Kick-Ass is a movie that takes names and lives up to its own: Part ultraviolent superhero deconstruction, part giddy, amoral thrill-ride, it's the sort of production that, like Rowdy Roddy Piper in They Live, ought to begin with an announcement that it, too, is all out of bubble gum.
Closely based on the frequently outrageous cult comic by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., the movie follows the story of Dave Lizewski, a dweeby, comics-obsessed teenager who decides to don a lime-green mask and scuba suit in order to become the world's first costumed superhero. He stalks the streets for weeks before finally encountering a petty crime—and then proceeds to get beaten, stabbed, and run over by a car.
Don't worry, though; what follows is hardly an exercise in cautionary superhero realism. In the hospital, Lizewski is repaired with a bevy of metal plates, making him extra durable and impervious to pain, and before long, he's back on patrol, taking his name from his intended method: Kick-Ass. As in the comic, the meta-wink of an opening is just clever cover for a thoroughly traditional superhero origin story.
Indeed, despite the occasional nods to both the contemporary media scene and gritty reality—Kick-Ass becomes a YouTube star, and no one in the film is explicitly blessed with actual superpowers—the movie's most frequent M.O. is to deploy standard superhero tropes in a manner that's more deranged, more bizarre, more ludicrously over-the-top. There's plenty of satire here, but it stems less from the film's realist trappings and more from its genre excesses. And sure enough, as comic-book adaptations go, it's got a bit of everything: gonzo action; a playful feel for the absurd; an angry ex-cop on a quest for justice; and a gun-toting, sword-wielding, pre-teen vigilante who introduces herself by hacking apart a room full of thugs and dropping the C-word.
That would be Hit Girl, the comic's most inspired invention, and the movie's most surefire generator of controversy. Raised by her doting, deranged father (Nic Cage as the aforementioned angry ex-cop) to be a pint-sized costumed fury, she's a perfect parody of the superhero genre's "perfect killer." She never misses, never blinks, and is always ready with a clever quip. And not only does she spout endless factoids about high-end weaponry, she also lives in an apartment whose walls are completely covered in them—as if to test Chekhov's dramatic rule that, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired."
Just as Hit Girl splits dozens of well-armed baddies, the movie's likely to do the same for audiences and critics. Roger Ebert has already labeled the film "morally reprehensible," mostly for how it treats the potty-mouthed 11-year-old badass. My read is that the film's slippery moral universe is slyly (and uncomfortably) divided between icky realism and superhero surrealism, and it's that divide that elevates it from the realm of pure pulp. Yes, Kick-Ass tries to have it both ways, freely mixing cheap cartoon thrills with unpleasant realist shocks. Yet that's exactly the point: You can't have one without the other. Vaughn and Millar seem content to let readers and viewers have their thrills, but not without a reminder that, well, you can't kick ass without somebody getting hurt.