4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“With No Power Comes No Responsibility” — Kick-Ass

Mark Millar sold the film rights to his four-issue comic miniseries Kick-Ass before the first issue was even published, and before the miniseries, which was drawn by John Romita Jr., was completed.

Inspired by conversations Millar had with his friends as a teenager wondering why no one had ever tried to become a superhero in real life, Millar’s goal with Kick-Ass was to take those conversations and see what would happen if a kid decided to actually put that thought to an action. It’s pretty much what the original Nite Owl decided to do in the 1930s in Watchmen, except for the Internet age.

Millar’s comic and Matthew Vaughn’s film both were finished simultaneously, though both worked toward the same general ending.

Vaughn met Millar at the premiere for the former’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, and the development of the film was far more collaborative than the usual adaptation process. (In fact, it was not dissimilar to the manner in which Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick collaborated on 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Clarke writing the novel expansion of the story “The Sentinel” alongside Kubrick’s adapting it for film.)

The similarities between comic and film are most obvious in the early parts, with the stories diverging in the climactic portions—though the basic story remains the same.

The cast includes Aaron Johnson in the title role and Evan Peters as his friend Todd—both would later go on to play a version of Quicksilver, Johnson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Peters in the X-Men films. Nicolas Cage, fresh off two Ghost Rider films, plays Big Daddy; Lyndsy Fonseca, later to play Angie Martinelli in the Agent Carter TV series, plays Katie Deauxma; Mark Strong, whom Vaughn would use in the two Kingsmen movies, plays D’Amico; Yancy Butler (late of Witchblade) has a brief role as D’Amico’s wife.

Vaughn had tremendous difficulty financing the film, as most studios felt the film was too violent, especially given that children were involved. (Chloë Grace Moretz was only thirteen, and looked younger, while playing the foul-mouthed, ultra-violent Hit Girl.) Some studios wanted to tone down the violence, while others wanted to make the characters older. As it was, Hit Girl was older in the movie than she was in the comics, probably because finding a ten-year-old to play the role who could actually act would have been problematic.

Unwilling to compromise on these points, Vaughn pursued independent funding, with Lionsgate eventually agreeing to distribute. The film wound up being a hit, and also was one of the most illegally downloaded films of all time, perhaps inspired in part by the viral marketing campaign Millar and Romita Jr. engaged in. They uploaded a version of the video of Kick-Ass getting into a fight from both comic and film to YouTube, and created a real version of Kick-Ass’s MySpace page.

 

“Fuck this shit, I’m getting the bazooka”

Kick-Ass
Written by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Produced by Matthew Vaughn and Brad Pitt and Kris Thykier and Adam Bohling and Tarquin Pack and David Reid
Original release date: March 26, 2010

Dave Lizewski is an ordinary kid in Queens who likes to read superhero comic books, fantasize about his English teacher, and not much else. The child of a single parent—his mother died of an aneurysm at the kitchen table—Lizewski one day orders a green scuba suit off eBay and, along with a baton, decides to become a superhero.

His first foray is to go after the bullies who regularly steal his lunch money, and he gets himself beaten and stabbed. As he’s taken the emergency room, he begs the paramedics to remove his costume and not tell anyone about it.

By the time he recovers, his nervous system is damaged to the point that he feels very little pain, and he also has metal plates in his bones. He’s even more determined to be a superhero now, and he trains himself in a very haphazard and mediocre manner. Oh, and now he has two batons.

Meanwhile, we see another couple of costumed vigilantes: Damon McReady and his young daughter Mindy, who dress up as Big Daddy and Hit Girl. Big Daddy regularly quizzes Hit Girl on weapons trivia, and Hit Girl asks for a butterfly knife for her birthday. Big Daddy also shoots her in the chest while she’s wearing kevlar so she’ll get used to the experience. Big Daddy is an ex-cop who was framed for taking bribes and served a five-year sentence. His pregnant wife OD’d, but Mindy survived, and McReady’s partner, Marcus Williams, raised Mindy until McReady got out of jail. McReady was framed by a gangster named Frank D’Amico, and now Big Daddy and Hit Girl are determined to do everything they can to destroy D’Amico.

