It’s hard to number all the ways that the Kick Ass movies don’t work, but let’s start with the basics: they don’t follow through on their own concept. That concept–what if someone in the real world tried to be a supehero?—offers a world of possibilities that go unexplored in these movies. Some lip service is paid to the idea, but mostly it just boils down to the main character being an ineffectual wimp who gets beat up a lot. But the movies themselves follow a lot of the same beats as a typical superhero narrative, only with sarcastic air quotes around everything, so what you end up with is a b-grade superhero movie with no stakes, no reason to get invested, and a main character who doesn’t really accomplish anything.
It’s not just Kick Ass, though. Neither movie has any idea what it wants to do with any of the characters. The concept behind Big Daddy and Hit Girl—a traumatized police officer drafting his prepubescent daughter into a war on crime—promises a subversive look at Batman, but once the filmmakers realized they could get laughs out of a little girl cussing and murdering people, the hope of even an undergrad level of deconstruction vanished. Hit-Girl’s paper-thin characterization is especially painful when you realize she’s the most well drawn character in the franchise. Everyone else’s pain and motivation is treated like a joke, flipped around between scenes or ignored. Kick Ass’s mom dies in the opening minutes of the first movie and is never mentioned again. One harmless dumb character that provided comic relief in the first movie becomes villainously stupid in the second, causing a major tragedy he never seems to comprehend. He gets a moment of redemption at the end, but boy, who could possibly care?
Pacing is another major issue: both movies were based off six-issue comic-book miniseries, and it shows. Both movies cut between three different groups of characters. In the first movie, this eliminates any chance for suspense, as we know ahead of time all the forces that are moving around and against the main character. In the second movie, where the chance of suspense is never even on the table, it just underlines how much time is being wasted. Hit-Girl spends half of Kick Ass 2 in her own sub-par version of Mean Girls (the term “Queen Bee” even gets tossed around) and by the time she’s out of it, the characters have learned nothing and the audience has gained nothing, save for a vomit/diarrhea joke that will make any viewer over the age of 11 uncomfortable and embarrassed.
Not only does the audience never get a sense of the story’s shape, we’re never sure how we should feel about the story itself. In a smarter movie, this kind of moral ambiguity would be welcome, but in a series where every plot point is underlined by the main character’s inane, sub-Dexter narration, any moment where something manages to be unclear is a failure. The first Kick Ass is at least consistent in its own warped morality; consistent and far too impressed with itself, but still, consistent. In the sequel, both the titular hero and Hit-Girl make solemn vows to end hang up their capes, but when they inevitably back down from these oaths (Kick Ass changes his mind a mere three scenes later), it’s not clear if we’re supposed to applaud them for sticking to their beliefs or sympathize with them because they have to betray their parents to get vengeance. In Hit-Girl’s case, the movie can’t even be bothered to give a decent explanation for her abandoning her cause, meaning that the one thing people reliably enjoyed about the first movie—a little girl cussing and murdering people—gets put on hold for no good reason.
Even though they were in development at roughly the same time, Kick Ass feels like the training-wheels version of James Gunn’s Super. Kick Ass is a high school junior doodling in his notebook; Super is bipolar grad student who just finished writing a thesis on superheroes. Super brings out all the twisted elements of the “normal-guy-becomes-a-superhero” story that Kick Ass can only snicker at. The hero of Super is pathetic and delusional in a much deeper and sadder way than Kick Ass, but the movie lets us root for him and even lets him succeed in the end. Ellen Page joins in as the sidekick and in just a few scenes she shows just what kind of lunatic would be attracted to costumed heroics, and she does it in a much more effective manner than anything the Kick Ass films ever attempted.
Kick Ass 2’s confused sense of self extends into the final two shots, which dismiss the need for real-life superheroes and then immediately promise a beefed-up sequel. If the filmmakers make good on this promise—though current box office data indicates they probably won’t—let’s hope they can give us the zany, all-out superhero story they’re clearly longing to give us without any of the false aspirations to “realism”, which, by the way, is a word Mark Millar wouldn’t understand if it knocked him out of a skyscraper window and blew up.