"How come nobody's ever tried to be a superhero?" is the question posed by Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) at the start of Kick-Ass, establishing from the get-go the high concept behind the film. So begins Dave's journey from being a high school nobody (and not even a particularly notable nobody at that) to becoming Kick-Ass, the first real superhero. Or so he thinks. Dave soon discovers through donning the mask and tight-fitting costume of a comic book crusader that, in actual fact, there are superheroes already out there, namely Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage) and his daughter Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz), a.k.a. Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. And, of course, with superheroes must come the villains in the shape of mob boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and his associates. As Kick-Ass gains notoriety and popularity, Dave finds out more about those who he is fighting both with and against, and quickly realises that he may be in way over his head.
Matthew Vaughn, a director never defined by genre - his first two directorial efforts being Layer Cake and Stardust, films poles apart from both each other and Kick-Ass in both genre and tone - demonstrates his innate ability to strike the tone of the film quickly and accurately. The opening scene of Kick-Ass shows us a young man in a superhero costume diving off a skyscraper in expectation of flight, only to crumple violently onto a parked taxi below as onlookers gawp. A voiceover from Dave assures us that this isn't him, transforming the scene into something of a prologue to the story the remainder of the film will present, and establishing the key premise of Kick-Ass - it is most definitely a comic book film, but one that refuses to sugarcoat what it might actually mean to become a costumed vigilante by keeping one foot somewhat firmly in reality. Think Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins but without all the privileges of having ridiculously advanced technology at your disposal and, y'know, being a billionaire, and you're some of the way there.
This dedication to placing the superheroes of the film into a more realistic world is followed through for the most part successfully and skilfully. During Dave's first act of heroism as Kick-Ass, he holds his own for the first ten seconds or so before being promptly stabbed in the stomach and then stumbling into the path of a speeding car, earning him a lengthy stretch in hospital. Similarly, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl go against the usual superhero credo of "no guns", the walls of their home being lined with all manner of firearms to use during their crimefighting exploits. Nonetheless, our heroes still most definitely feel like heroes, as opposed to just some people who've put on outlandish costumes. We believe in Big Daddy, Hit-Girl and, eventually, Kick-Ass as credible superheroes. Vaughn's balancing of these two competing elements is tight and well-judged for the majority of the film, presenting a fresh take on a genre that has needed and received more rebooting than most in recent years. Kick-Ass is its own reboot and it knows it.
Whilst the film's tone and presentation are largely a success, that's not to say there aren't flaws. Vaughn, along with co-scriptwriter Jane Goldman, do stumble into some pitfalls of the action genre. Some of the supporting characters feel too one-dimensional, especially on a second viewing. Dave's friends Todd and Marty (Evan Peters and Clark Duke) become increasingly stereotypical "comic book nerds" as the film progresses despite admirable performances from both actors. A far worse offender is Marcus (Omari Hardwick), a former colleague of Damon who is given so little depth it is difficult to buy into the key role we discover he played earlier in the lives of Damon and Mindy. The subplot of Dave becoming friends with his high school crush Katie Deauxma (Lyndsey Fonseca) by allowing her to think he's gay also feels somewhat thin, and the conclusion of that particular story within the film severely lacks credibility, even by comic book standards. Putting a little more into these characters and plots to make them more than just cookie-cutter elements already seen in countless other films would have helped to seal some of the cracks that can be seen occasionally in Kick-Ass.
That said, you have to look pretty closely to see the imperfections. Kick-Ass succeeds far more than it fails, and considering how high Vaughn continually raises the bar, this is a considerable achievement. The action sequences are some of the most vibrant and well-executed I have seen in an action film in recent years, with the film's climax providing scenes that will leave you in awe of Vaughn as director and the cast delivering them. After an unsure opening chapter which feels unsure of its purpose, the film gains momentum as it progresses. It becomes bolder and more confident in its endeavour as well as allowing itself to become increasingly and pleasingly ludicrous, and succeeding on both counts. Case in point: Kick-Ass' magnificently over-the-top entry into the final foray will either make you say "Really? That?!" or "Best. Entrance. Ever." - most likely a mixture of the two - but you'll soon be rubbing your hands with glee either way. It's very difficult to deny how consistently entertaining Kick-Ass is.
A key component to the film's success is undoubtedly the cast. Johnson as Dave Lizewski barely puts a foot wrong, making both Lizewski and his eponymous superhero alter ego credible and genuinely likeable. Strong too is also satisfying as Frank D'Amico, bringing little that is new to the mob boss role but certainly making D'Amico his own. Christopher Mintz-Plasse as D'amico's son Chris, later becoming superhero Red Mist, continues to successfully shed the curse of "McLovin" that he began to throw off in Role Models and proves himself to be a talent worth watching.
The film, however, is undeniably stolen by Moretz and Cage both individually and as a duo. Moretz's performance is astoundingly mature whilst bringing enough childlike qualities to the character of Mindy/Hit-Girl to make the performance authentic, heartfelt and highly original. Hit-Girl receives some of the finest lines in the whole film, and Moretz's delivery of these with precisely the right amount of tongue in her cheek makes the character vibrant, cool and unforgettable. Equally Cage - who despite being one of my favourite actors has undeniably produced some fairly ropey performances in his career - is on absolute top form here. Damon/Big Daddy is arguably the character we see develop the most throughout the film, and Cage's performance underpins this superbly. Cage presents all the elements of Big Daddy - a devoted father, an honest man wronged, an unhinged vengeance machine, an Adam West fan (you'll see) - in an expert balance that only an actor of the calibre of Cage at his best could manage so perfectly. And it is when he and Moretz share the screen together that Kick-Ass is at its very best. The chemistry between the two is a delight, and whilst presenting surely one of the most unconventional father-daughter relationships ever seen on film, the bond between Big Daddy and Hit-Girl is also one of the most honestly believable I can recall seeing for some time.
Kick-Ass is not successful in everything it attempts. However, its successes far outweigh its shortcomings, and many of the criticisms of the film must be rooted around for to be found. Vaughn has shown that he is not afraid to set himself challenging goals in his films and that he is more than capable of reaching them. Kick-Ass successfully both parodies and pays tribute to the comic book film, but at the same time creates something of much more depth and ambition. I would go as far as to say that this is a film of such quality that it now sits at the right hand of Nolan's Dark Knight in becoming what all future comic book adaptations will be measured against.