Because he was taken to the ER without his clothes, a rumor has spread around school that Lizewski is gay. Katie Deauxma, the girl he has a crush on, now starts talking to him, apparently wanting him to be her gay friend. Since it allows him to talk to her (including applying a fake tan to her naked torso), he plays along.

He goes out again as Kick-Ass, defending a person being beat up by three other guys. While Kick-Ass himself gets pretty badly hurt, he impresses the nearby crowd, many of whom film the event on their cell phones. The videos go viral, and Kick-Ass becomes a major folk hero.

Deauxma does charity work, and she got involved with a drug dealer (who works for D’Amico) who now won’t leave her alone. Lizewski encourages Deauxma to e-mail Kick-Ass and ask for his help, which she does. He goes as Kick-Ass to the drug dealer’s lair and hits the guy with a taser. That just pisses him off, but before he can shoot Kick-Ass, Hit Girl shows up and kills everyone in the place while Kick-Ass looks on in shock.

Big Daddy stays in reserve with a sniper rifle, taking out one guard who almost kills Hit Girl. She apologizes for screwing that up.

After Big Daddy and Hit Girl leave, a devastated Kick-Ass goes home, not sure what to make of these two.

D’Amico is royally pissed at losing an entire stash house. (Hit Girl made off with the money and drugs.) He mistakenly thinks Kick-Ass is the one responsible, and when he sees someone in a Kick-Ass costume, he mistakes him for the genuine article (it’s an actor hired to be Kick-Ass at a party) and kills him.

When he realizes that he killed a fake, D’Amico throws a tantrum, but his son Chris has a plan. He can pretend to be a hero named Red Mist and befriend Kick-Ass and maybe find out his secrets. Red Mist “captures” one of D’Amico’s goons and that gives him street cred; then he contacts Kick-Ass.

They drive around the city together, patrolling, and Red Mist takes him to one of his father’s hideouts, a lumber factory, in order to unmask him. But they arrive to find the place on fire, and a ton of D’Amico’s goons dead.

D’Amico thinks this is Kick-Ass again, but Red Mist sets him straight, as Kick-Ass is just some dweeb, and besides, he was with Red Mist when the attack happened. Red Mist set up the nanny-cam D’Amico had used on Chris when he was an infant, and it recorded what went down in the lumber factory: Big Daddy killed everyone and set the place on fire.

Lizewski is tired of being Kick-Ass, and doesn’t think he can do it anymore. He reveals the truth to Deauxma, who, for reasons passing understanding, forgives him for lying about being gay and falls into bed with him. While he does give up being Kick-Ass, he decides to check the web site, only to find urgent e-mails from Red Mist.

Telling Deauxma he has one last Kick-Ass thing to do, he goes to Red Mist who says that someone targeted him. He needs help from the other superheroes he mentioned, and Kick-Ass gets in touch with Big Daddy and Hit Girl. As soon as they arrive at Big Daddy’s hideout, Red Mist shoots Hit Girl and D’Amico’s goons take Kick-Ass and Big Daddy hostage. (Red Mist isn’t happy about Kick-Ass being taken, as he’s his friend, but he goes along with it once D’Amico makes it clear that he will let him in on the family business, finally.)

Letting local news know that Kick-Ass is planning a livestream to unmask himself, the whole city watches only to discover that D’Amico’s goons are going to beat both Big Daddy and Kick-Ass to death over the Internet as a lesson to anyone who wants to be a hero.

However, Red Mist didn’t check the body—Hit Girl survived the gunshot thanks to her kevlar outfit, and followed the bad guys to their headquarters. She kills everyone and rescues Kick-Ass—sadly, she is unable to save her father, who dies of his injuries, saying he’s proud of her.

