It is of no particular use to discuss Kick-Ass, far ahead of the pack of what will eventually be the most debated films of the year, with anything approaching the false objectivity of holistic criticism. You know the sort, the reviewing style in which, one hopes, the critic does write about his or her own response to the film among the more objective and studious observations, albeit without the use of the dreaded 'I' as if writing from the darkest nightmare of Ayn Rand. Kick-Ass, based on Mark Millar's gonzo (is he ever anything else but?) comic series about teenage vigilantism, announces itself as a love-it-or-hate-it picture from the start, generating such a forceful schism between vitriolic rejection and open adoration that it appears to be the geek version of Antichrist.
At least Lars von Trier's helter-skelter mind- and soul-fuck had something to say, though I'll be damned if I quite know what it is yet. The appeal (and point of contention) of Kick-Ass is that it does not seem to have anything to say at all, though its most vocal defenders insist that the naysayers simply didn't "get" it. But is there anything to get? Mark Millar's comic, written along with the movie script, follows an altogether unremarkable young man, gifted with neither powers, intellect, sophisticated gadgetry nor even a solid physique who decides to become a superhero just to give his life some purpose.
Vaughn and Jane Goldman's adaptation, however, takes a left turn in quick order that throws this premise completely out the window. On his first night out in a wetsuit costume, ho-hum loser Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) attempts to stop a carjacking and gets a knife to the stomach for his troubles. It's a moment that distills the difference between fantasy and reality, a rude awakening for the kid who thought his antics might get him some popularity. Then, everything changes. Doctors place so many metal pieces in Dave's body to strengthen his bones that even the kid remarks his similarity to Wolverine, and the attack fried his nerve endings, allowing him to absorb large amounts of abuse without feeling pain. Granted, it's not flight or laser vision, but that shift changes the entire dynamic of the film: it's no longer a story about an average kid trying to be a hero but an empowered teen who's simply untrained and rough around the edges.
So, Dave now experiences some success as Kick-Ass, not foiling the beating of a man on the street so much as transferring that beating onto himself and withstanding long enough that the attackers simply leave and bystanders with cell-phone cameras turn the hapless, baton-whirling teen into a sensation. And then...what? Dave, purposefully made as banal as possible to strip him of any attribute that might serve him in his night job, does not resonate for the exact same reason. He has a crush on the popular girl, Katie (Lyndsy Fonesca), hangs out with his two wittier friends (Clark Duke and Evan Peters, adhering to the rule that all adolescents travel in trios) and fantasizes about his buxom teacher. That's about as far as we go with his character, even when rumors arise in school that Dave's constant bruises and cuts are the result of him being a gay prostitute, a rumor that, of course, brings him closer to the in-mandated-need-for-a-gay-best-friend Katie.
The only characters of any true interest are Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage, spouting a hilarious Adam West impersonation) and Hit-Girl (Chloë Moretz). Big Daddy and Hit-Girl are, as Dave notes, "the real deal," taking vigilantism to shocking heights with madcap killing sprees executed with precision. The two have an actual story and motivation, unlike Dave, who routinely steals attention away from the gonzo pair for his insipid journeys through the motions of comic book tropes, never conveyed through action but spoken aloud and immediately undercut by another bit of dialogue, empty boasts of self-awareness. Dave's relationship with Katie, with its usage of tired situations that read like Three's Company leftovers that climax in a Big Misunderstanding scene which manages to fly in the face of what meager characterization exists between the two. When Dave first sees Hit-Girl and Big Daddy in action, he realizes how out of his depth he was to pretend to be a hero when this finely conditioned vigilantes roamed the same streets. If only Vaughn agreed with the protagonist; Millar purportedly intended the two to be the main focus of the story, but altered his approach as an unremarkable teenager made for easier identification than such extreme characters. Yet the audience can identify with Big Daddy and Hit-Girl more readily as they have some sort of personality.
Kick-Ass even lives up to its promise of giddy mayhem when Vaughn cedes the floor to the destructive tag-team. Moretz completely steals the show as the profane and hyperviolent Hit-Girl, with her hot pink wig and arsenal of blades and pistols. Capable of portraying both the unstoppable assassin and the adorable, if ludicrously maladjusted, 11-year-old girl inside the costume, Moretz gives one of the most memorable performances by a child in recent years; no wonder, then, that she's been tapped to play the vampire in the (wholly unnecessary) American remake of Let the Right One In, a role that gave audiences the other great young female performance of recent cinema.
