It's kind of hard to believe that we're coming up on the 25th anniversary of two of the greatest achievements in comics, works that re-imagined what a superhero comic should strive for. Both Watchmen
and The Dark Knight Returns
turned the genre on its head, and admitted what is, in retrospect, a pretty fundamental truth about superheros: in order to want to be one, you have to be, well, kinda crazy.
That admission seems to be implicit in the telling of Kick-Ass
, based on Mark Millar
and John Romita Jr
's comic of the same name; like Dark Knight
, it attempts to skew the normal superhero story and adapt it our somewhat more mature times. In a somewhat recursive touch, it tells the story of the titular hero (played by Aaron Johnson
), who, despite a complete lack of superpowers or even fighting prowess, is inspired to take up the vigilante's mask after a childhood spent reading Spider-man
. In a move that's pretty fitting to the 21st century, Kick-Ass doesn't take up his title with any thought of nobility, or profit, or really even helping people; rather, he's just kind of bored. Predictably, things go poorly, as his attempts to help the downtrodden more often result in his getting the crap kicked out of him.
Fortunately for him, he eventually meets the crime-fighting duo of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage
) and his tween daughter Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz
), who are significantly more competent and ruthless than Kick-Ass turns out to be. Big Daddy, a former cop, is obsessed with taking down the empire of crimelord Frank D'Amico, whom he blames for his wife's death, and doesn't mind racking up quite a bodycount in the process. D'Amico starts to believe that Kick-Ass is responsible for the disruptions to his operations, people die, and so on and so forth. Overall, it's an entertaining story that's well-told, but there are a few rough spots that drag the overall experience down significantly.
For example, the casting is unfortunately uneven, and a bit more diligence probably would've made the movie a lot more watchable. In keeping with the recent trend of making main characters utterly unheroic (see How To Train Your Dragon
), Johnson is more or less immediately off-putting, a trait which is probably rooted in his wheezing, high-pitched voice, which makes Jay Baruchel
sound like Barry White
in comparison. He's also got a face that, to be a bit mean, is pretty punchable, which at least makes it pleasurable when he's getting the crap kicked out of him, which happens fairly consistently throughout the film. There's a difference between an unlikely hero and an unlikeable
one, and unfortunately Kick-Ass goes a bit too far into the wrong direction.
Aside from that, there are a variety of highlights and lowlights. Moretz as Hit-Girl is probably the best reason to see the film - she throws herself into the role whole-heartedly, and her action scenes are by far the best, as she becomes less a trained fighter than a force of nature. In a nod to films like Big Trouble in Little China
, it's Hit-Girl who winds up doing most of the badass wetwork, while the nominal hero, Kick-Ass, is mostly relegated to being a goofy, human punching bag. The presence of a child killing people and getting shot in the chest has proven to be a bit controversial, as the film's marketers seem to have known (since Hit-Girl has wound up on a lot of the film's promotional material). But in a world where thousands of children are conscripted into real wars, it seems a bit off to moralize about a fantastical representation of a child in combat in a movie that self-consciously celebrates its far-fetchedness as much as Kick-Ass does.
Nicholas Cage as her father gives a, well, prototypically Cagean performance. After a career of movies like The Wicker Man
, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
, it's getting hard to judge any individual performance of his as good or bad, per se. You can profitably say that he believes in his role and camps it up just enough to let everyone know that he's in on the joke, but without going too far overboard. Some of the material that he gets is cringe-inducingly bad, although the same could be said for pretty much everyone.
It's worth pointing out that the soundtrack is a bit bipolar as well – the score itself is good, with a lot of drive put into the action scenes, in particular. The soundtrack, on the other, is far too self-consciously jokey for its own good, especially when it plays the Banana Splits over one of Hit-girl's killing frenzies, or Gnarls Barkley's “Crazy” song over Kick-ass and his cohort Red Mist as they drive around town. When you're consciously selecting a song with lyrics like “Who do you think you are?” and “I think you're crazy!” and playing it over the appearance of two self-delusional hero wannabes, it's less amusing than it is depressingly unsubtle.
It's also gotta be said that the product placement in the film is a little ridiculous. The constant use of iPhones is somewhat forgivable, but is there any better way to date your film immediately than to drape Myspace mentions all over the place? Does anyone in high school even know what Myspace is nowadays? That's like asking anyone under the age of 25 what Friendster is.
As a deconstruction of the superhero genre/youthful ennui, Kick-Ass is a bit too scattershot to be taken seriously, but it doesn't really seem to care: you'll pay your money, you'll see some limbs getting chopped off, a bodycount in the dozens, and the unlikely hero getting improbably laid. It's the kind of movie that Kick-Ass himself would probably find to be totally awesome, which, well, means it's probably not for everyone.