Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Kick-Ass: Meta-Comic Juices the Genre

It's easy to see why Kick-Ass - a movie about a real nerdy kid without any superpowers who decides to don a superhero outfit and fight crime - has been winning fans since before its release. Based on a comic by the same name, the movie is - like many comics - a peon to high-school adolescent anxieties. As well, it's a deeply self-referential parody of comic-books of the Marvel / DC Comics variety.

Part of the real charm of Kick-Ass may be actor Aaron Johnson, playing lead hero Dave Lizewski, and his fro / glasses look. Johnson gets the transformation from geeky high-school nerd into slightly less geeky, svelt superhero just right, and his costume is the genius heart of the movie. Stuffing away his fro and bulky clothes and emphasizing his dewy eyes and Angelina Jolie-style pouty lips, the green costume transforms the awkward Johnson not into a superhero so much as a supremely cool, American Idol-style singer/dancer. Kick-Ass has a propensity to really get his ass kicked - and, truth be told, has no abilities at fighting crime - but he does have just the right chemistry for instant celebrity, and gets himself videotaped and distributed on YouTube, where he becomes an overnight sensation.

What Dave doesn't realize is that there are some other masked crusaders out there - specifically, Hit Girl, and her doting ex-cop father, Big Daddy, who actually are rather Matrix-y good at kicking ass and killing bad guys. Hit Girl gets to save Kick-Ass's shit when it looks like he's going down at the hands of a particularly nasty gangster, and the three become a kind of crime-fighting syndicate (although with most of the fighting not being done by Kick-Ass). Evil mob boss Frank D'Amico provides most of the dramatic arc from there, setting himself up as Kick-Ass's arch enemy.

The movie has a fine time directly quoting - some might say ripping off, in Scary Movie style - its inspirations, particularly Spider Man (which provides the story-line DNA), although the movie ends with the slightly evil Iron Mist declaring, "wait until they get a load of me," as a way of signaling his intentions against the many powerless superheros that may be out there. (Implying that not only have these characters watched The Incredibles - which came out what, last year? - they have since devised an entire literary theory of existence around Brad Bird of Pixar.)

As meta as it may seem, and as cute as Johnson may be in that mask, the film ends up being rather conventional, sticking to the stock superhero narrative and taking few real chances. It's also incredibly violent given that we are positing that this is a "real" world and not a "superhero" one. But the violence requires us to transition our thinking into superhero reality (even Spiderman doesn't have this high of a body count). What starts as an innocent enough tweak on superhero lore ends up a violent vigilante murder-fest, and we end up not so much in superhero-land as a kind of teenage Sin City.

I liked this film, but I really felt with so many appealing characters, it could have done so much more. The business with the mob bosses and gangsters are all rather stock comic stuff, and not too inspired. Kick-Ass does need a foil to be ironic against, however, so it's a promising start nevertheless. If this thing has legs for a sequel or two, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.

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