Straight up: Kick-Ass is the most violent film starring kids that I have ever seen. If you've read the comic book source material, that should be no surprise - it veritably reveled in over-the-top depictions of carnage. But is there more to the flick than ultraviolence? Surprisingly, yes.
I'm not a huge fan of writer Mark Millar - his work seems too calculated, too smug and proud of itself for using foul language and dark situations in stories about dudes dressing up in long underwear and hitting each other. It's like a preteen kid trying to shock his parents. Kick-Ass redeemed itself in part with the propulsive, energetic art of John Romita Jr, working in a bold, almost caricature-influenced style that owed a debt to legendary Mad Magazine artist Jack Davis. But Millar's movie adaptations have been a tough sell so far - Wanted was a goofy mess that wasted stylish action on an incomprehensible script.
Matthew Vaughn fares much better with Kick-Ass, in part because this work has a more complex message. Superheroes are the stuff of fantasy, but we want our fantasies to become real. When ordinary kid Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) follows his dream, dons a green jumpsuit and heads out to fight crime as "Kick-Ass," he quite naturally finds himself on the wrong end of a savage beating. A normal kid's story would end there, but Dave's tenacity (and a cameraphone video) makes Kick-Ass a YouTube sensation, inspiring other kids to try the same. Unfortunately, that turns out to be a very bad idea.
The essential conceit of Kick-Ass is silly, but the movie works because it treats it with a curious combination of gravitas and gore. When we meet Hit Girl and Big Daddy, a father-daughter team of crimebusters who are terrifyingly efficient in doling out the violence, we realize that Dave's quest for justice is Quixotic. Superheroes keep going because writers keep coming up with new villains for them, and making life is as easy as lines on paper. But the bloody messes left behind by our "heroes" are permanent, and Vaughn doesn't shy away from showing the real aftereffects of violence, even while keeping the film's spirit light. Chloe Moretz and Nicolas Cage steal the show as Hit Girl and her proud Papa - they're a tag team of lunacy that helps rehabilitate Cage and makes Moretz an instant star.
Kick-Ass, against all expectations, may actually be an important step in the superhero genre - opening up a layer of moral doubt and complexity that has been missing in just about all of the long underwear films. See it.