Having your cake, eating it, and KICKing its ASS

The more time I spend on the subject of superheroes, the more boring my research becomes. As a 21st-century movie trope, nearly every new release seems dedicated to repeating the same old fantasies over and over again without adding anything new to the discussion. But being -or, at the very least, feeling– professionally obliged to sample enough of every new major superhero item that raises its head within the pop-cultural arena, a new comic book adaptation that promised to pull superhero fantasies into ‘the real world’ was a bit of a no-brainer, especially once it managed to offend Roger Ebert. In spite of Walter Chaw’s enthusiasm and Ebert’s outrage, I was still expecting Kick-Ass to deliver something decidedly mediocre, especially having just read Mark Millar’s smart but strangely depthless comic book. And having so recently ingested the graphic novel’s narrative twists and turns, I was looking forward even less to what would surely be not only an annoyingly snarky riff on superhero geekdom, but a boring and predictable one to boot.

Imagine my surprise therefore when Kick-Ass turns out to be not only a smart, literate take on overly familiar themes, but also one hell of a comic book adaptation. Since the release of Sin City in 2006, the prevailing wisdom for Hollywood adaptations of successful comic books has been to recreate the source text’s aesthetics as closely as possible, using the comics panels as an insecure, inexperienced director would a prefabricated storyboard. (Zack Snyder and his obsessively slavish adaptations of 300 and Watchmen may perhaps be held most strongly accountable, his films having embalmed rather than adapted their source material.)

By contrast, the most impressive thing by far about Kick-Ass is how director Matthew Vaughn and his co-screenwriter Jane Goldman have taken a text that functions within the serialized context of its comic book medium, and have transformed it into something that lives and breathes as a piece of cinema. Not only have the filmmakers successfully transformed the design of these characters and the version of New York they inhabit into something that feels more of a piece with the superhero movie genre (esp. the past decade’s Spider-Man and Batman films), but they have also managed to spin, re-organize and expand the original narrative in interesting and productive ways.

Protagonist Dave Lizewski (an outstanding Aaron Johnson) is here made less of a loner, his generic banter with his limited group of geeky peers a credible and functional expansion of both character development and narration, which is in the film somewhat less dependent on non-stop voice-over. The basic story structure has also been streamlined to fit the three-act setup of classical Hollywood cinema, again making it less reliant on medium-specific end-of-chapter cliffhangers that defined much of the comic book’s reading experience.

Some of the changes however may be viewed as a bit problematic: I waited in vain for Nicolas Cage (impeccably cast here) to voice the reactionary arch-conservatism of the comic book’s Big Daddy character, while his formulaic vengeance-driven motivation is elevated from the realm of psychotic fantasy to a sentimental flashback (although its ‘animated comic’ presentation is again very cleverly done). Also, the hero winning over the object of his affection so easily was an element I was reluctant to accept, even if it does make more dramatic sense given both the film’s resolution and its embodiment of teenage hormone-induced fantasies. The violence meanwhile felt like it had been toned down slightly, but on reflection I suspect that it seems like there’s less of it simply because there are more other (and more interesting) narrative components at play here than in the sometimes determinedly gory comics.

But mostly, the film’s complete grasp of the language of cinema makes it such a kinetic and aesthetically satisfying experience, with director Vaughn demonstrating an uncanny ability to riff on John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, and Sam Raimi all at once. After an increasingly despondent series of big-budget superhero films that have either boringly ‘come of age’ (Nolan’s Batman cycle, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, Ang Lee’s Hulk), or that recycle equally boring CGI bonanzas (Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, the last two X-Men ventures), Kick-Ass thankfully returns the genre to its teenage roots: with the Id represented by that stunning whirling dervish Hit Girl (the instantly iconic Chloe Moretz), a ten-year-old who successfully channels the Kill Bill Vol. 1 incarnation of The Bride, Vaughn’s film is all about the unchaining of (pre-)adolescent energies, and the magnetic power of violent fantasies. Misinterpreted by many either as satire or as realism, Kick-Ass operates instead where superheroes have flourished for the past six decades: in the domain of popular myth.

(Speaking of the film’s authentic-feeling connection with subversive, angry teen culture, its use of Joan Jett’s ‘Bad Reputation’ at a perfectly chosen moment of cathartic, Tarantinoesque ultra-violence was one of several moments in film that actually gave me goosebumps – and not just because it was previously used so effectively over the opening credits of that best-ever TV narrative of teenage anxiety, Freaks and Geeks.)

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