Kick-Ass: *** 1/4 (out of 4)
Contrary to popular belief, I do not believe that Americans like the idea of super-heroes. Mind, I believe that we look up to superheroes as our National Mythological Figures; they are our demi-gods and heroes, and their stories will be told and re-told in such a way that only the true core of the story remains. But we seem to be embarrassed that we have National Mythological Figures at all, and tend to respond negatively to the implications. For most people, this leads to a general rejection of super-heroes as "just kids stuff", even as they absorb the blockbuster comic-based movies several times a year. Many of the rest absorb this kind of myth-making cheerfully; but there are a few that stand somewhere in the middle. These people, often super hero fans of old, are willing to accept myths as myths, but see value in myth regardless. Rather than just mocking the childish things, these people look for opportunities to merge these myths into their understanding of reality; and, as they attempt to explain their position to those on either side, some of these people attempt to elevate the art with their local revelations.
All that is just a long-winded way of acknowledging a growing sub-genre of comic book movies that are dedicated to deconstructing the super-hero myth from within. Watchmen was last year's entrant into this field. This year, we have Kick-Ass.
Kick-Ass is a movie both questioning and revelling in this comic book middle ground. It starts with a fairly simple question: why has nobody tried being a costumed super-hero? Sure, it may be a self-evidently bad idea, but since when is that enough to stop everybody? And so, based on this thought, Dave, a high-schooler buys himself a costume and goes out on patrol. This ends badly, but not so badly as to keep him from trying again. And from here, things go along the standard comic path pretty clearly - secret identity management, sidekicks, gadgets, psychopathic villains, costumed allies, the works. From a skeptical beginning is a standard comic book arc born.
Interestingly, these elements both work, at least individually. For most people, it's enough to just focus on one half of the movie, either the ironic and doomed-to-failure first part, or the over-the-top and super-heroic second part. But to appreciate the movie as a whole requires a connection between the "realistic" and "escapist" elements, and that seemed to elude much of the audience - likely, anybody that isn't already interested in an in-depth analysis of these kinds of topics. (And, to be fair, a lot of those people that are interested in that kind of discussion; this wasn't exactly deep.)
As usual, the easiest parts of the movie to review are the characters and the action set pieces. The former were, somewhat shockingly, actually fairly interesting; Nicholas Cage's character in particular was well-acted and characterized, and Chloe Moretz's character wasn't anything that I expected out of a 12-year-old (more about that later). The set pieces were fairly in many ways typical comic-book fare, but were interesting in how appropriate they were for both the page and the big screen; the viewpoints were clever and varied, and took advantage of the benefits of both media. For instance, the gun fight in the dark with the strobe light was very effective on screen, but was very clearly based on some interesting visual effects on the written page.
Back to Moretz - what of Hit-Girl, her controversial character? Well, for starters, she did an excellent job of portraying a cutely capable character that was horribly violent and clearly a sociopath. On her merits, this was not a character to admire; but she was so clearly acted, so over-the-top disturbing, that she took the same spiritual position of Rorschach from Watchmen. It was morally questionable, and it was beautiful. And while this girl has a great career ahead of her, it's still going to be horrifying to see the cosplay versions at conventions over the next few years.
I should note that I didn't exactly go into this movie expecting greatness. It helped that I hadn't read the book first; based on that, I didn't have to worry about the changes from the comic book script, nor did I have to contemplate my general distaste for Mark Millar's work. There had been good word-of-mouth from the comic press, but otherwise, there wasn't much to give me hope.
It looks like it's going to be a commercial flop, all told. Much of this probably has to do with the studio's lack of understanding of how to market this movie, or even who they were marketing the movie at - just look at the parade of trailers they showed before the movie (horror, summer blockbuster, Rob Schneider comedy, generic action movies, just a touch of romantic comedy, and so forth). But perhaps my theory as to America's interest in superheroes also explains a part of this. Much as we are, as a whole, willing to see well-marketed movies based on decades-old super-hero characters, we're less interested in anything more challenging or less iconic. We're not quite to the point where a second-rate deconstruction will interest us. Maybe some day.
All that said, I still think that this movie was a success. I went into the movie with fairly low expectations, and came out wanting to read the book; that's not really a common thing.