Nov. 6 2010 12:00 AM

A superhero spoof - and so much more


True, that long-delayed “Spider-Man” musical may never make it to Broadway and the hyped-to-the-heavens “Watchmen” was something of a box office underachiever. But otherwise, superhero extravaganzas have a fairly impressive track record when it comes to making money.

Millions of moviegoers are counting the days — 23 — until “Iron Man 2” storms the cineplex. Until then, executives at Lionsgate are hoping many of those fans will pass the time by seeing “Kick-Ass,” director Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the Mark Millar/ John Romita Jr. comic about a high school misfit who tries to reinvent himself as a masked vigilante.

The cover of one issue of “Kick-Ass” promised “Sickening violence: Just the way you like it!” Vaughn’s film doesn’t skimp on brutality, but it also goes much deeper. The screen version of “Kick-Ass” (which begins its run with advance showings Thursday night) is also a cutting commentary on modern American society, in which the only thing the public enjoys more than building up a new celebrity is to watch that same star suffer public humiliation.

In a key scene, dozens of teenagers gather around TVs to watch one of their heroes being tortured in a live broadcast. When the network news anchor cuts off the telecast, insisting the footage is too horrifying, the kids rush to their laptop computers to find a live feed online.

It’s a good joke. It’s also a disturbing reflection of how many people see the world, in which the insufferable is irresistible. Remember the old Borscht Belt joke about the two women vacationing at a cut-rate resort? “The food here is awful!” one complains. “Yes,” her friend agrees. “And such small portions!”

The title character in “Kick-Ass” is Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who fantasizes about becoming a superhero, despite the fact he looks like he would have great difficulty shaking down fifth-graders for their lunch money. Outfitting himself in a green and yellow scuba suit, he begins strolling the streets, looking for local criminals; when he finds them, “Kick-Ass” abruptly jumps from being lighthearted and wacky to a sort of darker, more complex humor.

This tone truly comes to the forefront when we meet Kick-Ass’ competition in the superhero market: Big Daddy (another out-there performance from the lovably loony Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Morenz of “(500) Days of Summer,” turning in a star turn that will stun the masses). Big Daddy is actually a disgraced former cop who wants to avenge his wrongful imprisonment, and Hit Girl is his junior-high-age daughter, a sunny spirit who can turn vicious and foul-mouthed anytime the need arises. That’s only a sliver of the storyline: “Kick- Ass” has such a surplus of surprises it wouldn’t be wise to tell much more. The fight scenes are superbly edited and shot, and it’s quite possible to enjoy “Kick-Ass” purely as a well-crafted action flick.

But Vaughn has much more on his mind. His movie is actually a multi-pronged attack on the senses, delivering the violence and jokes we expect from a superhero spectacular while working in several subtle points about human nature, media manipulation and the irony of how easily messages can be lost or distorted in a time in which it’s never been easier to communicate with one another. Everyone knows the Web is cluttered with garbage and half-truths, yet they still put their faith in what they see on YouTube or read in someone’s anonymous blog. Why would they do this? In Vaughn’s eyes, it’s because so many people feel directionless and helpless they will line up behind anyone who seems to be in control — even if it’s just a dork in a scuba suit with a MySpace page.