“With no power comes no responsibility, except that wasn’t true,” Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) says as he contemplates his future as a superhero, a brief career that’s already left its bruises, physical reminders of the consequences this lifestyle has, badges of honor for what this lifestyle can mean. It’s been a decade since filmmaker Matthew Vaughn delivered his ultra-violent, teen comedy take on superheroes with Kick-Ass. Based on the creator-owned Icon comic series by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., Kick-Ass follows high-schooler Dave Lizewski, an avid comic book fan who decides to stop dreaming of becoming a superhero and actually become one, which not only puts him on the radar of other costumed heroes, but the mob. While we’ve become all too familiar with colorful comic-book movie characters dropping f-bombs and straddling the line between expertly choreographed action and gross-out comedy, thanks to the likes of Deadpool and Harley Quinn, Kick-Ass set the bar and has yet to be surpassed. But the success of Vaughn’s film, co-written by his frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, and its emergence as a modern cult classic has less to do with the amount of blood spilt and profanities issued from the mouth of Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) than it does with the emotional sincerity of the pic.
Comic book authenticity is typically crucial for fans when considering the success of adaptations based on a particular story or graphic novel, as opposed to those based on decades and decades of issues. Films like 300, Sin City, 30 Days of Night and Watchmen were appraised by how closely they stuck to the source material, in terms of narrative, dialogue and imagery. Despite a few favorable costume alterations, Kick-Ass appears largely faithful to the source material on an aesthetic level, even including the work of Romita Jr. in the pic’s animated comic sequence. But there’s a tonal difference that separates Kick-Ass the comic and Kick-Ass the movie, and it works in the film’s favor. Vaughn and Goldman, who also adapted Millar and Dave Gibbons’ Kingsman: The Secret Service in 2014, have proven to be necessary cinematic caretakers of Millar’s work, cutting out the writer’s worst impulses and delivering leads that are not only likable but watchable.
Millar has proven to be a controversial writer over his career, in part because of his reliance on shock value. He’s a writer who likes to push buttons and push comic book concepts into the realm of taboo. While this has certainly worked in his favor in terms of comic sales, the critical reception of these works has been a mixed bag. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of Millar’s Kick-Ass comic series, which hit the stands two years before the movie. The comic is mean-spirited, fueled by an attempt at edginess measured in casual racism, sexism and spitefulness, issues that are only exacerbated in the comic’s sequel volumes. In these comics, Dave is mostly pathetic, his desire to become a superhero more of a symptom of isolation than a concern for others, and his relationship with Katie, an immensely unlikable caricature of a high-school mean girl, is stalker-ish and creepy. Big Daddy is a right-wing nut whose police detective background is a fiction used to manipulate and brainwash his kidnapped daughter into following his delusional fanboy fantasies. For a comic supposedly based on the idea of what would happen if people really decided to don costumes and fight crime, Kick-Ass feels unrealistically cruel and filled with disdain for superheroes, comic book fans and mankind in general.
What Vaughn and Goldman achieve with the film adaptation, while still largely retaining the plot of the comic, is injecting every character and story beat with a sense of empathy. That may sound strange for a movie that features a pre-teen girl dismembering bodies and mob capos microwaving a victim alive, but it’s true. The same quality that makes Kick-Ass work is what makes Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) work, despite their differences in ratings and content. Vaughn’s pic elicits real emotion, other than shock and disgust, and relies on both the small, personal scale of the narrative and the emotional vulnerability of lead heroes Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and villains Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and Chris D’Amico/Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
Taylor-Johnson imbues Dave with a good-natured awkwardness that feels natural and instantly genuine. His decision to become a superhero is born out of frustration in seeing his fellow man pushed down while the rest of the world looks away. And that’s something that even extends to his future nemesis Chris, who he feels sympathy for, and eventual kinship with thanks in no small-part to Mintz-Plasse’s goofy charm. Taylor-Johnson plays Dave as though the character can see himself in every victim, and it’s that quality that makes his venture into masked vigilantism believable. Rather than relying on what makes Dave different from the audience, the pic relies on what makes him the same, the everyman of everymen. This in turn makes him one of the most affable superheroes of the past decade, and someone audiences can root for in his personal and superhero life. While Dave’s acceptance of being mistaken as the gay BFF by Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) is manipulative in the comics and allowed to play out over the course of eight issues, Taylor-Johnson and Fonseca bring a sweetness to the relationship, and Dave’s decision to come clean about who he is and his sexual identity before the midway point of the film make both characters more endearing. This quality extends to their small group of friends, Todd (Evan Peters), Marty (Clark Duke) and Erika (Sophie Wu), who give shape to Dave’s world and lend credibility to the idea that it’s one that he’d risk his life fighting for.
When it comes to the more experienced and exceptional heroes, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, Vaughn and Goldman make the effort to show that they are a family, even though nontraditional. Cage’s performance as Big Daddy, a riff on Adam West’s Batman, never feels like the parody it so easily could have been. The character’s eccentricities, including a memorable laugh, all manage to coalesce into a believable character whose drive for vengeance hasn’t dulled his love for his daughter. And Moretz, for whom Hit-Girl was a breakout role, not only holds her own against more experienced castmembers but provides the movie with some of its most emotionally sincere moments. If there’s a singular sequence that serves as a testament to just how much Vaughn and Goldman improve on Millar and Romita Jr.’s comic, it’s Big Daddy’s death. While the brutality of the sequence in both mediums pulls no punches, the film uses the moment to show what a good father Damon Macready truly is, despite his faults. As Big Daddy walks Hit-Girl through taking out his captors, shouting out strategies like “Switch to Kryptonite” and “Robin’s Revenge,” Kick-Ass not only delivers a stellar action sequence but an unforgettable emotional beat that ends with Big Daddy sharing a final moment with his daughter that’s on the same level of heartbreak as the death of Jonathan Kent and Uncle Ben. And the way in which Moretz sells the moment of seeing Hit-Girl and Big Daddy’s unfinished hot chocolates when she returns home fatherless encapsulates everything the pic is that the comic isn’t, and the empathetic eye through which this story is told.
In the 10 years since the film’s release, the discussions surrounding Kick-Ass mostly revolve around its most quotable and profane bits of dialogue, or its stellar final action sequence that makes a pretty great argument that Hit-Girl could give John Wick a run for his money. But as superhero movies continue to get bigger and it becomes a greater struggle for small superhero films that don’t carry a Marvel or DC logo to succeed, it feels even more important to recognize how the pic managed to take $28 million and a cast of mostly new faces and drastically improve on the then-popular source material. Kick-Ass transcended the sense of condemnation and disgust for superhero comics and fans that the original title had and turned the story into one of the best and most heartfelt superhero movies of the decade.
For more from Kick-Ass, read The Hollywood Reporter‘s look back at the making of the film.