique elements that make Watchmen a masterpiece as a comic don’t translate 1:1 to film.

There’s also the problem that most comic book films don’t feel like comics. They feel like they exist in some awkward void between comics and films. A few manage to marry the two; Guillermo Del Toro seems especially good at this, and both of his Hellboys are marvelous examples of that perfect marriage. But I’ve always felt Batman was an uneasy fit in film, and perhaps the closest a director got in tone to Batman was Burton, but his two films also had a high cheese content. Kick-Ass would appear to be an easier fit because it’s a comic book set in a reality that’s supposed to feel close to ours. Part of its impact comes from the premise of “this is what it would be like if some doofus teenager really tried to become a superhero without superpowers.” But Kick-Ass (the film, at least) still falls into many of the pitfalls that plague superhero films.

The story is about a teenager named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) who is an average teenager obsessed with comics and superheroes. When he finally decides to order a costume and go out and play superhero, he quickly finds out that things might not be as glamorous as it seems. However, his second outing as the superhero “Kick-Ass” proves successful and turns him into an internet/pop-culture sensation, allowing him to catch the eye of his crush, Katie Deauxma (Lindsy fonseca). Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage is Mr. Macready or “Big Daddy”, an ex-cop who has been released from prison after being trained, and he’s taken to training his 11-year-old daughter, Mindy aka Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) to be a badass assassin. Together they hope to take down New York crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), whose son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, aka McLovin) wants to be part of his gang.

While Kick-Ass starts out as an unusually vulgar subversion of the superhero origin tropes—including a main character who talks about his masturbatory fantasies and isn’t afraid to throw out f-bombs for no reason—it eventually evolves, or devolves depending on your opinion, into what could only be described as a traditional superhero story in itself. Kick-Ass’ biggest problem is that it never can seem to decide what it wants to be, and in trying to be everything it’s stretched itself too thin. Kick-Ass is a wholly superficial film, and underneath its profanities, explosions of violence, and “shocking” actions of a father shooting his 11-year-old daughter and that daughter saying words like “cunt”, there really isn’t any hint of substance.

The tone of the film is also incredibly inconsistent as it tries to switch between absurd parody, straight-up comedy, and thrilling drama. It’s usually at its best as a parody or a comedy, but fails any time it tries to get serious or generate any drama or sympathy for its characters. Particularly bad in this respect is the [CAUTION: SPOILER] scene of Big Daddy’s death, which is more laughable than emotional or moving. [/END SPOILER] That scene is also guilty of another of Kick-Ass’ crucial flaws and that’s sheer repetitiveness. In the span of 110 minutes the film really abuses scenes of characters saving the day at the last moment, characters walking away from a scene while uttering a “shocking” quip, or big set pieces which features barrages of bullets and deaths.

The biggest problem with the repetition is that it ultimately detracts from the characters. If you stop and think about it, the film really doesn’t give us any reason why we should care about these people. Dave skates by with playing the “I’m an average teenager” card, while Big-Daddy gets to play the blank (and boring) “hero with a tragic past”, while Frank D’Amico is your standard boss-baddie. The most interesting character is Mindy as Hit-Girl, but even her appeal wears thin after a while. The first scene of her saving the day and ruthlessly slaying a roomful of baddies is thrilling, by the second time it’s still pretty fun, but by the third I couldn’t help but say “OK, I’ve already seen this”.

On a technical level the film is competent but hardly note-worthy. In the commentary, Matthew Vaughn plainly says he doesn’t think about camera-work and feels that films that receive positive criticism for outstanding cinematography don’t work on story, and that such films are “style over substance”. The problem with that theory is that film is primarily a visual medium, and when the visuals are boring (as they are here) it’s hard for it to linger in one’s mind. And that reveals another big problem with Kick-Ass in that it’s like any other piece of Hollywood junk food: it satisfies while it’s playing, but has absolutely no value after that.

But perhaps all of this belies the point that as sheer entertainment, Kick-Ass DOES succeed. It’s only in retrospect that all its technical flaws start to show, but these flaws are (or should be) more disturbing to observant critics than those going to the movies (or renting DVDs) just looking for a good time. Kick-Ass is certainly fun, and the immense respect and love that its creators have for comic books, comic book films, and the tradition of both is evident throughout. This is a film that playfully pokes fun of the things it loves, while also being a loving homage at the same time.

Ultimately, I can’t help but feel like Kick-Ass is somewhat of a missed opportunity. It starts out being quite funny, perceptive, and unusually self-aware and adult for a film of this type. But when it attempts to shift to being “just another superhero film” is when it begins to feel banal. Perhaps it’s impossible to sustain that kind of subversion throughout, but I feel that a work like Neon Genesis Evangelion offered infinitely more substance by beginning as a standard mecha anime and then violently subverting its genre/medium during its second half. Kick-Ass works in the reverse, and it lacks the smooth transition between its two states. Whether it lives up to its title will probably depend on what you look for in a superhero film. I suspect that for most who love these films, it will indeed be “kick-ass”, but for those who long for the day when a superhero film can be made into a cinematic masterpiece in spite of its genre traditions, we may have to agree with Big Daddy who says “he gets his ass kicked… he should be called Ass-Kick instead of “Kick-Ass””.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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