Film Review: Kick-Ass

The second comic-book movie based on a Mark Millar series is less ridiculous, more grounded and more fun than 'Wanted.' 'Wanted' was wanting. 'Kick-Ass' kicks ass.

The Marvel Comics name is nowhere to be found in the delightfully dynamic Kick-Ass, which adapts the 2008-09 miniseries published by Marvel's creator-owned imprint, Icon Comics. Audiences may think that the Marv Films logo on it might be the indie/classics division of Marvel Films, but it's simply the name of director and co-screenwriter Matthew Vaughn's production company. Not that Marvel would have anything to be embarrassed about in the super-salty language and stylized ultra-violence of Kick-Ass—indeed, some of Marvel's Icon and MAX Comics lines can put Quentin Tarantino potboilers to shame in the name of good, tough stories (except for 2001's repellant ''Fury" series—fans, Stan Lee and George Clooney all agreed that was a mistake). Marvel's new parent, The Walt Disney Company, probably had nothing to with keeping Marvel's name—or even, hmm, the Icon Comics name—off the picture.

Kick-Ass lives up to its title. Unlike the execrable, albeit blockbuster, Wanted (2008), based on a pretty great Top Cow miniseries by Kick-Ass writer co-creator Mark Millar, it actually improves on the comic by not metaphorically kicking in our hero's teeth at the end and making him a sad-sack schmuck who was wrong about nearly everything. Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman may be a little less experimental and more mainstream in their approach, but given how borderline-fantastical the story is in both media, it's more satisfying having a relatively happy ending (a major character still meets a bad fate) rather than suggesting that striving for heroism is a pointless, useless, dead-end thing to do.

This isn't to say Vaughn isn't unrelenting in his naturalism. A knife blade flashes, and a gut-stuck Kick-Ass—a.k.a. high-schooler Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a comics geek who dons a scuba wetsuit and a couple of stick weapons to fight local thugs—starts bleeding out so badly you can practically feel him growing colder in front of you. When bad guys open fire, they aim for your head. And when Hit Girl—a.k.a. 11-year-old Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz), trained in martial arts and weaponry for six years by her obsessive, framed-cop father, Damon/Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage)—slices predators with her katana, there's no dramatic hesitation or tough-guy quip; they're meat, not human beings, and dangerous meat at that. There's so little sentimentality that a minor-scale romantic subplot with Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), here much less Mean Girls than in the comic, proves a needed counterbalance to the otherwise pervasive sense of optimism being stripped away layer by layer, down below angry cynicism and headed straight down the hole to nihilism. And if that's all there is, then, as the movie would not euphemize, WTF?

Vaughn and company keep the nearly two-hour picture flowing as briskly as a comic but without sacrificing plot; time is taken to give an explanatory line of dialogue rather than gloss over potential plot holes. Comedy-of-manners dry humor—reminiscent of the pioneering "Hokum & Hex" from Marvel's 1990s Razorline imprint—plays seamlessly amid scenes of stylized, off-camera mayhem. You know the expression "Long story short"? Vaughn does that well, retaining pertinent details.

The movie's meta-comics worldview makes you wonder what a more intellectual filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick, who gave us A Clockwork Orange, would have crafted of this material. Kick-Ass may not be a game-changing masterpiece, but it encapsulates a certain mindset of our era with knowingness and not so much wish-fulfillment as what-if fulfillment. That Vaughn can be this dark and violent and still come through with wit and a sense of hope is kind of a kick-ass accomplishment in itself.

The opening sentence of this review was revised on April 8.