But even her terrific presence is undone by the extremity of her actions. Unlike most of the film's critics, I find nothing particularly offensive about most of the film's ultraviolence. That's actually the problem: Vaughn so stylizes the bloodshed, with the typical slow-motion and fast editing that directors continue to mine from The Matrix, that it has no meaning. Death has no sense of finality in Kick-Ass, save the times when, perversely, it is at its most absurd. The hordes of thugs Hit-Girl cut down do not register a second thought, but a man shoved into a giant microwave(?) offers at least a moment of reflection for the audience, before Vaughn then plays that moment for laughs. Sin City had the same cartoonish violence, but it also had an emotional core that Kick-Ass lacks and so desperately needs. In one scene, the only truly serious one of the film, Vaughn veers so close to genuine meditation on the price of vigilantism, the blind quest for revenge and how the evil that exists in the real world is no better than the exaggerated archvillains of the comics that he runs in the opposite direction as if afraid of his own intelligence. Kick-Ass' final act replaces the wheel-spinning repetition of the first half with the utter insanity that it only hinted at previously. But the payoff fails to live up to the hype, moving even farther away from any sense of relatability until one cannot even compare the violence to that of a video game; video games have progressed too much to insult them so.
I feel like I'm spinning my own wheels now, but the inexplicably (yet inevitably) positive reaction carries with it the sort of mind-boggling defense that makes the film impenetrable. This film has no point, not in the sense of anything so high-minded as "theme" or "subtext" but in the sheer absence of any reason to watch it. "But it doesn't need a reason," shout its defenders, "It's fun!" Setting aside personal reactions to the film's supposedly enjoyable elements, this argument holds no water for two important reasons: 1) these same people are calling Kick-Ass a satire, or at least subversive -- an understandable mistake, as the brain searches for meaning when none is immediately apparent, as it is certainly not here; Un Chien Andalou is so timeless precisely because Buñuel and Dali intentionally robbed the short's incomprehensible images of even symbolic value. 2) Since when is it artistically bold to make a stupid movie? I am so sick of this asinine illogic, the notion that it takes courage to aim low, as if the cinematic landscape is not already littered with pointless, plot-less behemoths that snake their tendrils into your wallets. It's that line of reasoning that keeps hundreds of intelligent films out of the vast majority of American theaters, and God only knows how many scripts from being developed. And don't tell anyone who doesn't like a film that they just don't "get" it.
Christ, even the filmmakers have insisted that they've made something smart and unique. Matthew Vaughn said that Kick-Ass "has broken every rule." What rule did it break? A child uses the c-word. Goodness gracious. She also kills, and anyone who thinks that a schoolgirl wreaking havoc on men is fresh must think that Japan's only cultural export is a large number of America's best baseball players. Vaughn didn't stop there, going so far as to cite each aspect of production as unique, touching upon "the way it was made, the way it was written, the way it was financed, the way it was directed. We didn’t do anything by the book. Maybe that’s why it feels so fresh.” Let's break this down: Kick-Ass was written as its source material was being written. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke did the same with 2001: A Space Odyssey and made two fascinating but vastly different takes on Clarke's vision, each with their own merits. Vaughn just simplified Millar's wryer and more decadently cynical take on the premise into something more fit for mass consumption. Too many films have been self-financed to pause for a second on his second point, and Kick-Ass isn't even the first self-financed, hyperviolent blockbuster meant for the instant gratification of a wide audience; I am of course speaking of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. As for direction, Kick-Ass steals so many cues from The Matrix and from Vaughn's old collaborator Guy Ritchie (including Ritchie alumni Mark Strong, Jason Flemyng and Dexter Fletcher, playing Italian wise guys because why the hell not) that the only artistically bold choice of the film was claiming originality. Perhaps Vaughn meant that last point literally, that the manner in which he shot the film was different. Maybe he suspended himself from the ceiling upside-down while he was looking through the viewfinder.
His assertion of Kick-Ass' "freshness" underlines the film's failure. It's trying to have its cake and eat it too, politically incorrect just to drum up some controversy and interest even as it insists that its madness has some method. I spent so many drafts and rewrites addressing points I disliked and then re-addressing them to deal with the perceived catcalls of "that was the point!" to come that I nearly gave myself a migraine, so let me instead save you the trouble of reading an even longer, even more circular diatribe by saying this: I don't care whether Kick-Ass was supposed to be stupid. It has nothing to give its audience; it can only take two hours away from them. Shocked laughs give way to the realization that so little was actually funny, and the protagonist quickly becomes an unfortunate obstacle between the audience and the father-daughter duo that offers the only consistent entertainment. Kick-Ass is supposed to be about an aimless teen and his aimless plan to be a hero, yet even the plot abandons him when Big Daddy and Hit-Girl come along with a possible narrative to latch onto. Their story, by the way, is the exact sort of hero origin tale that Dave Lizewski adamantly states he does not have, and it's one more reason this faux-subversive comic book flick fails to break the rules it thinks it can shatter with its carnage. Kick-Ass wants to be dumb in a smart way, and it makes itself into an idiot in the process.