How come no one has ever seriously put on a superhero costume and taken to the streets to do good? And what would happen if they did? Like the Mark Millar-scripted/John Romita Jr.-drawn comic-book series that inspired it, Kick-Ass opens with these questions and lands on the same answer for both: They’re likely to get hurt. Aaron Johnson plays a comic-book-fixated high-school kid who decides to give it a go anyway, putting on some modified scuba gear, adopting the name “Kick-Ass,” and heading out on patrol, where he promptly earns a beating that sends him to the hospital. He gets better, buys another costume, then sets out again, pulled by the same drive that keeps comic-book heroes going: obsession.
That clever idea gets away from director Matthew Vaughn, the former Guy Ritchie associate behind Layer Cake and Stardust. While nobody could call the world of Millar and Romita’s book realistic, it at least seems like a life-and-death place where conflicts lead to real consequences. By contrast, the film’s back-lot Toronto version of New York feels no less stylized than the worlds found in other superhero movies. Vaughn opts for comic-book bigness—big fights, big laugh lines, big explosions—but without a Spider-Man or Batman at the front of the action, Kick-Ass’s heroes and villains look smaller-than-life in a larger-than-life world. It doesn’t help that Johnson’s performance never turns the emotions of his schlub-turned-avenger hero into ballast against the wildness around him.
Few of the Taxi Driver-like undertones of Millar’s comic book remain in place, but the film keeps some of his dark wit, and fans of Nicolas Cage scenery-chewing will appreciate his turn as Big Daddy, a masked avenger who’s Adam West with a mean streak when wearing his costume, and Ward Cleaver with a subscription to Soldier Of Fortune when out of it. Chloe Moretz is similarly memorable, and disturbingly entertaining, as Hit-Girl, Cage’s foulmouthed, sweet-faced, bloodthirsty daughter and sidekick. Kick-Ass comes closest to inspired, unsettling lunacy when it lets Moretz loose on a bunch of bad guys who aren’t expecting death to arrive wearing pigtails. But elsewhere, Vaughn struggles to put his own stamp on some familiar action beats, unless spotlighting a billboard featuring his wife, Claudia Schiffer, counts as a personal touch. A film about wannabes who use attitude and bluster to emulate their inspirations, this ersatz blockbuster ends up seeming a little too much like its heroes.