In Carl Matheson‘s early aughties piece on the humour of TVs The Simpsons, he talks about something he calls hyper-irony: “The flavor of humor offered by today’s comedies is colder, based less on a shared sense of humanity than on a sense of world-weary cleverer-than-thou-ness.” Of course this is not designed to be perjurious, but rather complimentary, insofar as any fan of The Coen brothers reacts to the humour of their equally cleverer-than-thou takes on both genre and cinema. Matthew Vaughn’s new superhero adventure certainly plays in this sandbox and it does it very well. It walks the line of ‘what if’ while soft-shoeing around comic nerd fantasy and realism. Knowing full well that the bulk of comic-book entry points are from the adolescent pure fantasy point of view (Iron Man‘s wise-ass chauvinist inventor stud billionaire anyone?), that is the tone that wins out in the end, but damn if it still wants you to believe that things are set it in real world. I think it is this sort of high-wire act that got The Dark Knight such critical and audience love, although it was done without any sort of ironic distance by Christopher Nolan and company. Kick-Ass seems to specialize in this sort of tone and succeeds (not in making high-art) where the makers behind the film version of Millar’s Wanted completely failed to find the right proportions of grounded-ness and ironic fantasia. Vaughn and Goldman have certainly done the author a service.
Which brings us to the ultimate expression of the title, no, not Dave Lizewski who dons a web-purchased wet-suit and becomes “Kick-Ass”, but rather a 12 year old girl who chops off limbs, knows her John Woo and is not afraid to use the “C” word and does indeed kick-ass. The screen time that is capably commanded by young Chloe Moretz is the as much influenced by Japanese Manga as it is the typical half-pint side kick (Robin to Nicholas Cage’s Adam West inspired Big Daddy). When a side character exclaims “I think I love her, dude” it is a sly piece of commentary on how the audience (the usual audience, not the finger-wagging moralists out there that have little place bothering with something as trifling as Kick-Ass) is likely to react. That Big Daddy and Hit Girl are thoroughly competent (awesome may be the more appropriate word) in a wish fulfillment sort of way, again echoes of the recent incarnation of the caped crusader, while Dave Lizewski and Chris D’Amico are merely poseurs with something to prove (by becoming Kick-Ass and Red Mist) underscores the balance. The New York City setting seriously attempts to exist in the real world (heck, it is rare to see comic books actually exist in a movie about comic-book heroes) with only the barest whiff of American Pie or Peter Parker goofery. This of course raises the sense of black humour when we see Big Daddy filling his empty vessel of a daughter to be a killing machine who happens to like ice-cream sundaes at the local bowling alley. By the time the film jet boosts (or is that rocket launches?) into its climatic show down between the comic (but winningly underplayed) gangsters the horror and violence and kitsch and fantasy are all blended into a pleasant swirly cocktail. Hit Girl and Big Daddy are as close to serial killers as to heroes and it is played for shits and giggles.
There has been a recent spate of non-super-hero movies, notably Michael Rappaport in SpecialRx, Woody Harrelson in Defendor and Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror in Mirage Man, but really the closest analogue to Kick-Ass is actually the Shane Black penned Last Action Hero. It is just that the balance and tone and hyper-ironic stance are more suited to the comic book material than nudge-nudge wink-wink Schwartzenegger action beats. Perhaps even the world was not ready for Last Action Hero (it is underrated and unfairly maligned in my opinion) and there needed to be a the ridiculous number of comic-book fantasies (and Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson films) to get to this point. And the blending of take-me-serious and ah-shucks-just-masturbate the “R” rating does not hurt. Not only do little girls swear and shoot the bad guys to bits. But teen-agers have fun and awkward sex. The horror! That walking the fine edge of parody and ‘what-if’ is done with such expertise and self awareness ultimately makes Kick-Ass worthy of 2 hours of your time and a tip of the hat to meta-cinema-tomfoolery.
For a more straightforward (and less wankery laden take on Kick-Ass, see David Brook’s Kick-Ass Review)