There is something inherently ridiculous about costumed superheroes—imagine in the real world a guy dressed in a colorful skintight outfit running at a gang of criminals, and you will also imagine that guy catching a bullet to the face. Most superhero stories require a certain degree of fantasy to work. There is a reason, after all, why the Joker never just takes a snub-nosed revolver and splatters Batman’s brains when he has him at his mercy. And it’s not just because that would end the comic, and it hasn’t always been because the heroes and villains are too co-dependent upon each other to battle to the death. It’s because the particular kind of good and evil that makes superheroes work just doesn’t allow for that kind of reality. At least, it didn’t use to. Somewhere in my teenage years, superhero comics themselves hardened and began asking themselves the kind of questions that deconstruct the genre and everything that holds it together. And that particular tradition has only grown, both in comics and the movie adaptations they spawn. There’s a certain kind of fun (and cynicism) to tearing down the straightforward rules by which superhero stories have abided for the better part of a century. But there is also a mythic quality to them that seems too compelling to disavow entirely. Somewhere between those two extremes is Kick-Ass, a dark comedy superhero movie that both celebrates superhero orthodoxy as much as it would like to tear it all down.

The story takes place in New York, where teenager Dave Lizewski, raised on a steady diet of comic books, decides to become a superhero, despite having no special abilities. He orders a weird green-and-yellow wetsuit, a pair of batons, heads out and promptly gets himself sent to the ICU. His extensive injuries and long recuperation give him an incredible pain tolerance, though, and when he goes out in costume again, he endures such a terrific beating while saving some guy that he becomes an internet sensation: Kick-Ass, the superhero who can’t really dish it out, but he sure can take it. Soon after, he meets two legit costumed vigilantes—Big Daddy and Hit-Girl—who see something in Dave and suggest he keep at it. All three end up on the radar of crime lord Frank D’Amico, who makes it his mission to destroy these costumed interlopers in part because they’re interfering with his business, but mostly because they annoy the hell out of him. Very quickly, what began as a way for Dave to fend off boredom and maybe impress girls turns into a full-time job that will most likely end in a horrible death for everyone involved. And yet, he can’t quit without finishing what he started. He is, after all, a hero. Maybe not a good one, but a hero nonetheless. And heroes finish what they start.

Kick-Ass is the leader of a pack of off-kilter superhero movies that came out when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was proving that big superheroes could actually succeed at the box office. And so, there came an inevitable countercurrent of movies featuring more real-world visions of the comics, where any person who suits up to fight crime is probably mentally ill or just plain stupid. Of these, none have the budget, scope or polish that Kick-Ass does, which simultaneously asks the question “What kind of idiot would put on a suit and think they could fight crime?” and then turns right around and answers it with “But wouldn’t it be cool if somebody did?” This attempt to have its cake and eat it too strangely works as Dave becomes Kick-Ass and learns that 1) his idealization of being a superhero was indeed ridiculously inaccurate but 2) the city could actually use some costumed heroes anyway. By the end of the movie, the action ratchets up beyond the mundane street violence that Kick-Ass is seemingly destined to encounter until he dies from it, and elevates to the closest thing you can get to bona fide superhero comic stuff in a world where there are no superpowers, but there are a lot of guns and fairly high-tech mail-order technology.

Still this is the kind of movie that loves its superheroes and hates itself for doing so. There is too much of a cynical core to this thing for it to be otherwise. And nowhere do we see it more than in the movie’s moment of truth, an exceptionally grim moment when the bad guys follow through on their promise to kill whatever hero falls into their grasp. Kick-Ass and Big Daddy have been captured by D’Amico’s men, who want to make sure they don’t just kill these two vigilantes, but that nobody else ever gets the bright idea to put on a costume and fight crime. They beat and torture our heroes mercilessly all while streaming it on the internet. Every person who made Kick-Ass famous is now watching him die, and while some are horrified, and others are thrilled, many just see it as the distraction of the moment. It all ends with an overturned can of gasoline, a lighter, and none of the hesitation that typically stays the hand of a comic book villain. It is an act that is as decisive as it is brutal, and it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we haven’t left the comic book pages; we were never on them to begin with. Anybody who thought different was just as deluded as poor Kick-Ass was, who is just a scared kid who really belongs anywhere but in a costume. And yet, not even the prospect of being burned alive is enough to get him to renounce his chosen path. Kick-Ass might not have any powers, and he might be an fool, but he’s got guts. In a world where literally anybody could become a hero if they wanted to, the ones who actually do are the real deal. That’s go to be worth something.

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