The prevalence of superhero movies at the multiplexes has made them ripe for self-reflection. On the surface, Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” fulfills that opportunity. Adapted from Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.’s 2008 comic book mini-series, which focuses on a nerdy high school student named Dave (U.K. star Aaron Johnson in the feature version) – whose fascination with superheroes leads to his comically inept attempt to become one – the movie’s concept gets to the heart of the intangible fantasies that comprise the superhero appeal. Like “The Incredibles,” “Unbreakable” and the little-seen Michael Rapaport drama “Special,” the premise of “Kick-Ass” slyly comments on its own genre. The movie does something less than that, but it still provides a good ride.
In the source material, a certain ironic capacity was embedded in the medium itself: A comic book that knowingly parsed the impact of comic books on the modern American dream. By that logic, the big screen adaptation should take such concerns to the cinematic realm. Instead, “Kick-Ass” works as a solid entry in the oft-maligned superhero genre – unquestionably the breeziest flavor since “Iron Man” – but it eschews credibility in favor of sleek entertainment. One can’t blame Vaughn or distributor Lionsgate (not to mention credited co-producers Millar and Romita, Jr.) for dropping many of the more realistic plot developments to make something more commercial. It remains thematically superior to the typical caped crusader yarn.
Parts of “Kick-Ass” unquestionably deliver an appealing subversiveness, particularly with the lethal avenger Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), whose maniacal father (Nicholas Cage) raised her to fight crime with unrelenting brutality. Ultimately, however, the movie seems to pit insight against escapism and allow escapism to win out. “Kick-Ass” is fun but somewhat meandering; it offers only glimpses of its true satiric potential (at one point, the camera catches a marquee bearing the fictional title “The Spirit 3,” suggesting that Hollywood’s dedication to bad superhero movies has placed them in a rut). The movie’s power comes less from cultural insight than pure adrenaline rush, which it derives from a colorful host of misdirected characters and first-rate action choreography.
The cast deserves credit for maintaining plausibility throughout the story. As Dave, Aaron Johnson plays a highly sympathetic teenage geek, burying himself in the character rather than playing up his eccentric tendencies. Christopher Mintz-Plasse does a solid job as the hilariously awkward quasi-villain, while Cage continues his track record of unhinged madness with a madcap Adam West impersonation. Moretz is in a category all to herself: Hit Girl makes for a historically mind-blowing inaugural performance, a glorious expression of political incorrectness in the form of explosive blockbuster tropes. In one scene, she engages in breathless gunplay set to “Bad Reputation,” briefly instilling a never-before-seen punk rock sensibility into the superhero canon.
Vaughn shoots snazzy action set pieces that play catch-up with the human eye, although the final satisfying crescendo serves as a middle-finger to any lingering semblance of reality. “Kick-Ass” pretends to put the superhero on the couch; instead, it puts him on a pedestal. At one point, Dave concludes that the appeal of comic books stems from “a combination of optimism and naivete.” The movie eventually embraces this notion rather than fully deconstructing it.