Part of the problem, I'm certain, is a major case of expectation failure: when a film has been assiduously marketed as a superhero comedy, it's not the act of an unreasonable man to assume that it will, in fact, be a superhero comedy. This is not the case with Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass, adapted from the Mark Miller comic series, and suggested by just about every single frame of the ad campaign to be a snarky comic romp about geeky teens, sort of like Superbad in tights. Instead, as you may have heard - indeed it's a great deal less likely that you haven't heard - Kick-Ass is a movie full of lots of dead and dying people, a scene of an 11-year-old girl getting kicked in the face, and a few scattered moments of comic relief, but no more than the form generally requires. As far as yucks-per-minute goes, it's a tenth the comedy that Iron Man was, for example.

That, as I said, is doubtlessly part of the problem.

The rest of the problem is that Kick-Ass isn't terribly good, nor terribly fun, nor terribly anything - not even terribly violent, though you've probably heard otherwise from an assortment of moral scolds claiming, and surely not without reason, that a film whose chief appeal seems to be its loving depiction of a preteen girl killing the fuck out of a lot of people while saying "cunt" and "motherfucker" is best viewed as a dramatic symptom of the coarsening of Western culture. That might be true (I guess it probably is); but for my money, the most sickening part of the whole circus is the film's palpable desire to be seen as beyond the pale, just the right thing to shock the squares while all the cool hip kids get to assert their aesthetic superiority over the moralising blue-hairs. I like to think that I am neither a square nor a hipster, but either way I have a pretty damn low tolerance for forced controversy.

If Kick-Ass were genuinely outrageous, that would be something, at least; but by and large, it's just effing dull. Contrary to the cultural dialogue surrounding the movie, the protagonist is actually the titular superhero, the invention of an anonymous high school comic book fancier named Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who asks a question that essentially every young American male since the 1930s has asked at some point: why don't real-life people try to be superheroes? You'd think at least one crazy person would have tried it by now. For a kid with no real purpose in life and no direction, that's a good enough reason to buy a wetsuit and run around trying to stop crime.

I haven't read the comics (I kind of can't stand Mark Millar), but in film form, Dave represents a fairly alarming level of undisguised contempt for the young geeks who make up the material's natural target audience. He is, after all, just a regular comic book fan, with an active fantasy life, and he completely sucks at everything he does. And frankly, he's profoundly uninteresting as both a human being and a superhero. It's no accident that he gets completely upstaged at every moment by the secretive team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (ChloΓ« Grace Moretz), AKA Damon and Mindy Maceready: they have a much clearer motivation, and are generally just damn cooler. In fact, the only thing that keeps Dave from being the least interesting figure in his own story is the presence of an even less-defined superhero in the form of Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the alter ego of Chris D'Amico, son of the local ganglord Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong) and Dave's classmate.

There are plenty of opportunities for the film to make some sort of commentary on a number of subjects: it notices, but does not care, that Dave is almost more infatuated with his status as an online celebrity than with stopping crime, and it sure does seem at a number of points that it's going to be about the real-world effects of fantasy violence. But instead of any thematic niceties - to say nothing at all about character development - Kick-Ass just wants to focus on action and dazzlement, as befits its title. While that single-handedly means that it can't approach the top-tier of superhero movies, such as Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (which nimbly address both the psychological and reality-of-violence themes that Kick-Ass boldly eschews), it could still have been a fun popcorn-type movie; who doesn't like a good action setpiece? Let's set aside for the moment how many of them seem to teeter on the edge of child abuse.

Vaughn used to be a good director, once; his Layer Cake was one of the finest British gangster films of the '00s. But then the genially limp Stardust happened, and though he went to a lot of personal trouble to make Kick-Ass a reality - in addition to co-writing the screenplay with Jane Goldman, he more or less paid for the film out of his own pocket - he doesn't have any particularly fresh take on what is, all in all, fairly standard material. The best that the film's fΓͺted violence sequences can achieve is to rip-off the work of Quentin Tarantino (Vaughn goes so far as to use an Ennio Morricone cue from For a Few Dollars More), though with neither the cartoon elegance of Kill Bill nor the apocalyptic energy of Inglourious Basterds. If watching Moretz spin like a dervish and maul several grown men can possibly be drowsy, well that is just what Kick-Ass manages. It's this, more than anything else, that makes me lose interest in actually mounting a moral argument against the movie: it's just not rousing enough to be wicked.

There are some good flashes: Cage, channeling Adam West, is outstanding (and coming so soon after The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, I wonder if we're at the cusp of a Cage Renaissance?), Moretz, so godawful annoying in (500) Days of Summer, has a certain spiciness about her; and the cinematography by Vaughn's regular Ben Davis has at least the merit of being very unlike what we expect to see in a superhero movie, often indulging in contrast just for the sake of it. Moreover, there is little that is genuinely bad: only Dave/Kick-Ass's own profound lack of affect and depth serves to make the film worse than it is. By and large, Kick-Ass is just straight down the middle, none too exciting and perfunctory. It wants to be edgy and nasty and delightfully cruel, but that very certainty in its own cleverness forbids it from being anything else than so much clockwork.