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The Dork Knight

“Kick-Ass” invents new heroes for the streaming-video age.

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Fans of the comic book series Kick-Ass should love the faithful and irreverent way it's been adapted to film, but how should the rest of us feel about it?

This is a surprising movie if all you know comes from the trailers, which make it look like a kiddie flick intended for general audiences, full of superheroes in funny getups doing acrobatics and firing weapons. “Kick-Ass,” however, heartily deserves its R rating. You may expect something like “Spy Kids” meets “Spider-Man,” but this is closer to “Kill Bill” by way of “Superbad.”

The story centers on Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a high-school student who dreams of becoming a superhero. In his misadventures as the self-styled Kick-Ass, he meets Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose vendetta against a local organized-crime boss (Mark Strong) triggers the emergence of Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse — McLovin from “Superbad”) and quickly pulls Dave in over his head.

Dave voices the movie's central point during the introduction: “With all the comic books out there,” he wonders, “why hasn't anyone tried to become a superhero?” He says this while an obviously deranged individual in a costume leaps from a tall building to his grisly death in front of spectators. You're expected to laugh uproariously.

Dave's friend, Marty (Clark Duke), has another angle on Dave's question: “Because they'd get their ass kicked.” Dave should have listened. After donning a green and yellow diving suit, he attempts to stop a couple of thugs from breaking into a car, at which point they put him in the hospital. Future efforts don't bring him much more success, but they do bring him thousands of hits on YouTube.

Adapted and directed by Guy Ritchie's longtime producer Matthew Vaughn (“Stardust”), the film version doesn't shy away from some of the extreme violence and language that typified the comic books. Dave and his friends like to drop the F-bomb, and some surprising words also spring from the 11-year-old Hit Girl, whom Big Daddy has trained in the lethal arts. And boy are they lethal. Her favorite methods of dispatching thugs seem to be a knife to the throat or a gunshot to the face.

The movie is photographed, by Ben Davis, in an amplified style that impressively implies the comic strip source without mimicking it, which Vaughn wraps around a clever mix of realism, stylized action, post-ironic self awareness and multimedia references. The movie is admirable if only from technical and creative standpoints, one of the rare attempts to play to teens and tech without seeming out of date. But pandering well is still pandering. (Why, by the way, does a sexually active high-school kid still want to be Spider-Man?)

Likely a large audience will gleefully eat up the movie's deft blend of goofy thrills and adult humor, but its essential paradox becomes increasingly difficult to swallow. Dave is a guy absurdly trying to become like a comic-book character. Big Daddy and Hit Girl are comic-book characters, their absurdity conveniently overlooked in order to entertain. Eventually you get the feeling that “Kick-Ass” operates on the implicit notion that audiences either can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, or don't care.

Maybe you can and do, but the movie is banking that its fans won't. It's not surprising that in the furious rush of cynicism it dispenses altogether with questions of morality — even the ones it raises itself.

We're made to understand that Dave's quixotic efforts spring from altruism. He sees witnesses turn away and crimes go unpunished and wonders why nobody cares. Big Daddy and Hit Girl, on the other hand, are vigilantes. We don't learn what comics inspired Dave, but Spider-Man and Batman's superhuman qualities were matched by human ones; it was important, for example, that they not kill their enemies while bringing them to justice. Big Daddy and Hit Girl don't have such qualms, and whatever values Dave was learning quickly fall out of the picture.

Does Dave want to help, get famous, or get his girlfriend (Lyndsy Fonseca) out of her top? “Kick-Ass” opens asking why people don't try to become comic-book heroes, and closes asking the very same question. Its only answer: They should! But kids, don't hurt yourselves until after the sequel, in which Hit Girl's little sister hilariously snorts rails undercover and performs a home abortion. (R) 117 min. HHIII

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