I haven't seen the film adaptation of Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, and I wasn't planning to, but the kinds of reactions the movie is provoking from critics like Roger Ebert (who uttered the quote in the headline above) or Dana Stevens ("nihilistic and flip") are making me reconsider.
The amount of hand-wringing as people—even established, experienced critics—try and fail to explain what exactly rubs them the wrong way about this film is nothing short of amazing, and I think that's largely the magic of Mark Millar at work.
I can't stand Wanted (the comic; haven't seen the film, since I didn't think Swordfish was good enough to warrant a sequel), and I could barely stand the three, four issues I've read of Kick-Ass, either. But I have to admire the way Millar's work manages to put its critics on the defensive; and given that both Ebert and Stevens feel the need to qualify their comments by suggesting that they may just be "square" or silly, trying to apply standard concerns of morality to a comic-book movie, it seems that's translating to this film, as well.
Listen: There's no point in bringing morality into the discussion of a Mark Millar work. It's a dead end. It's what he wants you to do. He's expecting you. He's rigged the door knob so you'll get an electric jolt when you touch it. He's put grease and marbles on the floor. And he's booby-trapped the hallway with trip wires and suction arrows. He's prepared, and he is, in fact, counting on you to step right into that trap and get your ass kicked by the two universal cheap excuses for works that test the limits of good taste: It's satire!, and, It's just a dumb, over-the-top comic book!
It's not the former, of course, and it's not "just" the latter, but that won't help you if you engage Millar on those terms, because he's three steps ahead of you: It's the whole point of his work to be reprehensible in precisely the kind of way that appeals to people looking for brainless popcorn entertainment and drives the critics—or, for that matter, anyone foolish enough to stop and think about his work and what it says—utterly nuts.
Mark Millar is the master of that.
So, rather than to go skating on the thin ice of Millar's morality, I think it may be more fruitful to look at his technique.
It's been pointed out that at least some of Millar's work tends to flirt with homophobia, sexism, racism and what have you. I agree with a lot of that, but I don't agree with the conclusions.
I don't for a second believe that Mark Millar is a homophobe, a sexist and a racist. I don't believe that he's "famous" despite the fact that his work displays homophobic, sexist and racist tendencies, either.
I think the reality is much worse than that: Mark Millar's work is popular because he's a demagogic talent who has, like nobody else, perfected the art of appealing to his audience's worst and basest instincts in a way that doesn't just absolve them from experiencing any guilt from the pleasure that comes with it, but even makes them think it's cool, because it comes with just enough of a "plausible deniability" sheen to shrug it off as satire, or as stupid popcorn entertainment that's not meant to be taken seriously.
But, to quote Douglas Wolk, "knowing that you're perpetrating a cliché doesn't mean you've earned it."
Millar's brilliant shtick involves grabbing the reactionary self-loathing you find among many of the predominantly white, male, middle-class superhero (and, possibly, action-movie) audience by the balls and using it to his own advantage. His work speaks to the fears of being an emasculated loser and the resulting resentment against those to whose level you don't want to sink, those who are perceived to be even weaker and lower on the totem pole of society: women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals.
Or, to make a long story short: If you've got a latent grudge against bitches, niggers and faggots—or if you harbor any other urges deemed morally reprehensible in your tribe, for that matter—then Mark Millar is the guy who will gladly scratch that itch for you, who will jerk you off in a way that doesn't make you feel bad about it.