And here’s what Kick Ass does: it deconstructs the superhero genre better than Watchmen.
To be clear, we’re taking the 2009 film, not the 1987 comic. And here’s the point: nothing is ever going to be able blow apart expectations like Alan Moore in the ’80s ever again. Thing about expectations is, once you’ve destroyed them once, that trick doesn’t work any more.
And by the time our current Golden Age of Cinematic Supers rolled around, the geeks were in charge, and they’d all read Watchmen. Look at the first wave: Blade, Spider-Man and the single film responsible for the last decade of capes and sound effects on the big screen: Bryan Singer’s X-Men.
No colourful costumes. Opening in Nazi Germany. That bit where Wolverine uses one of his claws to give Cyclops the finger.
And Kick Ass is essentially that, writ large. It’s at its best when it melds mundane reality (which rings true more regularly than Millar’s original sweartastic dialogue) with low-key superheroics. We’ve seen all this before – Raimi did the early failures when Peter Parker hit that billboard learning to web swing; the ‘scuba suit as superhero suit’ practicality was a hallmark of Nolan’s realist approach to Batman Begins; hell, even the unexpected ‘getting hit with a bus’ was in Mean Girls – but it’s still loveable here, as long as it doesn’t expect us to gasp, they can’t do that!
Kick-Ass telling us that if we think he’s sure to survive just ’cause he’s narrating this, stop being such a smart-ass works and, obviously, the breakaway hit of the film is the foul-mouthed, uncomfortably sexualised Hit Girl. Making it so the infamous C-word line isn’t her entrance seems a waste, but her character is largely pitch-perfect in delivering little subversive shocks throughout. The scene where she asks for a puppy for her birthday is a brilliant example.
Unfortunately, though, Kick Ass has a tendency to get too close to the clichés it’s playing with, and develop Stockholm Syndrome for them. The general plot structure is very reminiscient of the first Spider-Man film, if cleverly obscured and (I should point out that minor spoilers will follow, but given that they’re examples of Kick Ass playing it safe to action movie conventions, they’re probably not going to ruin it for you) relies on the sort of ‘friend comes to the rescue at the last minute’ and ‘apparently dead character is in fact only mildly injured … and comes to the rescue at the last minute’ clichés with such regularity that, far from building tension, they undermine any sense of danger.
Which brings us to the inevitable portion of our review entitled ‘But, it’s not like the comic!’
Letting Kick-Ass get the girl probably shouldn’t work, but it’s cute and satisfying enough (and the love interest is fleshed out in a way not only beyond the comic’s two-dimensional but beyond the likes of Spider-man et al themselves) that it’s easily forgiven. Taking away the big reveal that Big Daddy’s cool Punisher-style origin story is just a story, however, means that the movie loses the message that made the comic worthwhile: that, perhaps, obsessing over the revenge fantasy of superhero vigilantism isn’t really very healthy.
Like the superhero films it is playing on, it can’t resist turning the last half hour into a big righteous action setpiece, as Hit Girl stays resolutely bad-ass and seeks her revenge. The comic kept the characters passive, their focus on escaping and surviving rather than vengeance and killing every last motherlover in the building. Ultimately, Kick Ass succeeds in raising the stakes better than most superhero stories, it wreaks minor havoc with the formula in a way that far outstrips Snyder’s bombastic efforts in Watchmen, but it doesn’t quite have the balls to go as far as it promises.