Saw KICK-ASS about a month ago. Every year in Las Vegas, they hold ShoWest, sort of a Comic-Con International for movie theater owners (AKA exhibitors, in film distribution parlance), where exhibitors mingle with movie studio execs & film stars, discuss issues facing the film business, get the scoop on what's upcoming to their theaters over the next year or two and whatever else exhibitors do when they get together. (Unlike CCI, it's closed to the public.) And upcoming movies get screened, for exhibitors only. Usually.
This year Lionsgate Films screened KICK-ASS. Though not an exhibitor, through a weird array of connections I ended up with an invitation, and got in. Be glad you didn't. The term cluster**** leaps to mind.
The screening I mean. Not the movie. The screening took place in a performance theater in a strip casino, with a screen specially imported for the occasion. (The manufacturer used it as an opportunity to pitch his wares, emphasizing his company's new line of 3-D screens... and producers keep mentioning 3-D to me as well.) Somehow they completely lost control of attendance. Hordes of exhibitors, many half in the bag, wandering in and out flashing ShoWest badges like CIA security passes, making seating calculations impossible. Over an hour past the posted screening time, and things had finally settled down, I was seated, with the presentation yet to begin.
Imagine a popular San Diego Con screening. With beer. That was the atmosphere. Unlike San Diego, these weren't rabid fans chasing their obsessions or wanting the first glimpse of tomorrow's hits. These were mostly middle-aged men whose livelihoods rise and fall on what appears on that big screen. In very real ways, the footsoldiers in the front trenches of the film industry, and the ones quickest hit when the bombs explode overhead. Before the movie played, the venue was tinged with an odd mix of hope and fearsweat. And whiskey.
Which, now that I think of it, may characterize Mark Millar's ideal audience.
Lionsgate did a nice little dog-and-pony show prior to the screening, where, to the cheers and applause of exhibitors through the hall, the company, apparently with new upper management, reaffirmed its dedication to the theatrical film over sexy new venues like DVD, On Demand TV/Pay per view, and Internet distribution. None of this should be a shock; DVDs are in relative decline, pay per view is still not widely employed by the consumer except for sports events, and though it exists the technology of Internet delivery isn't sufficiently widespread to make Internet "broadcast" of films a guaranteed pleasant experience. (Plus Hollywood still isn't sure how to monetize such things, and fears Internet screenings will only facilitate more piracy.) Plus box office is clearly up, and it's clear Americans now look for any excuse to go to the movies. (Even closed circuit is coming back; UFC, figuring they were better off charging $10 a seat for a cc-airing of a recent fight pay-per-view on 50 foot screens than $50 for a TV pay-per-view that numerous guys might come over to one guy's house to watch. Not only was the closed circuit a big, profitable success for them, but the closed circuit audience overwhelmingly raved about the experience. Seems 50 foot screen beats 50 inch screen. Things are looking up for movie theaters.) But exhibitors gleefully ate it up. Lionsgate also touted KICK-ASS as the model for the films they intended to do in the future: higher budget than before, better production quality, better directors and actors, and films with broader appeal than the niche market almost-direct-to-DVD the company has largely delivered over the past couple decades.
Amusingly, as evidence of their commitment, they also screened the trailer for Sylvester Stallone's new summer blockbuster, a mercenary/conspiracy/buddy picture action film called THE EXPENDABLES, starring a who's who of past and current action stars and character actors: Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Steve Austin, Randy Couture, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Mickey Roarke, Danny Trejo, Eric Roberts – plus cameos by Bruce Willis and The Governator himself. I'm of mixed minds. On the one hand, it's Sylvester Stallone. On the other, it's the woefully underrated Jason Statham, and whoever put that trailer together really knew what they were doing. But the gist was clear: Lionsgate's new direction is crowd-pleasers, and they're willing to put a little money into them.
Then KICK-ASS screened, and when it was over, the place erupted. It's one thing to have Comic-Con stand up and applaud something like that. (And I have to say, I never really got the concept of applauding movies, unless the director or screenwriter or actors are right there in the room.) It's another to watch this crowd do it. Big smiles all around, quoting dialogue and raving up scenes to each other as they filed out, and you could almost see the $$ signs ka-chinging in their eyes like they were characters in old Warner Brothers cartoons.
But that wasn't surprising either. KICK-ASS should be huge. It's easily the best superhero film to date, pretty much everything SPIDER-MAN should've been but wasn't.
KICK-ASS the comic, co-created by Mark Millar & John S. Romita and published by Marvel's Icon label, was sort of the epitome of everything good and bad about creator-owned comics these days. Given license to go whatever crazy direction they chose, they chose something that played like a film pitch. I liked it fine, but, reading it, I could never quite shake the sense that it was only a comic because that was the best way to sell a movie. (And trust me, these days it pretty much is.) The high concept – what if someone tried to be a superhero in the real world? – was a con job. The real concept was "if superheroes existed in the real world and they were any good, you wouldn't know it because you'd never hear about them." Of course, there are no superheroes in KICK-ASS anyway, only people who wear superhero costumes, though the series maintains the conceit that while you might never become Superman or Spider-Man, if you trained hard enough, you could be Batman or Elektra or The Punisher. John's character designs highlight this cognitive schism: the costumes, intentionally, look grotesquely uncomfortable – they reflect Joel Schumacher's vision of superhero costumes, not Jack Kirby's – but there they are, leaping across rooftops and gliding violently through legions of mobsters. John can make virtually any script his art touches work, and he did that with KICK-ASS, but as the mini-series rolled on its internal contradictions only became more pronounced.
