A couple of geeky high-school boys are hanging out discussing their favorite comic-book superheroes. One of them wonders out loud why no one has actually ever tried being a superhero; think about it, he says, thousands of people want to be Paris Hilton but nobody wants to be Spider-Man. His friend replies, quite sensibly, “That’s because Spider-Man never made a porn video.” The question is debated for some time before judgment is made: “Dude, if anyone did it in real life, they’d get their ass kicked!”
One of the geek-boys, Dave Lizewski, secretly decides to give it a go anyway. After buying a form-fitting green and yellow skin-suit, he slips out at night to fight crime as masked superhero Kick- Ass, and — rather predictably — gets his ass kicked in the process. Apparently that radioactive spider bite is a big part of walking the walk after all.
This is the premise of “Kick-Ass,” the new superhero flick that tries to get all meta with the genre, and does so brilliantly . . . for a while. Director Matthew Vaughn (“Stardust”), working from the comic books by Mark Millar, directly confronts the white elephant in the room, that the primary audience for superhero comics is the sexually frustrated and powerless, who consume the same “beat the bad guy/get the girl” fantasy over and over again.
Yet, as the film’s hero, Dave, puts it, “eventually fantasizing doesn’t do it for you anymore.” As played by Aaron Johnson (John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy”), Dave is a bespectacled, awkward boy, who is not popular at school and whose only super-power is “being invisible to girls.” His decision to try his hand at crime-fighting is not a wise one, but it’s made for excellent reasons — in life, we should live as if our fantasies are possible, unless of course they include going postal or anything involving whipped cream that isn’t dessert.
After a few smack-downs, Kick-Ass does succeed in saving one person from street violence, an act that is recorded on cell-phone cameras and uploaded to Facebook, making him an instant national hero. Dave tries to impress his unrequited love at school, the conventionally beautiful Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), by donning his Kick-Ass costume and going after a drug-dealer who’s been hassling her. Things go quite badly, though, and our hapless hero is only saved by the timely intervention of Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), a diminutive and merciless 11-year-old who looks like a Loli-punk take on Catwoman.
With the arrival of Hit-Girl — and her parent/partner Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), who trains his daughter by firing live rounds into her Kevlar vest (“Honey, be a big girl now . . . “) — the film gets even more over the top. Cage is in his wild-eyed caricature mode, but with an amusing vocal style based on Adam West’s campy 1960s Batman, while the innocent-looking Moretz outrageously dismembers the bad guys in the most cartoonish ways imaginable while swearing like a trooper (including, notoriously, the “C” word).
This is amusing for a while, but it soon becomes clear that “Kick-Ass” is intent on abandoning its knowing parody of superhero tropes in favor of satisfying them in a rather conventional way — “cool” violence, wire-action fights and, yes, getting the girl. The fanboys are tweaked but ultimately indulged, in much the same way that “Scream” — another meta film — wound up being just another formulaic slasher flick.
The callous use of the old ultra-violence here also becomes wearying — especially the extended Tarantino-esque torture sequence. More than a few viewers might find something a little disturbing about scenes like the one in which an 11-year-old girl is menaced by a bazooka-wielding guy thrice her size with the line, “Say hello to my little friend.”
A far more entertaining parody of the superhero genre comes from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” in which high-school nerd Michael Cera has to battle and defeat the seven super- powered evil exes of the cool girl he’s after. By Edgar Wright, the director of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” it’s gloriously silly while totally attuned to the genre it’s poking fun at. “Scott Pilgrim” was due to open in Japan this month, but was canceled by its distributor after under-performing at the U.S. box office, presumably because the fanboys have no sense of humor. (You know, the people who debate whether the Batmobile in “The Dark Knight” had the correct hubcaps or not.) The good news is it’s out now on DVD, and even with postage from overseas, that’s cheaper than two tickets to the cinema these days.