The Holy Trinity of Comic Book Movie Superheroes leaves me a little cold; you can have your Batman, your Spidey, and your Superman. They certainly have their devotees and detractors; frankly, it’s all Kryptonite to me. But mess with the genre a little, and I’m right there; I’m no comic book geek, but I love me some tweak. Superheroes with no superpowers particularly interest me; turning the genre upside down and inside out and deconstructing it
reveals plenty about our character, our dreams, our weaknesses, and our strengths. Two comic book-inspired films duke it out in this Not-For-Comic Book-Lovers-Only smackdown. Old School versus High School. May the Forks Be With You.
Based on a comic book and served up as an effective Origins: Episode One, Kick-Ass tells the surprisingly sweet (and alarmingly violent) story of a comic book nerd turned vigilante-justice-seeking superhero played by eminently adorable Brit Aaron Johnson. The director, screenwriters and source material comic book are British as well, but all the action (and there is plenty) takes place in New York City. Another Familiar Brit go-to bad guy Mark Strong deftly plays the not-so-super villain once again and Christopher Mintz-Plasse his son and aspiring anti-hero, Red Mist. The scene-stealing eleven- year-old girl with the potty mouth and heavy weapons at the red hot action’s epicenter is Hit-Girl, Chloe Moretz. Director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn follows up his luscious 2007 fantasy film Stardust and his ultra-violent 2004 directorial debut Layer Cake with this bizarre concoction, the unlikely and unnaturally enticing combo platter of them both. Vaughn’s close professional and personal association with Guy Ritchie makes real sense; Kick-Ass action is gripping and packs a powerful (and painful) punch. Throw in a hearty pinch of well-observed teen comedy (think Superbad) and you’ve got a taste of what’s in store.
The Defending Champion
Mystery Men is also based on a comic book series; I have no idea how faithful it is to its source nor do I care. Almost a decade ago, the then-coolest actors around got together and wore super funny suits in this weirdly winning mishmash of high comedy, lame action, and too-cool-for-school hipsterdom. Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, William H. Macy, Paul Reubens, Wes Studi, Kel Mitchell, and Ben Stiller play engagingly inept amateur superheroes; they are assisted by mechanical genius Tom Waits in their ludicrous efforts to rescue much-lauded superhero Greg Kinnear (Captain Amazing) from the clutches of supervillain Geoffrey Rush (Casanova Frankenstein) and his evil henchmen, including Eddie Izzard. All-star casts don’t get more promising than this one, and the spirits and ambitions run high.
Kick-Ass features winning and well-drawn characters engrossed in a complicated narrative full of revenge schemes, garden-variety venality, and grandiose dreams. The suspense gets punctuated with bursts of shocking violence and world-class movie-action, and somehow the high school domestic story remains center stage. Kick-Ass keeps his high-school-nobody day job, and his friends, colleagues, and even his burgeoning romance all ring blissfully true. It’s a subtle mix set in a not-altogether convincing metropolis. The production values don’t disappoint. Director Matthew Vaughn keeps things humming; violence lands with much more than customarily cartoonish weightlessness. Pain ensues, and it lasts. Even the usually over-the-top Nicolas Cage delivers a remarkably subdued performance as Hit-Girl’s father and mentor. The narrative surprises and reaches a more-than satisfying resolution, setting up the certainty of sequels. The casting is brilliant, the acting intelligent and real, and the stunts impeccable.
Tongues planted firmly in cheeks, the motley crew of Mystery Men stumble and bumble their way through adventures they neither anticipate nor master. Their prickly relationships and personal peccadillos make for a memorable and charming ride; the action is messy and the direction not entirely
sure-footed. But the comedy works, and the performances are just terrific. The writing stays quirky and clever even when the action sequences meander messily and the storyline flounders a bit; the dialogue remains especially funny in the character introductions and interactions, all psychologically insightful and hilarious.
If you haven’t seen Mystery Men in a while, by all means see it again. Hank Azaria’s foiled pretensions and Ben Stiller’s fits of uncontrollable rage still work comic wonders, and Janeane Garofalo’s non-stop muttering to her bowling-ball-encased dad will keep you grinning. If you’ve somehow missed Mystery Men entirely, get thee to a Netflix queue or Blockbuster pronto. It’s flawed, but it’s good fun with a heart of gold. Kick-Ass aims for a much younger audience of action-weary fans, and it hits its target right in the lucrative bullseye. It’s marketed to a niche much smaller than it deserves; I was pleasantly surprised by how much I just plain enjoyed the film. More than a rollicking thrill ride, the film boasts tremendous heart and some real breakout performances. A warning: If violence, especially graphic violence, disturbs you, stay away. Kick-Ass kicks ass. Case closed.