Every so often, Kick-Ass (the Matthew Vaughn–directed adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s real-world-superhero comic book) sparkles with a fanboy wit that threatens to poke holes in the entire ridiculous idea of superhero movies. Aaron Johnson's Dave Lizewski is your standard funnybook nerd (of the skinny-kid-with-an-Afrolike-haircut variety, not the overweight-kid-with-overly-stylish-glasses version), who gets the idea to put on a costume and fight crime as a hero named Kick-Ass, less because he wants to do right in the world and more because he thinks it would be supremely cool. And there's not much more to the movie than that: Kick-Ass fights bad guys and teams up with other superheroes, and then they all battle their way up to a confrontation with the Big Bad Guy. It could be the plot of a video game from 1987.
In his gaudy green and yellow gimp-suit, Dave unintentionally shits all over the idea of superheroics. The first 20 minutes of Kick-Ass are a point-by-point repudiation of the nerd fantasy that is the first 20 minutes of Spider-Man—the costume-design scene, the leaping-across-a-huge-chasm-between-two-buildings scene, the first-confrontation-with-minor-thugs scene. And there are moments of genius sprinkled throughout the film. It transcends the comic it's adapting by leaps and bounds, adding a cleverness that Millar couldn't convey in print.
The best part of Kick-Ass isn't the title character, though: It's Hit-Girl, an 11-year-old martial-arts expert who plays the badass role usually reserved for a Charles Bronson or a Chuck Norris. Chloe Moretz's Hit-Girl is a sharp, hilarious satire of action-movie badassery. She snarls and struts with a confidence that puts Hugh Jackman's Wolverine to shame, and her potty-mouthed mayhem is maybe the last shocking thing you'll ever see in mainstream American movies; it combines the modern idea of children as angelic, fragile love letters from heaven with our orgasmic glee at scenes of gratuitous violence.
Almost as good as Moretz is Nicolas Cage, whose Batman-looking Big Daddy is the older version of Lizewski—he chortles beneath his sex-offender mustache when he's out of the costume and does a shaky Adam West impersonation when he's in it. Cage is in his operatic mode here, shooting for the cheap seats with broad comedy and sweeping pathos, and he finally scores his big superhero-movie win (Cage was signed for the lead role in an aborted Tim Burton–directed Superman movie more than a decade ago, and he starred in 2007's aggressively mediocre Ghost Rider).
A dramatic gun battle unfolds under a strobe light, transforming the sequence into a slide show of static "panels" showing people frozen in midair, their faces grimacing in superheroic concentration. A couple of Warhol prints of blazing guns hang in the office of crime boss Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong, showing more bad-guy flair here than in Sherlock Holmes), reappropriating the ironic work back into the comic-book realm.
But for every one thing that works about Kick-Ass, there are two that feel poorly considered or weirdly rushed. A half-assed "animated" sequence depicting the origins of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl is supposed to pay homage to the movie's comic-book roots, but it winds up looking like an unprofessional mess. A couple of early scenes open with caption boxes laid over the film, comic-book-like ("Meanwhile..."), but the gimmick disappears for no reason, as though director Vaughn simply forgot about it.
And then a scene involving Hit-Girl and a hallway full of armed assassins that could have become a brilliant take on a Steve Ditko action sequence instead is just a horrible mess of blender-edited action cuts. The irregular mix of ironic scenes and crazy-violent sequences that just look cool point to a bigger problem with Kick-Ass as a coherent work.
Millar, the author of Kick-Ass, consistently has troubles with tone. He tries to parody the over-the-top attitudes of modern comics while at the same time satisfying the hardcore nerds who want to read comics specifically because they're over-the-top. In The Ultimates, he famously mocked George W. Bush's foreign policy by making Captain America into a highly competent douche who shot first and asked questions after all the brown people were crippled. Not confident enough to leave him as a douche, though, Millar had to also make Captain America into a cool, catchphrase-shouting douche. Comics nerds loved him, and Millar loved that they loved him, so he cranked up the jingoistic idiocy to 11, forgetting about the parody in the process.
It's like that here: Kick-Ass is about how superheroes are basically a dumb, dangerous idea with elements of creepy serial-killer behavior, but it's also about how wearing costumes, blowing shit up, and kicking the asses of anonymous mob guys like in video games is totally fucking awesome. Those two ideas simply aren't compatible. Kick-Ass is full of enough ineptly handled superhero-movie tropes to turn off an audience drawn by the real-life-superhero concept, and packed with enough clever winks to frustrate the shut-your-brain-off-and-watch-shit-go-boom crowd.