The superheroes in the movie are young, idealistic, and shockingly foulmouthed. Can the film live up to its name at the box office?

By Adam Markovitz
Updated April 02, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Mark Millar was 15 when he decided to become Mr. Danger. It was 1985, and he was just another bored teenager, dreaming of Superman and Batman. So he and a friend invented their own crime-fighter alter egos, designing costumes and lifting weights to prepare for battle with evildoers on the streets. “Luckily, we never went through with it,” says Millar, who instead became the author of such famous comics as Wanted and Chosen. “Kick-Ass is the story of what could’ve happened if we had.”

This month, that story may turn the superhero movie genre on its big, masked head. After earning cult-hit status as a comic series (its initial eight-issue run from 2008 to 2010 outsold Spider-Man during the same time period), Kick-Ass is coming to the big screen on April 16 as a subversive, R-rated action comedy with enough violence and bad language to make Tony Stark blush. The movie follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a gawky teenage fanboy who decides to fight crime as a superhero named Kick-Ass despite the fact that there’s nothing particularly super about him. Produced and directed outside the studio system by British filmmaker Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake), the film boasts a uniquely self-aware blend of comic action and realistic gore — much of it courtesy of a foulmouthed 11-year-old assassin called Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), along with a fellow wannabe hero named Red Mist (Superbad‘s Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Thanks to an ultraviolent red-band trailer and a packed presentation at last July’s Comic-Con, Kick-Ass is approaching its release date with the kind of buzz that any megabudget film would envy. Will nongeek moviegoers want in on the action too? Vaughn is betting on it. “Superhero movies are getting too generic,” says Vaughn. “Where’s the modern superhero? Where’s the one that kids can really relate to? For me that’s Kick-Ass.”

Perhaps Vaughn himself can relate. Along with being a director — and Claudia Schiffer’s husband — he’s a veteran producer (Snatch; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and a fan of comics. After meeting Millar through mutual friends — screenwriter Jane Goldman and her husband, British TV personality Jonathan Ross — Vaughn and Goldman began work on a film version of Kick-Ass while the comic was still being written. (Millar retained casting and script approval as part of the deal.) But Hollywood studios — perhaps scared by the film’s proposed violence and profanity — didn’t bite. So Vaughn decided to raise the movie’s $30 million budget independently, bringing his Snatch buddy Brad Pitt on board eas a producer to help fight for his uncompromising vision of the movie.

Still, no amount of A-list clout could help Vaughn with his next challenge. After auditioning hundreds of young actors in L.A., the director was ready to push production back six months to search for the right star. And then Aaron Johnson came in. Though he’d been working steadily in the U.K., Johnson had been struggling in America. “My self-esteem was pretty low,” admits the actor, who’s 19. “I thought it was just another casting where I’ll go in and they’ll reject me.” But the British-born actor won the part the day after his first audition — thanks largely to his spot-on American accent. “After I gave him the role, I asked where he was from,” says Vaughn, who never suspected that Johnson was a fellow Brit. “And he went, ‘Little Chalfont, mate.’ And I said, ‘Oh, man, that is the best English accent I’ve ever heard an American do. You’re a genius!’ And then it dawned on me.”

Vaughn had actually expected Hit Girl to be his hardest casting task. He was wrong. Moretz, 13, who played the precocious little sister in (500) Days of Summer, was the second person to audition for the part, nailing it instantly. Her director compares her Kick-Ass performance to Jodie Foster’s in Taxi Driver and Natalie Portman’s in The Professional — both films the actress says she isn’t allowed to see yet. “Chloë is so convincing in the role that I actually, in the back of my mind, feel she could kick my ass,” says Millar. “But then I was sitting behind her at the premiere in London, and she was covering her eyes at the scary bits. You forget she’s just a tiny little child.” The character has also stirred up controversy, thanks to a certain four-letter C-word uttered by Moretz’s Hit Girl in the red-band trailer. Fans and critics duked it out on the Internet over whether a minor, even in a movie, should use language like that. Moretz is taking it in stride. “It’s a character. It’s not real life,” says the actress. “I’d never said those words before. My parents would kill me if I did. I’d be grounded for the rest of my life!” To play Hit Girl’s father, Big Daddy, Vaughn and Millar wanted a name actor. But when Cage signed on, they realized they’d also gotten a fanboy whose love of comics rivaled their own. (This is, after all, the guy who named his son Kal-El, which was Superman’s birth name.) “I remember the first day on set, I saw Nic, Matthew, and [co-writer] Jane, and I thought, This is a movie about comic fans, made by comic fans,” says Millar. “We all did it for virtually nothing up front because we believed in it.”

Even with the film shot, Vaughn still couldn’t find a studio willing to distribute it — until Comic-Con. Kick-Ass became the surprise hit of last July’s event, earning a standing ovation for preview footage. After that, Lionsgate snapped it up, and continued to stoke fanboy fever with the red-band trailer last December. “When they saw the first [clean] trailer, a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, typical Hollywood rubbish. They sold out and turned it into some lame PG film,'” says Vaughn. “And we hadn’t. So we had to give them a taste of what the movie is.” In the following months, preview screenings at Harry Knowles’ Butt-Numb-A-Thon and the South by Southwest festival yielded raves, while early tracking reports showed the movie playing as well with women as with men — a rarity in the male-driven world of comic-book pics.

Kick-Ass is at the front line of a coming wave of snarky, self-aware comic-nerd movies about real-dude superheroes, including the Michael Cera gamer-geek pic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (out Aug. 13) and the Seth Rogen action comedy The Green Hornet (slated for Dec. 22). And with anticipation for Kick-Ass running high among fans, talk has already turned to a sequel. While tackling a top secret second project with Vaughn, Millar is about to begin writing a second series of the Kick-Ass comic, which he also hopes to bring to the big screen with Vaughn’s help. He won’t spill any details about the story — except one. “I want to eradicate McLovin,” says Millar of Mintz-Plasse’s famous Superbad moniker. “Red Mist changes his name to Motherf—er. I want people to shout that at Chris in the street.”

A Kick-Ass Dad-to-Be
Aaron Johnson and his onscreen alter ego Kick-Ass are both teens with big ambitions. But that’s where the similarities end. “I’m so far from that character, it’s unreal,” says Johnson, 19. “I always got along with everybody. And I haven’t got a problem with girls. In fact, I’m engaged, and I’ve got a baby on the way this summer.” That engagement — to artist Sam Taylor-Wood, 43, who directed Johnson in the upcoming John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy — has made Johnson a tabloid target in his native England. But the actor says he’s unfazed by the press. “We’re just both really unique people who don’t give a f—,” says Johnson. “We’re very strong and very happy together and in love.”