'Kick-Ass': The Title's Only Half Right
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Matthew Vaughn's "Kick-Ass" is, essentially, a dyslexic love letter to the four-color world of comics, one that attempts to both mock and celebrate the absurdities inherent in the genre's crime-fighting story. Based on a comic book series by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr., "Kick-Ass" begins as Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) asks the logically illogical question of why no one's ever tried to be a superhero, putting on a costume and taking to the streets to tackle crime. One of his friends has a good idea why not: "Because they'd get their ass kicked." Dave, motivated by nothing more than curiosity and a low-grade masochism, decides to give it a try anyway, under the name "Kick-Ass," without any paranormal abilities or special training, but with a costume ordered off the Internet and a pair of batons. Suffice to say it goes very badly.
And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with "Kick-Ass," or, rather, one of the things wrong with "Kick-Ass," in that it, too, asks a simple question and then makes a horrible mess of trying to deliver answers. Dave's quest for crime-fighting glory brings him into contact with other similarly-inclined individuals, most notably the dynamic duo of Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), whose training, equipment and motivations are far better than Dave's. Hit-Girl, a potty-mouthed 11-year-old dervish of deadly destruction, and Big Daddy, a beefy bruiser in action but a goofy devoted sit-com dad at home, hijack the movie from Dave and his quest to figure out why, exactly, superheroics can't work in the real world.
It would be one thing if "Kick-Ass" wanted to have its cake and eat it too, to suggest all the ways comic-book style heroics are irrational nonsense with no respect for logic or physics and then deliver comic-book-style action in which 11-year-olds can knock down men three times their size and vast numbers of henchmen can't seem to hit a single target with a hundred bullets. But worse, the cake simply isn't that good. Johnson's Dave is a maddeningly passive protagonist who disappears from long chunks of the film, surrendering the film to the supporting cast. Moretz delivers her profane musings with the kind of amoral laziness designed to make idiots smirk -- Oh, look, a little kid saying filthy things! Cage does an inspired riff on Adam West's mock-Shakespearean cadences from the old-school "Batman" TV show. Johnson has a few scenes in which he successfully apes Tobey Maguire's mumble-mouthed, low-key delivery in the "Spider-Man" films, but these are minor pleasures scattered throughout a film that is at least 25 minutes too long. "Kick-Ass" is one of those movies that feels like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch jacked up with steroid-like stunt sequences (which are as well-shot as they are implausible) until it's a mass of flabby slack bulk.
A lot of this is the fault of the source material, adapted by Vaughn and Jane Goldman. Much as Jimmy Buffett earns millions by singing to his fans about the amazing carefree tropical lifestyle he couldn't afford unless his fans were buying his records, Millar seems to have made his name and fortune writing comic books about what idiots comic-book fans are. Millar wrote the comic that loosely inspired the James McAvoy-Angelina Jolie vehicle "Wanted," and the original versions of "Wanted" and "Kick-Ass" are slick with a poisonous cynicism and contempt for the people reading them. But this isn't critical thinking, or deep insight; it's just a cynical shell game that lets readers enjoy a feeling of smug superiority even as they wallow in the clichés they're supposedly demolishing. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, who had a few thoughts about the dangerous appeal of the übermensch himself: The comic-book fan who despises himself still respects himself as one who despises.
Other films have done a better job of dissecting the weird contradictions of comic books. "Watchmen," for all its flaws, was an attempt to look at the adult realities of power through the adolescent power-fantasies of the genre. "The Specials," even with a shabby low budget, wrung ironic comedy from the idea that superhumans could be just as all-too-human as mere mortals. And "Special" and "Defendor" both looked at lonely, sad men wrapping their lunacy in tight costumes to keep it in, mashing up Peter Parker and Travis Bickle. "Kick-Ass" isn't just broken by its flaws: the too-long running time, the way Cage and Moretz steal the film from Johnson, the way Dave's underwritten so that there's no real spur to move him through the film, the way it suggests mass murder as the height of heroism and celebrates superior firepower as the ultimate superpower. It's flawed to start with, a hypocritical mess whose attempts to swagger turn into clumsy stumbling and whose knowing wink blinds it to its own problems.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.