Kick-Ass

 ★★★★★ 

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a comic book geek who wonders why no-one tries to be like the heroes he reads about. He soon finds out the painful truth when he decides to try, as Kick-Ass, and ends up with vicious crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) out for his head.

Since the superhero genre revolution took off properly with Spider-Man, mainstream cinema seems to have been aimed purely at kids, with even Die Hard 4.0 and Terminator: Salvation retooling once adult franchises for teens. Maybe 2010 will see that put right with The Losers, The Expendables and The A-Team all to look forward to and hopefully not pulling punches. The irony is the bar has already been set by a superhero movie! Kick-Ass, based on Mark Millar’s hilarious comic, is astonishingly violent and ready-made to cause some healthy controversy. Yet it is equally entertaining and has bags of substance. Despite being a parody of superheroes, it feels fresh and original throughout. This is Shaun of the Dead for costumed freaks and similarly destined to be a modern geek classic. The trailer sets you up without revealing just how layered the film is.

It starts like a typical teen superhero story, with Dave and his friends wondering why no-one tries to be a super-hero. One more mugging later, Dave is determined to prove it can be done and so dresses up to go out and make a difference. He is quickly brought down to earth with a shocking failure in his first half-arsed attempt to stop car thieves. Nevertheless, he ends up with dead nerve-endings and a metal pins (Wolverine?) throughout his body meaning he can take a beating. So he can’t resist trying again and through no small amount of blind luck, ends up on the Internet as Kick-Ass, in the first of several sharp digs at modern media (later a TV news report has to end a live broadcast because it is too shocking, despite it being uncensored on the web!). Fame and cheap merchandising quickly follow, despite him being nothing more than an enthusiastic idiot.

That brings him to the fascinated attention of a two proper, highly skilled heroes who keep a low profile at odds with their costumes. Big Daddy is a Batman figure, possibly harder actually, while his 12 year old highly trained daughter Hit Girl is simply like nothing you have ever seen before. Your jaw will drop at the petite foul-mouthed killer who can clear a room of thugs without breaking a sweat! Her fight scenes are incredibly inventive and bloody, without resorting to the silliness of Wanted, also based on a Mark Millar comic, and the finale is simply glorious, introduced by Elvis Presley no less on the cool soundtrack. Matthew Vaughn brilliantly handles all the threads with an inventive and confident style, featuring an animated comic sequence and one fantastic moment from a first person shooter perspective, yet never loses focus of the central theme.

While it is very funny, the witty story, full of comic book references, also has a conscience and a clear sense of mortality and bears comparison with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The violence isn’t really gratuitous (well, not much!) because it forces both Dave and the audience to realise the sobering cost of what he’s trying to do. This is supported by a great cast of well defined characters, anchored by Mark Strong’s Frank and Nicholas Cage. Normally he brings a dose of insanity to relatively normal characters, but here he softens Big Daddy, who is clearly nuts, with subtle honesty. Cage has been turning into a self-parody for years, but he is superb here and gracious in his performance alongside sparky Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl. That Superbad’s McLovin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as Red Mist and Aaron Johnson as Dave aren’t lost in the mix is testament to both their performances and the finely balanced plot. There’s even room for a sub-plot as Dave pretends to be gay to get close to dream girl, Lyndsey Fonseca.

For me the defining superhero films are Superman, The Dark Knight and The Incredibles. Kick-Ass can easily sit alongside them. I’m just not sure that the teenagers are going to be happy settling for Tony Stark, because Iron Man 2 is already looking dated!

The Incredible Hulk

 ★★★☆☆ 

Ok, I know a lot didn’t like Ang Lee’s The Hulk, but I thought it was one of the bravest and best comic adaptations so far. It just needed more mindless action. Well, we get that here in spades. Especially the mindless part.

It was a shame they seemed to quietly disregard the first film, as it was an excellent basis to start from. While the action with The Hulk is suitably relentless and rage-filled, the action with Bruce Banner on the run is too over the top, both thanks to Transporter director Letterier. For instance, the first act was a nice plot with Banner trying to keep his cool while falling for the local girl and fighting the local thugs. It made perfect sense for that to be reason enough to Hulk-out and cause a depressed Banner to go back on the run, after demolishing the town, but no; We have to have the stupid drop-of-blood coincidence bullshit, leading to all out fucking war. Nice cameo from Stan Lee, otherwise, too noisy and muddled. Good idea, screwed up.

In the cast, they had great actors capable of pulling off the balance between drama and action, but instead they drowned them in noise. Norton was especially good at showing Banner as scared by his own memories.

The effects were very good (again, nothing wrong with the “don’t make me Ang Lee” version) and the middle action sequence particularly Incredible (nice documentary style camera work) and the final battle are great fun, with cute Hulk-isms (police car boxing gloves! Thunderclap! It speaks!), but this story deserves better. It is at heart, such a sad character and is capable of Frankenstein style empathy, but a brief musical interlude and funny cameo from Lou Ferrigno is the closest I think we will ever get to the charm of the TV series, or comic for that matter. Bruce Banner may soon be lost to a complicated multi-film arc and the chance to make a really good stand-alone version has passed.

It needed bigger, greener balls, but The Hulk was a far better film.