Last December, a select group of 200 film geeks gathered in a movie theater in Austin, Texas. They were there at the invitation of Harry Knowles, the founder of the Web site Ain’t It Cool News. Every year, Knowles celebrates his birthday by screening 24 consecutive hours of movies, an exercise he calls the Butt-Numb-A-Thon. Knowles had plied his Hollywood connections to get big-name, as-yet-unreleased blockbusters like Shutter Island, The Lovely Bones, and, the geek Holy Grail, Avatar. As an additional course, Knowles got a print of a comic-book movie called Kick-Ass.
Matthew Vaughn, the director of Kick-Ass, was in the theater that night, and worried whether the geeks would adopt his movie. “If they didn’t like it, then we were fucked,” Vaughn said in an interview this weekend.
Click below to watch the NSFW Red Band trailer.
Kick-Ass was not a high-priority piece of geek cinema. “The expectation level was kind of a code yellow,” Eric Vespe, an Ain’t It Cool writer, told me. To make matters worse, one of theater’s speakers gave out about a half-hour into the movie. But then something strange happened. Though the audience had been watching movies for 20 straight hours, they began cheering Kick-Ass’ brutal action sequences and started clapping along with the music. With its copious references to Batman and Spider-Man—its knowingness to the whole business of comic-book movies— Kick-Ass had won over the hordes. Vespe said it felt like being at a rock concert, adding that Kick-Ass got a bigger ovation than Avatar, Shutter Island, everything other film.
“They got the movie,” Vaughn said later. “They got every nuance.”
The intervening three months has seen Kick-Ass, which opens nationally on April 16, become a word-of-mouth sensation in certain quarters of the Internet. (A raunchy red-band trailer didn’t hurt.) On Friday night, Kick-Ass was back in Austin to open the South By Southwest Film Festival.
• Bryan Curtis: The Best Films of SXSW So what is it? To call it a comic-book spoof, like Mystery Men (1999), would be an injustice. Kick-Ass is, Vaughn said, “a postmodern love letter to superhero films.” It borrows teen ennui from Spider-Man, vicious action from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and lines from many comic properties I am not studied enough to recognize. Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson) is a high-school dweeb ala Peter Parker. “Out of my friends, I wasn’t even the funny one,” he laments. So Dave does something about it. He puts on a forest-green scuba suit. Where the rest of us see the fifth Ninja Turtle, he sees a brave and dashing super hero. He takes to the streets. He is Kick-Ass.
And, well, he’s no Dark Knight. In an early scene, Kick-Ass tries to battle some street toughs and gets stabbed in the gut. Describing his directorial thinking, Vaughn said, “Let’s at least show the audience of kids that it’s not really a good idea to put on a costume and attack a gangster.” Kick-Ass is soon out of the hospital and joined by a father and daughter who have also become amateur super heroes: Nicolas Cage (playing a Batman knock-off named Big Daddy) and Chloe Moretz (calling herself Hit-Girl, with a purple wig apparently borrowed from Phyllis Diller).
Kick-Ass has more heroes, like Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who sounds like sports drink and looks like Johnny Weir. The whole mood is the opposite of the soaring tone of most comic-book movies. Tweaking a line from Spider-Man, Dave says, “With no power comes no responsibility.”
Two things stand out. First is the acting, which is highlighted by restrained, almost deadpan performances by Johnson and Moretz and some very funny mugging from Cage. It is the first time Cage has been funny in quite a while; he’s finally free of the brooding he brings to his straight comic-book films. Here, he’s the super hero equivalent of a sports parent, coaching his “baby girl” in how to stop a speeding bullet.
It borrows teen ennui from Spider-Man, vicious action from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and lines from many comic properties I am not studied enough to recognize.
Then there are the action sequences. Vaughn, who directed Layer Cake (2004), was determined to rid the genre of indecipherable, quick-cut action that has plagued even well-regarded movies like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Every piece of action here has a plot and a point. At Vaughn’s beck and call is Moretz—in real life, a pretty, 13-year-old—who can wedge a clip into a gun in mid-air and dispatch bad guys with guns, knives, wooden staffs. She’s your worst nightmare: a pissed-off high-school freshman.
If there’s a downside, it’s that you might feel you’ve seen this movie before. But this is sort of the point of Kick-Ass, to be a superhero movie that’s in on its own joke; a movie which is not blazing a new trail so much as surfing on the wake of previous heroes. Plus, the dialogue is more profane than anything Christopher Reeve ever said.
At Friday night’s screening, just as at the Butt-Numb-A-Thon, one of the theater’s speakers gave out, making some of the lines almost indecipherable. It is a testament to Kick-Ass’s geek bona fides—that is, its complete mind-meld with the geek set—that nobody in the audience seemed to notice.
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.