Kick-Ass is based on the comic book of the same name by Mark Millar, one of the more influential writers in comics today, and it begins with a relatively simple premise: What if an ordinary guy became a costumed superhero?
It’s not the most groundbreaking idea in fiction—Greatest American Hero was thirty years ago—but sure, the idea of a regular dude putting on a costume and fighting crime in the “real world” is certainly fertile ground for storytelling. Unfortunately, after the initial setup, Kick-Ass tosses aside all notions of realism in favor of fan service, video game references, homages to better superhero movies, and “kewl” hyper-stylized violence.
The story is ostensibly about a high school kid named Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who lives in Manhattan, albeit a Manhattan that’s much brighter and cleaner than the real thing (most of the film was shot in Toronto, and it shows). Dave is obsessed with comic books, and wonders why no one has ever tried to be a superhero for real (apparently, he’s not familiar with the likes of Phoenix Jones). So he decides to put on a wetsuit and patrol the city himself as a superhero named Kick-Ass. Naturally, his first attempt at fighting crime lands him in the hospital, but after multiple surgeries to reinforce his bones with steel, and with permanent nerve damage that makes him highly tolerant to pain, he jumps right back into the bright green tights.
In a strange turn of events, there are two other superheroes already operating in the city: Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, doing his best Adam West impression), a Batman-like hero who used to be a cop until he went to jail for crimes he didn’t commit, and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), his 11 year old daughter/sidekick who assists him on his quest for vengeance against the mob. And despite her age, Hit-Girl slices up criminals with glee while spouting all sorts of profanity, which is sporadically funny, even if a lot of it doesn’t make sense (why is Big Daddy’s version of the Bat-Signal in the shape of a giant cock, exactly? And if Big Daddy himself never swears, who exactly did Hit-Girl pick up the habit from?).
But while father and daughter operate in the shadows, Kick-Ass has gone public with his exploits, building up a huge following on… MySpace? How old is this movie, again? Regardless, being the only recognizable superhero around draws the attention of a big-time mobster, who blames Kick-Ass for all the carnage wrought by Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, and soon poor Dave has the whole mob after him.
Kick-Ass is a mostly entertaining film, but it’s pretty obviously pandering to the stereotypical “geek” crowd, the same crowd that doesn’t care much about realism, physics, or actual characterization, as long as the action is frenetic and over-the-top and AWESUM!!1! enough.
This is a movie that can’t even be bothered with its own premise. It’s clear Big Daddy and Hit-Girl have already been at the superhero game for years, so what gives? Why make a movie about the first guy to put on a costume and become a superhero if he’s not really the first guy? And why start the film with a narration about “real” people becoming superheroes, only to follow it up with jetpacks and bazookas and an 11 year old girl shooting and slashing her way through a dozen armed men? Most action films are ludicrous to a degree, but this one is almost a cartoon. I felt about as much suspense over Hit-Girl’s fate as I feel concern for Wile E. Coyote’s health after a boulder falls on him.
Kick-Ass was directed and co-written by Matthew Vaughn (who went on to make a more straightforward superhero film), and despite having a female co-writer, this movie is pure white teenage male wish fulfillment, where women only exist as trophies for the hero, and minorities only exist to get wiped out and boost the hero’s cool factor (reportedly, the original comic—as well as some of Millar’s other output—is much more egregious in this regard).
The central character of Dave/Kick-Ass is obviously an author self-insert, and like most author self-inserts, he’s the most boring character in the movie. He has no actual story arc. Despite causing someone else’s death via his own stupidity, he learns absolutely nothing by the end of the film, and is more convinced than ever that being a superhero is awesome.
Clearly, Kick-Ass, the character, should have been ditched and the film should have been entirely about Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. Their relationship is a fascinating, subversive take on Batman and Robin. I mean, this movie may not be the first to do it, but Kick-Ass hammers home how fucked up the very concept of Robin is. Who adopts an orphan teenager and then immediately puts him to work fighting dangerous criminals?
The whole movie could have worked on that level, but what we get instead is bloodshed and violence grafted onto a slightly dopey teen comedy. They even got McLovin to play the supervillain.
Kick-Ass 2 is due out Friday. You might be wondering why a sequel was even made, considering the original was seen as a bit of box office disappointment, barely beating out How to Train Your Dragon in its opening weekend. Well, it’s safe to say one of the reasons it failed was that its target audience of teenage boys was mostly shut out by the R rating. And guess who sent it to the top of the sales charts once it hit DVD and iTunes?
But really, there’s no need to see the sequel. I can tell you right now what it’ll be like: The violence will be even more over the top. Hit Girl will curse twice as much (but it’ll be half as amusing coming out of the mouth of a teenager instead of a little girl). Roughly 30-35% of the dialogue will be profanity. Essentially, everything that got dialed up to eleven in the previous film will now be dialed up to 22.
Though, the one thing I doubt they’ll ante up on is satirizing the superhero genre, which in the first movie was mostly relegated to quoting a line or two from other comic book movies. Hell, the last line in the film is a direct quote from 1989’s Batman (when in doubt, go for a reference!). Superhero movies are now even more ripe for skewering than they were when this film was made four years ago, but a franchise like Kick-Ass is never going to bite the geeky hand that feeds it.