By Owen Gleiberman
April 19, 2010 at 03:59 PM EDT
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I think that I first heard the phrase “box office disappointment” early in the 1980s, at the Stone Age dawn of the Entertainment Tonight era. Even back then, I wondered: Who, exactly, is being disappointed? Theoretically, it should be the chief of the studio that put out the movie, or maybe the marketing department, or even the people who actually made the movie (oh, them!) — the director, screenwriter, producers, tech wizards, and actors. Yet the implication, whenever that slightly scolding phrase would come rolling off of Mary Hart’s tongue (“a box office disappointment“), was somehow that we, the audience, were supposed to be disappointed. In the post–Star Wars era, movies had become like high school cliques that you joined, the more popular the better. And if a film’s opening-weekend grosses were “disappointing,” it meant that all the people who’d gone to see it had joined the wrong club.

Movie grosses, however, can be a bit like Internet dates: They often hinge on an expectation factor. Take, for instance, Kick-Ass. In a sense, it’s a Hollywood comic-book superhero movie, like Spider-Man or Batman or Iron Man, but in a very real sense it’s also an anti–comic-book superhero movie. It cost $28 million to make, it premiered at the hipster-clogged SXSW film festival (can you imagine that happening to a true megabucks franchise?), and when the buzz began to build, most prognosticators agreed that Kick-Ass was a highly original movie that, in its superbad ordinary-teen flukiness, had more going for it than not.

But that’s when the demon karma of Hollywood box office expectations set in. Kick-Ass kicked off such a steady, growing chatter of pre-release buzz that the movie, precisely because it was so eagerly anticipated, was suddenly saddled with raised expectations. The enthusiasm built, over the last week or so, to a kind of publicity-engine Ritalin rush. Measured against those expectations, Kick-Ass was left wanting. It was almost destined to be punished — to be seen, when the box office smoke cleared, as a merely mortal movie, instead of the magically endowed superhit that was being chattered about in the industry and the press. That fantasy of megahit triumph — the one that Kick-Ass didn’t live up to — goes back to the paradigm locked in during those early ET days: If it’s a bona fide smash, then we all joined the coolest, most popular club!

But let’s look at the reality. Kick-Ass, an incredibly violent and (to me) charmingly idiosyncratic movie about teen superheroes who wish that they had superpowers (and one pigtailed girl who essentially does), opened over the weekend and did just fine. No one needs to be “disappointed” by its $19.8 million gross, or its per-screen average of $6,444. (Oh, man! If only it had averaged $8,444! Then we could all be…happy!) In fact, to tag it a “disappointment” is really, in effect, a way of tainting the movie, of painting it as a kind of failure, and in doing so diminishing the possibility that it might just have legs. (It’s the filmmakers who should be disappointed — not so much by the grosses as by the rap-on-the-knuckles coverage of the grosses.)

Kick-Ass, after all, is a film that doesn’t feature name actors (though Nicolas Cage plays a rubber-bat-suit vigilante with style), and, as many have noted, its R rating would tend to keep a great many of its most natural-born fans — kids — from seeing it. As a critic who dug the movie, and was rooting for it to find the audience it deserves, I, for one, am not “disappointed” by its performance. I hope that it does find that audience, and that’s exactly what it started to do this past weekend.

* * * *

So what about that R rating, that bullet-flying mayhem, that ass-kicking little girl with her blue-streak vocabulary, and all those kids who weren’t allowed to see the movie — or, more important, the kids who were? I didn’t necessarily expect Kick-Ass to create a storm of outrage, but it did (or at least a mini-storm), and that’s probably a healthy thing. On opening weekend, two major critics hit the movie with a fusillade of moralistic criticism: Roger Ebert in his review in the Chicago Sun-Times, and The New York Times‘ A.O. Scott in a Sunday think piece that stated, with regard to Kick-Ass and the current state of movie violence: “We will, I suppose, each find our own limits and draw our own boundaries, but it may also be time to articulate those and say when enough is enough.”

Both these pieces make very cogent arguments and are well worth reading. I have no real desire to debate them point by point. What I would like to say is that articles like these almost inevitably partake of a kind of built-in double standard, since the case that they’re ultimately making — that this, finally, is the movie that went too far — could easily be applied to any number of other films that those same writers chose, for whatever reason, not to apply it to. Like, say, Wanted or The Killers or Live Free or Die Hard or Kill Bill–Vol. 1.

Now I realize that with Kick-Ass, we’re dealing with the highly unusual character of a girl superhero who’s supposed to be 11 years old wielding swords and guns like a prepubescent version of…well, Uma Thurman in the Kill Bill films. But you could easily make the argument — and I would — that the edgy shock of this kiddie kamikaze spectacle, far from being irresponsible, adds a bracing satirical note to the very notion of over-the-top screen violence. Does a child — a girl, no less! — committing the same sort of apocalyptic carnage that adults usually do, and weathering the same smash-face brutality, make it more decadent? Or does it, in fact, highlight the decadence of what most of us accept, more or less every week, at the movies? That never-ending onslaught of blockbuster blood and ballistics leaves all of us a bit numb, but I’m not sure that any critic is going to sign on to condemn that.

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