I’ve been putting this review off and it’s because I know the people most likely to read it aren’t going to care about what I have to say. Writing this review is like intentionally setting myself on fire. The people most likely to read this review are comic book fans or people who’ve already read and loved Kick-Ass in print. They’re a small, but vocal group and they’re going to love this movie. The problem is, I can’t imagine it being loved by anyone else. Others may show up to see it, swayed by the movie’s slick marketing campaign. But like it? Love it? I just don’t see how. If you’re not part of the group who’s already a fan of what Kick-Ass offers, or even if you’re on the fringe of it, you’ll be disappointed.
The problems start with a voiceover narration in which teenaged Dave (Aaron Johnson), soon to be known as Kick-Ass, pontificates on the subject of superheroes and wonders about the possibility of a world in which superheroes become real. It’s a subject which has already been covered endlessly by other movies, but Matthew Vaughn’s film seems completely unaware of this fact, and bulls its way onward as if it’s discovered something new. So Kick-Ass moves forward, wrapping itself in a mantle of realism, promising to show us what it’s like when real people do what superheroes do… and then it turns into a cartoon.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if the movie didn’t spend so much time talking about how realistic it is, when it absolutely is not. Had Kick-Ass simply shut up and been what it really is, without the attempting to make itself seem as though it’s set in the world outside your movie theater, then maybe cartoony would have been fine. It doesn’t do that. Instead this is a movie which promises realism and then delivers an ending that would have made Wile E. Coyote proud. I’m pretty sure the thing inside Big Daddy’s mysterious box is an Acme product.
Not that things are much more realistic before it. There’s Dave, an obligatory geeky kid, obsessed with comics and horny for girls. After time spent wondering why no one has ever tried it before, Dave throws on a superhero costume and sets out to do good. He gets his ass kicked, ends up in the hospital, and comes out with super powers. Oh Kick-Ass tries to downplay them while talking about how he’s just this normal kid set in the real world, but seriously, Kick-Ass has super powers. He’s like the low-budget, six-million dollar man. Six-thousand dollar co-pay man? That seems accurate.
Eventually he meets Big Daddy (Nic Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz). Big Daddy is just a dude in a Batman costume. Let’s call a spade a spade. Nick Cage even claims that while playing the character he was doing an Adam West impression. I guess that explains whatever it is that he’s doing. Cage doesn't matter. It’s Hit Girl you’re likely to remember, though perhaps only because she’s bound to send parent groups into an uproar and audiences running form the theater to side with protest groups. She’s a 12-year-old product of brainwashing who’s been so abused by her father that, somehow, his abuse has given her superpowers. She leaps and jumps around the screen like Jackie Chan, if Jackie Chan were a soulless killing machine who ripped people’s arms off and ate them for breakfast. Hit Girl may be one of the most vicious, violent, characters ever seen on screen. I think it’s ok to be a little bit disturbed by that.
Still, this is fantasy and as a moviegoer you can and should be able to accept it in that context. In this sense, it helps that Kick-Ass so often plays out like a cartoon. Granted, an ultra-violent, screwed up, cartoon. A cartoon in which a little kid shoves a knife between a fleeing innocent’s chest just for the hell of it, but fantasy just the same. The thing is, Kick-Ass isn’t content to stop there. This is a movie determined to go too far. It’s on a mission to piss you off. At times it seems to exist only to shock people, even at the expense of story or character. See, there’s a reason movies don’t usually show people abusing animals or kids. It’s because as sane human beings, we’re revolted by it. We’re supposed to be, it’s part of our makeup. A little of it we can handle, particularly if it’s shown in context, but Kick-Ass says fuck context and at some point takes Hit Girl, a 12-year-old kid, and decides that after seeing her play the serial killer now it’s time to watch someone beat the holy shit out of her.
When I say beat the holy shit out of her, I mean beat the holy shit out of her. There’s not much left of Hit Girl by the time the movie’s villain, played Mark Strong, is done with her. She’s a bloody, torn, mess and Kick-Ass shows every second of it on camera. It’s like watching someone rip the legs off a litter of puppies. No, it’s far worse than that. It’s not showing it that’s the problem, it’s that the movie presents it as light entertainment and then seems to sneer at anyone who might think otherwise. Kick-Ass revels in it. Kick-Ass fucking enjoys it. Kick-Ass seems to want you to enjoy it and call me old fashioned, but I find that kind of depraved and sick. Yet even as it is, the movie doesn’t go as far as its director had hoped. Vaughn has admitted that he wanted to take Hit Girl’s beating even further but at some point Strong, who has kids of his own, simply refused to do it.
And yet, in spite of all that, there are actually moments when Kick-Ass really works. Aaron Johnson is fantastic as Dave. Scratch that, he’s fantastic as Kick-Ass. Dave is sort of an empty shell but there’s a moment, when he first pulls on Kick-Ass’s mask, when even through just the tiny slit in it there’s this brilliant light in his eyes. Dave completely comes alive inside that costume and it’s something special. Or there’s an even better scene, towards the latter half of the film, when Kick-Ass goes cruising with Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Neither knows the other’s identity, and Red Mist has his own agenda, but for just a moment there’s these two kids just being kids, even though they’re hidden behind capes and cowls. And there’s the music, clever and inspired, and the style of the thing full of bright colors in contrast to the unflinching violence.
Yet even when it’s not offending or contradicting, Kick-Ass has a real problem being accessible to anyone who isn’t already comic nerd. The movie’s filled with all kinds of subtle, geeky references to obscure comic knowledge which most people are simply never going to get or for that matter get interested in. Without an intimate understanding of those references, without hanging around in a comic book shop and spending a few hours studying, a lot of the movie falls flat. When not relying on comic book references, the film resorts to played out commentary on the popularity of You Tube and the world of media celebrity, again as if it’s completely unaware that this is a subject which has already been covered by other movies, and covered to death. Kick-Ass has an audience, but a limited one. If you aren’t already someone who spends days on end hanging around comic book shops, then Kick-Ass is unlikely to turn you into a fan.