There comes a point in every genre where straightforward explorations of the genre’s tropes and variations are abandoned and you enter a period of deconstruction. Look at the difference between something like classic Golden or Silver Age Superman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. One’s a simple, honest story and the other’s a story about stories that came before it, perfectly post-modern. It’s taken until now for big screen comic book adaptations to reach the same level of self-awareness and post-modern snark that modern comics have been, and the result is the recent Kick-Ass. But why should you care?
Kick-Ass starts off by asking the question: Why hasn’t anyone in the real world ever tried being a superhero? The opening scene answers that by having a loon in a winged costume dive off of the top of a skyscraper and smash onto the ground below: because you’d get killed in a heartbeat. After that, it somewhat changes into a different beast. We get introduced to the loser kid, Dave, narrating the movie, who has nobody friends and gets through high school by being socially invisible and masturbating frequently. He’s a huge comic book fan and ponders the Superhero Question, deciding to finally do something about it after being mugged and seeing bystanders look the other way when it happened. So he orders a scuba suit and picks a fight with the aforementioned muggers only to get stabbed and hit by a car.
If this were the real world, that’s where the story would end, but of course the kid pulls through and now has metal plate-reinforced bones (like Wolverine!) and a high tolerance of pain thanks to his deadened nerve endings. He gets back into the costumed crusader schtick and gains media fame after defending a man from a group of thugs while people took pictures and uploaded videos of it to Youtube. An overnight sensation, he calls his alter-ego Kick-Ass and starts running a superhero-for-hire agency out of his Facebook page, because that’s young and hip and what the kids can relate to.
Meanwhile, there’s other like-minded individuals out there with a taste for vigilantism, a father-daughter duo donning caped costumes and calling themselves Big Daddy and Hit Girl. They’re more professional and more deadly than Kick-Ass could ever dream of being, and have it out for the mafia kingpin of the city, who’s responsible for putting Big Daddy in prison years ago and causing Hit Girl’s mother to commit suicide. It’s not long before Kick-Ass gets caught in the crossfire…
Watching the movie, it seemed like there was a ton of little stuff going on, and seeing it all typed out now just reinforces my belief: there’s too much crap in this movie. There’s the Kick-Ass stuff, then the Big Daddy/Hit Girl stuff, and then even a significant focus on the mob boss and his loser son who wants to be a bigger part of the family business. It’s a lot of disparate elements mashed together to make one film and it never seems like it rises to be more than the sum of its parts.
And such wildly different parts, too. The movie starts out as any other typical raunchy teen comedy. The protagonist ambles around school with a goofy look on his face, pines after a girl who seems to hold him in disdain and he has snarky geek sidekicks. Probably the freshest aspect of the movie is how it goes for a twist on the whole Stan Lee-esque plot point of the guy never quite being able to get the girl, by having the object of his affection come to believe he’s gay, and he accepts this in order to get closer to her, but has to put up with her openly admiring his alter-ego Kick-Ass. It’s a classic superhero triangle given a modern coat of paint and it’s one of the few elements that makes the movie come alive.
And then there’s the other half of the movie. Big Daddy’s and Hit Girl’s story is like some noir tragedy straight outta Gotham City. Even Big Daddy’s costume hearkens to a Batman archetype. Hit Girl is some kind of perfect geek concoction: a little girl that loves playing with weapons and swearing and committing horrific acts of violence against ne’er-do-wells. And it’s their plot that ends up being the major drive of the story. Without them, Kick-Ass would be content beating up random thugs and getting cock-blocked by himself.
In fact, Kick-Ass is so tangential to the main arc of the story that I wonder why he’s the centerpiece of the movie at all. You could easily take him out and have most of the story stay the same. It really feels like the writers just mashed two concepts together and tried in vain to make them relevant to each other. The movie never fully becomes the goofy superhero parody the ads claim it is and never fully commits to the gritty Dark Knight-esque realism it aspires to, either. What’s left is a hodgepodge; bits of story and character floating around each other but never really seeming like they belong together. Chloe Moretz’ elan as Hit Girl is sort of surprising, and Nicolas Cage is at his daffy best as Big Daddy (“CHAAAAAAAAAAALD”), but the failure of acting from everyone else is uninspired and often just-plain-bad. Aaron Johnson plays Dave/Kick-Ass and he’s expressive, but often just makes faces instead of, you know, actually acting.
It was an interesting two-hour distraction on a weekday afternoon, but the mediocre outcome reminded me of another odd-bird attempt at superhero commentary: Mystery Men. Remember that? Didn’t think so. Neither will we remember this, given enough time.