Kick-Ass would be great if it had the balls it claims to have. I’m not talking about a commitment to violence or excess; the film, based on the comic book of the same name launched in 2008 by author Mark Millar, is an often ridiculously over-the-top mash-up of frenetically edited lacerations, shootings, and bizarre deaths, including one thug being cooked to the point of explosion in a giant microwave. No, when I talk of the film lacking the courage of its ignoble convictions, I’m referring to the weird schism between its superficial populist crusader and the underlying current of superhero elitism as defined by the indulgent fantasies of lonely young boys. The story is designed to be a mold-breaker for the comic book movie field, but it winds up just another flimsy cartoon whose attempts at humor come off as ignorance, and whose cries to be taken seriously only make the whole thing more absurd.
Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is what passes in movies like this one for a normal high schooler, in that he’s just a haircut and set of contacts away from being really handsome. As he spells out in the voice-over, he has no driving obsession to be a hero and has never experienced the kind of life-altering period of darkness — murder of a parent/caregiver, destruction of a homeworld — that would push him to become something great. He’s just a horny, shy teen who masturbates with vigor and frequency and who longs to do something more than just hang out with his friends, Marty (Clark Duke) and Todd (Evan Peters), and talk about comic books. So one day, apropos of nothing, he orders a diving suit and mask along with a pair of billy clubs and starts figuring out how to fight crime.
His first attempt is a disaster, and the pair of thugs Dave tries to stop from stealing a car wind up brutally beating him and stabbing him in the gut. An ambulance shows up and saves him from dying, and Dave begs them not to tell anyone about the suit he was wearing. In the hospital, though, the film makes its first break with its own purported theme when Dave is healed thanks to some strong metal grafts that repair his bones, leaving him stronger than before. His nerve endings are also fried, meaning he can withstand pain much more than he could before. This, right here, would actually be a fun origin story for a modern non-hero, so long as there was some kind of tacit acknowledgment that even he couldn’t make it in the crime-fighting business without a medical boost that, in a sense, gave him powers. But Dave still purports to be normal, even sub-normal, despite the fact that his reinforced frame and resistance to pain become the gifts that enable him to succeed later on. Kick-Ass wants to have it both ways: It wants Dave to act completely normal but still be set apart, and that divide winds up derailing everything. Dave really does become a kind of superhero, but the film’s seeming ignorance of this makes everything that follows feel false.
Dave returns to the streets after leaving the hospital, and his second stab at saving someone’s life goes a bit better and winds up making him a YouTube star. He christens himself Kick-Ass and begins to prowl the neighborhood. He also sets out to help Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), his longtime crush, but rumors about the suit Dave was wearing in his accident have led to the rumor that he’s gay. Too afraid to reveal his true feelings, Dave actually pretends to be gay to get close to Katie, which somehow works.
The overstuffed screenplay from Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn isn’t nearly done, though. On an assignment for Katie, Kick-Ass runs into some actual vigilantes, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his tween daughter, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz), who are out to kill any bad guys tied to mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Big Daddy’s got a personal beef with Frank, but it’s too cliché to even get into here; suffice it to say it’s enough to drive him to train his daughter to help take down the man’s empire. There’s also Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Frank’s son, who takes on the hero identity of Red Mist.
The bulk of the film deals with Kick-Ass’ growing involvement with Big Daddy and Hit Girl’s war on crime, but the film increasingly plays like an absurd fantasy version of a comic, which is saying something. The problem isn’t that Kick-Ass exists in a ridiculously heightened world where things come easier and feel grander than real life; it’s that the film, mainly through the protagonist’s narration, goes to great pains to emphasize that this is real life. Perhaps the most telling moment — and there is a mild but very definite spoiler ahead — is that Dave eventually admits to Katie that he’s straight and had been faking homosexuality to hang out with her. She’s upset for approximately 45 seconds before getting over it and welcoming him to her bed, after which point they screw like jackrabbits at every opportunity. Even by the loose standards of teen comedies, the ease with which Dave lands his dream girl is laughable. She’s a stand-in for every masturbatory dream ever cooked up by a high school boy, and Vaughn wants nothing more than to deliver that fantasy, free of complication, character, or charm.
As Dave, Johnson feels a bit forced into the role: his mop top and baggy shirts feel like a costume, not the actual traits of a real boy, and he’s not strong enough to carry the film. Moretz is similarly one-note as Hit Girl, but then, a tween character with exceptional marksmanship and a propensity for swearing was never going to be enjoyable beyond the abstract. (Watching her, you realize just how great Natalie Portman was in The Professional, if for no other reason than it’s compelling when someone acts their age.) Cage is, predictably, a little insane, and plays Big Daddy as a pause-riddled homage to Adam West for reasons known only to him. In his fourth feature since breaking out in Superbad, Mintz-Plasse is slightly less uncomfortable with himself on camera, but not much.
Vaughn and Goldman’s screenplay, it turns out, strays pretty far from the source material. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, and in fact it’s often the only way to turn a narrative built on literary beats into one that works on cinematic ones. But they’ve turned a potentially interesting premise — an ordinary boy is drawn into the world of superheroes — and turned it into a cheap, easy story with plenty of characters but no one to care about, and you can’t land emotional punches unless you’ve got people on screen worth worrying over. Maybe it’s because Vaughn’s last film, 2007’s Stardust, was a sweet-natured romantic fantasy, so he’s blinded by his habit of making sure everything ends neatly. But even that film had moments of tension and character development, of pursuit and drama, that Kick-Ass sorely lacks. At every chance to be brave or interesting, the film flinches and turns into a grotesque wish-fulfillment factory that’s impossible to trust. The problem isn’t that the film diverges from the comic’s story line; it’s that those changes are psychological, not structural, ones. What starts out potentially compelling devolves into a lame joke, as resistant to feeling as its hero’s deadened nerves.