Under director Matthew Vaughn's hand, the film doesn't have these problems. Stylistically, Vaughn comes out of the Guy Ritchie school of filmmaking (to take the ambiguity out of that, I've yet to meet a Guy Ritchie film I didn't like), having previously directed the stylish Brit crime flick L4YER CAKE and produced many of Ritchie's projects. KICK-ASS is equally stylish, if set in a New York City waaay too overridden with crime. (Cops exist only as an afterthought in KICK-ASS, notable only for their utter inaction.) But Vaughn – and his script co-written with Jane Goodman and, according to rumor, the uncredited Millar – is brilliant at having his cake and eating it too. The script smoothes out the comic's rough edges and is often funny as hell, maybe the film's biggest selling point. It's another great example of the "tongue-in-cheek seriousness," for lack of a better term, that helped put IRON MAN over, and it may be the natural idiom for superhero film: they're easier to take seriously when you can laugh with them, not at them, and there's no instance that comes to mind when KICK-ASS stops taking itself seriously.
The film, like the comic, cheats right and left on its premise. Once donning his goofy costume, a mish-mash of scuba gear and ski mask, Kick-Ass quickly demonstrates why people are generally disinclined to wear costumes and fight crime in the real world. Once that point is made, though, the intro premise is thrown away so quickly it's like watching a stage magician make a prop vanish, and to the same effect: it draws the audience further into the show. The film is loaded with clichés – replacing the "Lois Lane adores Superman but thinks Clark Kent is a wimp" cliché may have been replaced with "Katie thinks Kick-Ass is cool but thinks Dave is her gay BFF, and he's going along with it to be near her," but it's still a cliché, it's just a Judd Apatow cliché – but knows how to pay off on them enough to make you willing to look the other way. It's a film that pretty much figures out its weaknesses in advance, and tries to turn them into strengths.
The actors carry a lot of the load. Aaron Johnson, currently grabbing a ton of praise for his portrayal of young John Lennon in NOWHERE BOY, does wonders with the potentially thankless title role, managing to never lose the character's core nebbishness. Mark Strong puts in another great villain role. I haven't liked Nicolas Cage in anything in maybe decades (haven't seen THE BAD LIEUTENANT remake yet) but he's terrific here, especially with a quirky bit that will have fans of the old BATMAN TV show in tears. (Of laughter.)
But the film really belongs to Chloe Moretz, whose about as close to a revelation as anything I've seen on film in years: imagine The Punisher as a giggly, foul-mouthed 11 year old girl who, when she isn't slicing and dicing her way through dens of drug dealers or engaging in hit and run night fights with criminal gangs, acts like an 11 year old girl. It was a cute idea in the comic, but... A long time ago in an interview, Gil Kane said:
"The trouble is films create absolute reality and comics don't. When you have two people fighting in a film, they're fighting (it makes no difference how badly, they're fighting to the extent of their abilities) but in comics a lot depends on the artist's ability to capture action."
Let's face it, drawings of an 11 year old girl saying and doing what Moretz does in KICK-ASS can never match the impact of actually watching an 11 year old girl saying and doing them. Despite the title, Moretz's Hit-Girl is the story's key figure, with the best action and the best lines. (Though Strong gets in probably my favorite line just before the end.) She's a shock. We don't get enough real shocks in films these days.
If the film cheats on practically every level, that's why it works. That's where much of the humor comes from. Kick-Ass doesn't become famous as a crimefighter but as a viral video. (Until the final scene, do we even see him fighting crime past his first Internet appearance? I forget.) When characters try to anticipate how "real world" superheroes will or should act, they resort to their only frame of reference – comic books – despite no natural law requiring people to behave like comic book characters when they put on comic book costumes. But we say "but of course" it because it's also our only frame of reference and in the logic of the film it makes sense: if you're trying to emulate comic book characters, you emulate comic book characters, and when the film finally makes the notion explicit we're already so deep into the magician's act that our instinct is to play along.
Things like make the movie work. And things like how all the main characters (except maybe Strong's fairly standard mob boss) have largely unspoken, but easily deciphered, drives pushing them. Or maybe it's the well-played cameos by actors like Dexter Fletcher and Jason Flemyng. (Probably not, but they help.) Maybe it's the well-choreographed fight scenes. At any rate, KICK-ASS fires on all cylinders, and it looks destined to be the date film of the Spring. (One caveat: while it's not constant, Vaughn likes him some blood, and where there's blood, there's lots of it.)
Is KICK-ASS an argument for making comics that are little more than film pitches? The question's pretty much moot these days, as everyone's doing it anyway, and many publishers are convinced that ticket sales, not comics sales, is their route to fame and fortune and insist on controlling all media rights even to creator owned material. But KICK-ASS the comic not only fronted an easily digestible high concept, it – this is the hard part – was crafted by Millar and Romita to demonstrate the film. They put together a story that was not only a relatively original take on superhero mythology that announced its respect for that mythology even as it made a show of pulling the wings off (Millar, for all his edgy post-punk authorial persona, is at heart a hardcore superhero fanboy, as was evident at least as early as his AUTHORITY run) but was also crafted to work as a movie. That's a lot trickier than it sounds, and most "comics movie pitches" don't seem to even recognize the latter as valuable. Personally, based on my own experience, I'd recommend forgetting about film pitches at all and just producing the best idea you can think of the way you want to see it done. (Believe it or not, Hollywood is perfectly capable of turning material into what they think is a workable film all by themselves.) But if you're going to do it, you may as well take a nod from KICK-ASS and do it right.
Steven Grant's Permanent Damage ran as a weekly column at Comic Book Resources for over nine years before going on hiatus in January, but Grant will return periodically as the urge strikes him.