Kick-Ass is a film that wants us to know that it gets it. It all but winks at the audiences, pointing to its comic book references and making insider jokes as it attempts to subvert expectations. “I’m not your average superhero movie,” it seems to say. And for a while, the message is even true. But as the film barrels headlong into its middle section, it seems to compromise its ambitions in order to accommodate the demands of blockbuster filmmaking. In terms of spectacle, it isn’t bad at all, but as a whole the film eventually just becomes standard superhero fare.
Dave (Aaron Johnson) is an average, unpopular high school kid. Tired with the routine of his everyday life, he begins to wonder why no one has ever tried being a superhero before. He gets himself a costume and starts patrolling the streets as Kick-Ass, and he quickly gets stabbed and sent to the hospital. Dave endures, however, and soon becomes an Internet phenomenon. Just as his vigilante ways start to turn things around for him, he gets caught up in the business of killer vigilantes Big Daddy and Hit Girl (Nicolas Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz). It isn’t long before his association with the murderous pair places him squarely in the sights of mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong).
The movie poses a familiar question: “what if there superheroes existed in the real world?” This has been the business of superhero movies of late, with the adaptation of the groundbreakingly postmodern Watchmen, the gritty stylings of the last two Batman films, and the psychologically inclined Defendor. Kick-Ass makes itself distinct by sticking to the ground level, centering on an average schlub whose general nobility is actually no match for the forces of crime and injustice. Kick-Ass spends most of the movie receiving pain rather than giving them out, implying the refreshingly realistic conclusion that superheroics will most likely land you in traction.
At least, that’s how it starts. As the film moves on to its second and third acts, the story takes a far more stylized turn. The introduction of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl introduce an orgy of stylized violence that seems to undermine whatever thesis the film had in its early going. Director Matthew Vaughn ramps up the film’s comic book roots, telling the origin story of the deadly duo through actual comic book panels, before sending the characters into over-the-top choreographed violent encounters. In the current parlance, the action sequences could be described as “cool,” but one wonders if “cool” was what the movie called for. Whereas the first half of the film seemed to suggest that an ordinary person ought to stand up for the weak, even if that person gets his or her ass kicked, the latter half suggests that justice ought to be achieved at the end of heavily choreographed gunfights. The film’s capacity for subversion is quickly squandered as it becomes a standard revenge flick. It’s still entertaining, but it leaves the film feeling pretty empty in the end.
Plenty of the entertainment stems from the talented cast. Aaron Johnson is obliquely charming, and though he seems unable to fully portray his character’s eventual change of heart, he makes it easy enough to root for him. And here I must sing the praises of Nicolas Cage, whose strange and counterintuitive line deliveries provide some of the film’s best moments, striking a fine balance between loving father and psychotic murderer as he interacts with his only daughter. Chloë Moretz mixes toughness and vulnerability with graceful precision. And Mark Strong always makes for an entertaining villain.
In the end, Kick-Ass isn’t nearly as clever as it wants to be. All traces of the film’s satirical ambition all but evaporate as the film enters its climax, transforming these superhero wannabes into actual superhumans, unflinching arbiters of vigilante justice, doling out death and destruction while running up walls and performing backflips. When all is said and done, Kick-Ass becomes what it was trying to subvert: a standard superhero movie. To that end, it’s still entertaining in a standard blockbuster kind of way, with its big laughs, crazy fights, and copious amounts of (notably uncut) violence. That’s not bad, really. It’s just a little dispiriting.