Kick-Ass and Hit Girl return to Big Daddy’s headquarters. Kick-Ass wants to just go home and forget he was ever a superhero, but Hit Girl insists on finishing what she and her father started. Kick-Ass goes along, and they assault D’Amico’s home. (Among the toys they employ are a jetpack with Gatling gun attachments that Big Daddy bought for Hit Girl, though Kick-Ass is the one who uses it.) Hit Girl kills most of D’Amico’s goons, while Kick-Ass nails a few as well. Kick-Ass fights Red Mist to a draw, and Hit Girl struggles to fight D’Amico, who’s a black belt, but Kick-Ass manages to kill the gangster with a bazooka.

Williams adopts Hit Girl and enrolls her in Lizewski’s school so Lizewski can keep an eye on her, though she very much can take care of herself. Kick-Ass is officially retired, and he’s still dating Deauxma. Red Mist, meanwhile, has taken over his Dad’s criminal empire and has a new costume.

 

 

“I hate getting punched in the chest”

There are aspects of this movie that I love. The entire setup is a fun notion, taking the conceit of Watchmen one step further by not even having Dr. Manhattan. Nobody in this movie has superpowers or strange abilities far beyond those of mortal humans, they’re just people. Nobody’s ability is out of the range of possibility.

At least at first. As the movie progresses, Kick-Ass and Hit Girl both get more and more unconvincingly skilled, and I still want to know how the heck someone can fire two Gatling guns from a jetpack without flipping over backward from the recoil. And I only point that out because up until that point, the movie had been pretty good about realism in the fight scenes. This isn’t Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen where the fights are all beautifully choreographed (well, Hit Girl’s are, but she’s also been obsessively trained by a crazy person). Kick-Ass’s fights are sloppy, undisciplined, and he usually comes out of them beaten and bloody. Hell, he never actually wins a hand-to-hand fight onscreen. When he saves the guy getting beat up by three other guys, he actually gets his, um, ass kicked, but at the very least he distracts the aggressors long enough for the cops to show up and to keep the victim from being too injured. Every other fight he either gets his head handed to him, and/or has to have his bacon saved by Hit Girl.

The only fight he wins is at the very end when he’s armed with a jetpack/Gatling gun and then later with a bazooka.

What’s appealing truly about the movie is the uniquely 21st-century aspect of the whole thing, which is the role of online media. The only reason Kick-Ass becomes a phenomenon is because the video of him jumping in to save a guy from getting beaten up goes viral. It isn’t his skill as a hero that makes him famous, it’s his desire to be a hero that does so. The most important part of the video isn’t him wading into the fight. Rather it’s his response to the goon who asks why he’s getting the shit kicked out of him for someone he doesn’t know. His reply: “Three assholes, laying into one guy, while everyone else watches, and you wanna know what’s wrong with me?”

That’s what I like about the movie, and particularly the character of Lizewski. He is partly getting into this for fun and because he has no interesting life otherwise. But his impulse always is heroic—which makes him unique among the heroes we do meet. Big Daddy and Hit Girl are both obsessively insane, Red Mist is actually a bad guy pretending to be a hero, and the winged guy we see at the beginning of the movie, whose wings don’t work as we learn when he plummets to his doom, is just insane.

I also love most of the performances. Johnson absolutely sells the character’s overwhelming ordinariness, which makes him more appealing. He’s not special, he’s just a teenager, but one who has a desire to help people in some weird way, preferably in a manner that fulfills his childhood fantasies. Strong is, as always, brilliant as D’Amico, absolutely reveling in the role of gangster (I particularly love his epic rant on the insanity of someone hiring an actor to be Kick-Ass at a kid’s party), as is Michael Rispoli as his not-too-bright second in command. Omari Hardwick does the best he can with the exposition-heavy role of Williams, and Fonseca does likewise with a thankless romantic female lead part that is generally awful (more on that in a bit).

