Not so ‘Kick-ass’

“Kick-Ass” is a film that makes no attempt to hide the fact that, at every turn, it thinks it’s fucking awesome. Whether it’s self-indulgent stunts or conceited allusions comparing itself to cult classics, the movie has a smug arrogance that pervades every frame. This isn’t to say that “Kick-Ass” is not entertaining — it is, at times — but “Kick-Ass” is entertaining in the sadistic tradition of grindhouse films, not of the nuanced intellect of “Watchmen” and “Pulp Fiction.” The film is entirely style over substance and you just wish they would admit it.

Although the film alleges to criticize and satirize the superhero genre, it borrows from the formula so heavily that any commentary falls flat. Aaron Johnson — deservedly pegged as an upcoming star in the industry — stars as Dave Lizewski, a frustrated high schooler who believes he offers “nothing special.” His only superpower, he claims, is “being invisible to girls.” Although the real magic apparently lies in his “nerdy” glasses, which somehow make everyone around him oblivious to the fact that he’s quite attractive (as “nerdy” glasses in movies have been known to do).

Dave’s voice-over gets the movie off to a compelling start, as he wonders why no one has ever tried to be a costumed superhero before: “Why do a million people want to be Paris Hilton, but nobody wants to be Superman?” After being mugged while a spectator watches and does nothing (a la Kitty Genovese), Dave orders a wet suit online and begins his adventure as a costumed superhero named Kick-Ass.

The premise is an interesting one for a film — What would happen if a normal teenager tried to be a superhero like in the movies? — but Dave is far too stupid a character to provide much insight. Kick-Ass is perhaps the least intelligent titular protagonist of a film since Forrest Gump. Dave’s decision to become a superhero is remarkably underdeveloped, and his choices to approach armed criminals feel as realistic as the film’s assertion that all teenagers still communicate on MySpace.

After one of his utterly pathetic but somewhat successful attempts at superheroism is filmed and posted on YouTube, Kick-Ass becomes a viral celebrity. Given that director/writer Matthew Vaughn has taken the film as far as it can go with a moronic protagonist, he wisely introduces a pair of wannabe superheroes who can actually throw down. Nicolas Cage plays Big Daddy, a mentally unstable, but well-intentioned ex-cop, who has trained his 11-year-old daughter Hit Girl/Mindy into a violent machine with a kind heart. The father-daughter team is on a personal mission to kill drug lord Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong).

Hit Girl — played by Chloe Mortiz, the terribly annoying little sister from “(500) Days of Summer” — has become the center of Internet controversy, as critics question the value of an 11-year old who says words like “cunt,” makes fun of less powerful weapons by calling them “gay” and kills with less remorse than convicts twice her age. Perhaps of equal concern is Mortiz’s inability to act in scenes that don’t involve guns. The adrenaline rush you get as Hit Girl starts killing is undeniable, but Vaughn wants to celebrate her as an empowering feminist icon, when she’s really quite the opposite. “The New Yorker,” perhaps, puts it best: “‘Kick-Ass’ is violence’s answer to kiddie porn.”

Beyond Hit Girl, the film’s social values are troubling if they truly capture what Vaughn seems to believe is the untapped zeitgeist of the American teenage male. “Kick-Ass” is oddly homophobic and painfully misogynistic throughout. An odd subplot involves Dave’s peers inexplicably assuming he is gay when they think male robbers may have raped him. Dave’s friends — the clichéd geeky, horny best friends celebrated in superhero films — inform him that everyone in school thinks he’s a “lame duck” (a homosexual), a fate worse than death. Dave uses this to his advantage to get closer to Katie, a thoughtless, superficial, popular girl who wants nothing to do with Dave conversationally until she thinks he’s gay and romantically until she learns he’s Kick-Ass. But just as you’re assuming Dave will realize Katie doesn’t like him for who he is and that she couldn’t have less of a personality … the script literally redeems Katie’s character through her attractiveness and large breasts and the audience is meant to cheer when he gets the girl.

The movie is certainly fun to watch in a mindless sort of way — the action scenes are frankly awesome and pack quite a punch. These scenes were clearly the focus of the film: Most of the two-hour narrative involves Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit Girl working their way through D’Amico’s henchmen until finally confronting the Big Bad in the climactic scene. Yet, when the team’s plan to kill D’Amico is revealed, it is immediately evident that going through the series of henchmen was quite unnecessary. There is no reason they had to put themselves in danger time and time again when their vendetta is only against D’Amico (who makes himself quite accessible), except to provide two or three opportunities for Vaughn to flex his action muscles with killing sprees on the scale of “Kill Bill.”

This kind of thoughtlessness carries over to much of the film’s social commentary. The film explores some interesting themes, including the dehumanization that can result from social media and the disconnect between humanity’s stated desire to help others and its undeniable self-interest. But these themes just fester as interesting ideas.

In the end, “Kick-Ass” is weighed down by its own ambition: From the subtle references to cult classics like “Watchmen,” “Scott Pilgrim” and “The Runaways” and overt references to “Spiderman” and “Superman” that give the sense that Vaughn fully expects his film to be accepted to the Pantheon; to the self-indulgent reveal of Big Daddy and Hit Girl’s $300,000 weapon that make it apparent that Vaughn believes he knows What Is Awesome; to the formulaic final shot establishing Vaughn’s belief that the film clearly merits a sequel centering around a new villain whose lack of intellect is rivaled only by Kick-Ass’s.

“Kick-Ass” tries to convince us that it kicks ass through brute force, but, if anything, it’s just kind of sad.

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