With “Kick-Ass,” “The Dark Knight” and last year’s “Watchmen,” comic book movies have officially entered their post-modern phase, where it isn’t enough to bring a beloved comic or superhero to life — the film and even the characters must comment on, question and deconstruct the whole concept of being a superhero. “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight” were dark and angst-filled affairs, often ponderous and gloomy, but “Kick-Ass” strikes a breezier and more light-hearted tone. The palette is bright, the script is hip, ironic and self-aware and the violence is gleeful and cartoonish ... with a few notable exceptions.
“Kick-Ass” tells the story of a gawky teenager named Dave (Aaron Johnson) who wonders why real people don’t ever become superheroes, and decides that he’s going to become the first person to transform himself into a costumed crime-fighter. He orders a green wetsuit off the Internet, sets up a MySpace page for his fans, and calls himself Kick-Ass. In his first outing, he gets stabbed, beaten and hit by a car, and winds up in the hospital, where the surgeons fill his body with metal plates. (“I’m just like Wolverine!” he says, when looking at his X-rays, in one of the film’s numerous hip, ironic and self-aware moments.) Undeterred by his brush with death, Dave dons his Kick-Ass costume as soon as he regains his health, and gains instant fame when he successfully intervenes in a brutal beating — an act of senseless altruism recorded by about a dozen cell phones and uploaded to the Internet, where it becomes a sensation.
So far, “Kick-Ass” has done a fairly decent job of showing the hazards that might befall a real-life teenager who decides to play comic book hero; director Matthew Vaughn has cleverly disguised his superhero story as a coming-of-age tale. Dave’s problems — the girl he loves thinks he’s gay, his mother is dead, the neighborhood toughs like to mug him — are the stuff of a typical John Hughes film; his brutal beating serves as a gut-wrenching answer to the question of why normal people don’t become superheroes.
Then Hit Girl and Big Daddy enter. Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) is 11; Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) is her father. A former police detective who was framed and wrongly imprisoned, Big Daddy’s animating purpose in life is to kill the corrupt police officials and gang members responsible for destroying his life. He’s trained his daughter in the use of weaponry and martial arts, and the two make a dynamic crime-fighting team. They meet Kick-Ass when they rescue him from a den of drug dealers, and tell him that he has potential, and that they’d be happy to work with him. Kick-Ass, meanwhile, has decided to get out of this dangerous line of work: he recently told the girl he loves that he isn’t gay, they’re dating, and he doesn’t want to die. Unfortunately, the leader of the local crime syndicate thinks Kick-Ass is killing his men, and is out for revenge. He has his geeky teenage son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) create a new superhero, Red Mist, to lure Kick-Ass into his clutches.
Hit Girl is arguably one of the most entertaining aspects of the film, and also one of the most problematic. We’re supposed to believe that “Kick-Ass” is set in something resembling the real world, where there are no superheroes, and that Dave is a real teenager, attempting to be a superhero. Hit Girl, on the other hand, is nothing like a real child. She’s a heartless killing prodigy who, unlike Dave, is seemingly never frightened, confused or traumatized by the mayhem all around her; she enjoys wearing a bullet-proof vest and having her father shoot bullets into it as part of a lesson on what it feels like to get shot, I guess, and she’s delighted by the cool set of knives her father gives her for her birthday. Much has been made of Hit Girl’s foul mouth and the violence inflicted by and upon her, but I was more bothered by the fact that her character is such an unrealistic fantasy. It’s fun to watch Hit Girl assassinate a roomful of goons, but these sequences don’t seem in keeping with the question contained in the film’s premise: Why don’t real people ever become superheroes?
Vaughn’s film is never as subversive or as thoughtful as it seems to imagine it is. “Watchmen” wasn’t a great movie, but it had the nerve to examine the underlying, often-complicated motivations of superheroes. “Kick-Ass,” on the other hand, doesn’t provide much insight into why Dave decides to put on a green wetsuit and call himself Kick-Ass — and, weirdly, to continue doing this even after he almost died — other than the fact that he’s bored and wants to impress girls. When Dave smashes a local thug with a pipe, the expression on his face is one of wonder and excitement; we understand, in that brief moment, that fighting could be cathartic and empowering for a guy like Dave. But the moment is like many others contained in “Kick-Ass” — interesting, but glossed over. And it made me think of a far better movie about the seduction of violence, particularly for young men: David Fincher’s “Fight Club.”
“Kick-Ass” strives for a Tarantino-vibe, and often reminded me of Tarantino’s epic two-part, ultra-violent film about vengeance: “Kill Bill.” But Vaughn isn’t as good a director as Tarantino, and ultimately his film doesn’t provide the kicky, transgressive thrills most viewers will be seeking. “Kick-Ass” is enjoyable, but nothing to get too excited about.
Holding everything together, though, is the fine work of the cast, who create a quirky and memorable batch of characters, and even when the film came close to wearing out its welcome (at two hours, “Kick-Ass” is guilty of the sin of overlength), I was interested in finding out what happened to them. The closing scenes open the door to a possible sequel — one that, as ridiculous as it sounds, I’d actually be interested in seeing.
A documentary about a font? Yes, indeed.
I’ve never been that into fonts, but I’d heard good things about “Helvetica,” which explains how Helvetica became the most dominant typeface in the world. Much of this is surprisingly interesting.
We learn about the inventor of Helvetica, and how the font brought order and beauty to signage and advertising that was ugly and verbose, and about the rebel band of graphic artists who associated Helvetica with corporatism and war, and began experimenting with more expressive and artistic typefaces.
The film is a little long, considering the topic, but a decent enough way to spend 80 minutes.
Of course, some people really love fonts, and they would probably love “Helvetica.” My friend Nachie was really passionate about fonts when we worked together at the college newspaper, and so I e-mailed him about the film. He wrote: “Personally, I like helvetica. It’s simple and strong and classy and I’m used to it being a calming and authoritative sort of thing, ‘cause they use it on all the subway signage.”
Anyway, I think this message from Nachie serves as proof that there is an audience for a movie about typeface, and that he is part of it. As for me, my favorite part of “Helvetica” involved zapf dingbats, and if anyone ever makes a documentary about zapf dingbats, I can’t wait to watch it.
Got a comment? A favorite font? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.