But the breakout star of this movie—from the moment the first trailer aired and we saw her kicking ass (sorry, it’s just too easy) to the tune of the theme to The Banana Splits—is Moretz as Hit Girl. She is just brilliant, a delightful mix of sweet little kid and action-movie star. I particularly love her trying very hard not to cry when D’Amico slams her into the desk, as it’s the first time in the movie that she’s actually been hurt unexpectedly. It’s a stellar performance, and the whole movie is worth it for her. (And sure enough, half the little girls at comic cons in 2010 and 2011 were cosplaying as Hit Girl.)

Not all the performances are so strong, though. Peters, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Clark Duke all play basically the same nerdy snarky dude you want to punch repeatedly in the throat and it grows tiresome.

And Nicolas Cage continues his descent into incoherence that we already saw in Ghost Rider and especially Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Allegedly, he was channeling the Adam West Batman when he played Big Daddy, but his stutter-step style of speech and awkward laughter mostly just feels like someone who’s never acted before and is struggling with the entire concept. It’s a dreadful performance, one that drags the movie down considerably, especially since he’s mostly paired up with the magnificent Moretz.

The other problem with this movie is that every departure it makes from the comics is a bad one. For starters, the entire story is predicated on brutal realism, so having a jetpack with a Gatling gun is just absurd. (Hell, having a jetpack is absurd—there’s a reason we don’t have those in real life, starting with the fact that the jet would burn your ass right off if you used it.) In the comic, Big Daddy isn’t an ex-cop whose wife was killed by corrupt cops—that’s what he claims he is, mind you, but you find out at the end that he’s a divorced accountant who kidnapped his daughter and trained her to be Hit Girl because he thought it would be more interesting to be superheroes. It’s a brilliant twist, one that would have made the entire theme—that the reason why people don’t dress up and become vigilantes is because it’s insanely dangerous—come together nicely. And in the comic, it does, but in the movie, it’s Just Another Revenge Plot like every other action movie. Snore.

In the comic, we don’t know that Red Mist is a bad guy until he reveals it to Kick-Ass, which is much more effective (and interesting) than watching Chris be a putz for most of the movie until he decides to play dress-up. As it is, the entire deception has no bite to it in the movie because we know about it all along.

Much worse, though, is the resolution of Lizewski and Deauxma’s relationship. When Lizewski comes clean and tells her that he (a) isn’t gay and (b) is really Kick-Ass, her response to finding out that he’s been lying to her (on two different levels!) for weeks is to—forgive him and invite him to her bed? Er, no, she should throw his lying ass out with all due dispatch.

And in the comics, that’s what happens, because in the comics Deauxma is a thinking human with a brain and agency and self-respect. In the movie, Deauxma is a prize to be won, a pair of tits that it’s Lizewski’s reward to be able to fondle because he’s become a superhero. It’s revolting, and gives us Just Another Romantic Subplot That Ends With The Man “Getting” The Girl, because that’s all girls are good for. Snore.

The movie is generally well put together, has some great performances, and is full of some delightful homages to other movies, from Lizewski ripping open his shirt while running down an alley (Superman) to “say hello to my little friend!” (Scarface) to “wait till they get a load of me” (Batman) to Kick-Ass admonishing the viewer for thinking he won’t die because he’s doing a voiceover (with explicit references to Sunset Boulevard, Sin City, and American Beauty), and so on. But it’s only a good movie, and it could’ve been a great one.

 

Next week, we look at the 2013 sequel, Kick-Ass 2.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be selling and signing books at RocCon in Rochester, New York this weekend. Other guests include actors Denise Crosby, Tim Russ, Vic Mignogna, Alison MacInnis, Chester Rushing, Taimak, and Steve Cardenas; wrestler Brutus Beefcake; author Alec Frazier; artists Mark Sparacio, Ken Hunt, Will Torres, Joe Orsak, and Eugene Commodore; and bunches more. Come by and say hi!

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