There was a time when comic books, much like television and film, offered a golden, innocent view of the universe. No one died, no one broke up. Everybody was plucky and idealistic and trying their darnedest to make the world a better place.
In the world of comic books, at least, those days are long gone. Comic book fare today regularly involves dismemberment, cursing, the murder of innocents—you name it. For the most part, the medium continues to insulate its readers from the violence through its choice of what it shows and what it doesn’t. So a character like Marvel’s Wolverine, who on page has maimed and killed literally millions in the over 30 years he has been around, can remain not only one of the most popular comic book characters but is generally considered a hero.
But as in all media, some books push the edge, and few more in recent years than Kick-Ass, an eight-part mini-series written by Mark Millar, creator of the comic-cum-film Wanted, and architect of some of the most provocative and interesting work in the Marvel Universe in the last 10 years. Drawn by extremely popular artist John Romita, Jr., the series, now a film, tells the tale of Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), an ordinary kid in an ordinary universe who thinks dressing up like a superhero and trying to fight criminals could make the world a better place. He goes by the name Kick-Ass, but the film’s early scenes give lie to that moniker. In the real world dressing up like a superhero and picking fights with bad guys lends itself to having one’s butt get kicked.
A major part of what made the comic book gripping was its unrelenting, hyperviolent realism. In the first chapter alone Dave gets stabbed, beat up, electrocuted and run down by a car. Later chapters show bad guys’ heads being sliced in half, limbs being cut off and blood flowing everywhere.
The film takes this material and turns it into a giddy, often awe-striking lovechild of Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and Judd Apatow’s “Superbad.” A la Apatow, you laugh at Dave’s expense, as the girl he pines for becomes interested in him only after a rumor surfaces that he’s gay, and then laugh again as the real star of the show, the 11- year-old purple-haired assassin “Hit-Girl” (Chloe Moretz), wipes bad guys out with audacious violence and some filthy language.
No doubt reviewers will compare some of her action sequences to video games; and the debt is clear. Yet the film never has the disturbing sense of immersion of a first person shooter game, or even the in-your-face violence of the source comic book. It delights more in an 11-year wielding a sword, or changing gun cartridges in mid air, than anything else. And, much as I don’t like violent films one bit, this kid is a delight, and the character an immediate pop sensation. The choreography of the final 20 minutes of the film alone is worth the price of admission.
Does this film have a message? It’s hard to say. The story of Hit-Girl and her father Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) has such a wacky magnetism that once they step to the center of things the journey of Kick-Ass himself is almost permanently obscured. But before that happens, we watch as time and again bystanders simply stand by as people are mistreated. In contrast, Dave Lizewski decides to become a superhero because at root that means getting involved. As Kick-Ass he is willing to risk his own hide for the good of others. It’s not a new theme for Hollywood, but it’s also not a theme we hear a lot about from movies these days, and perhaps that’s indicative of the state of the world. How many people stood by with knowledge as some banks swindled pensioners’ life savings; or as some priests molested children?
At the heart of “Kick-Ass” lie both a knowing teenage humor and the fulsome rage of children directed at precisely such apathy and cowardice. In our current climate, seeing that communal spleen get so pointedly and unexpectedly vented makes for a guilty pleasure.