Kick-Ass masquerades as a raucous tweaking of the modern superhero genre, but like its masked avengers, it too has a secret identity—a straightforward, albeit ultraviolent, comic book saga. Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s popular series concerns the rock-'em-sock-'em consequences of the decision by loser teen Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) to don a mask, wield batons, and clean up Manhattan's streets under the titular jokey moniker. It's an endeavor made difficult by his lack of extrasensory powers or athleticism, but one soon aided by a father-daughter duo known as Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) who are far defter at their vigilante trade. Throw in Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the masculinity-challenged son of a drug kingpin (Mark Strong) who decides to dress up in order to help his nefarious daddy, and you've got a virtual Three Ninjas-style scenario in which battle-ready kids combat mean ol' adults, circumstances that Vaughn (working from his and Jane Goldman's misshapen script) milks for a few random laughs and thrills but generally has no idea how to handle.
Is this satire? Straightforward caped-crusader action-comedy? A combination of the two? It's never apparent, though more plain are the blatant, enervating lengths to which Vaughn hones in on his fanboy target audience. Dave/Kick-Ass is a dork proxy defined by stereotypical traits: wimpy, loves comic books, boasts only a few close, equally uncool friends, and is thought of by his dream-girl Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) as gay. Delivering a lead performance devoid of charisma, Johnson doesn't flesh Kick-Ass out, leaving character development to voiceover narration free of insight. Kick-Ass becomes an overnight sensation by saving a guy from three attackers, but as he himself admits, he doesn't wear his green bodysuit to avenge a loss or realize his destiny; on the contrary, he does so because, as the geeky audience's surrogate, it's the ultimate act of nerd wish fulfillment.
Vaughn naturally recognizes that Kick-Ass is a fantasy designed to pander to a very specific demographic, and he goes after it lustily. Aside from Kick-Ass himself, the mayhem abounds with elements designed to relate to hip young filmgoers, from the abundance of emailing, cell phone video, YouTube, MySpace, and tech-speak (Kick-Ass dubs his second attempt at heroics "Version 2.0"), to grab-bag shout-outs to The Matrix, Scarface, Sin City, Oldboy, Lost, the '60s Batman TV show (via Cage's Adam West-ish verbal cadences), and Spider-Man. Rarely has a film worked so aggressively to win over viewers by transparently congratulating them on their pop-cult savvy.
While its protagonist is a blank slate into whose tights one is meant to project himself, Kick-Ass splits its attention to also focus on Big Daddy and Hit Girl, whose nocturnal crime-fighting activities are—fittingly, given their Dark Knight and Boy Wonder-ish outfits—fueled by tragedy. Contrasted with Kick-Ass's wholesale lack of purpose, which turns his story of self-definition trivial and tedious, this parent-sibling duo at least allows actual humanity to creep into the proceedings, if only a very small measure, since Vaughn addresses Big Daddy's heartrending backstory via a comic book-animated sequence so cursory that the director more or less cops to his disinterest in basics like emotion, tension, and narrative and character motivation.
Instead, he allows his story to jump the tracks and barrel forward wildly, free from the pesky constraints of balance and coherence. Soon enough, it's unclear whom or what is worth caring about amid all the gun festishizing, arterial sprays, clever post-mortem quips, faux-scandalous profanity (Hit Girl says "cunt!"), and teen-romance hogwash shoehorned in so that Kick-Ass—a guy who becomes a celebrity despite his incompetence, and attains love and sex despite Katie viewing him as a platonic homosexual friend—might further satisfy the far-fetched wet dreams of outcasts everywhere.
Of course, there's nothing odd or unreasonable about a superhero film speaking to universal desires for strength, confidence, courage, and virility. Yet Kick-Ass doesn't have its do-gooders earn those attributes; it grafts them onto its teen heroes (as well as Cage's not-weird-enough deadly daddy) at those moments when the narrative most demands it. Unlike Peter Parker, Kick-Ass can't learn anything about anything because he's driven by nothing: When he says "with no power comes no responsibility," it's just another context-free allusion devoid of actual meaning, as laughable as when, à la the protagonists of Jumper and Wanted, he arrogantly slams we, the moviegoers, as cowards incapable of taking action.
Vaughn can stage a relatively adrenalized bout of carnage when he sees fit, as with Hit Girl's vigorous climactic rampage through a bookshelved corridor. Yet from zooms into close-up for trailer-ready character introductions to an eclectically jumbled score of classical, punk, and pop, his slick stewardship mimics rather than comments on its familiar gestures. As a subversive dissection of a genre, the film has no grit or imagination, and as a work of stock wham-bam entertainment, it's a sloppy trifle, merely the latest piece of disposable Friday night mainstream-cinema juvenilia.