Director Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass didn't exactly run roughshod over How to Train Your Dragon at the box office last weekend. It only beat it for the top spot by a small margin. But, it signals an interesting direction for movies adapted from comics. The book is from Marvel's Icon--an imprint for creator-owned comics--so let's not kid ourselves. This isn't some kind of victory for the underground. But, Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. sold the rights to the film at the same time as the comic, which is pretty great for a creator-owned book that doesn't have all of the Marvel muscle behind it. As a result, it mostly follows the comic while branching out on its own--sometimes for the better. That faithfulness--and the minor controversy the film has generated--shows that comics have it pretty good as far as creative freedom compared to other mediums. One warning: this week's No-Fly Zone is rife with spoilers, so you might want to see Kick-Ass first if you haven't yet.
If this isn't your first time at Mania.com, you probably know the story behind Kick-Ass (the comic, though the two are almost inseparably similar) High school student Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson, in the film) decides to become a superhero after a lifetime of reading comics. He promptly gets his ass beat and lands in the hospital after the police find him naked in the streets, having stripped his costume off. At his second attempt, he saves a man from a gang attack and a video of the action lands on Myspace. Suddenly, Dave Lizewski is really popular--at least as Kick-Ass. His life at school isn't much better. His crush, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca, in the movie), adopts Dave as her gay best friend after a rumor circulates that he was out hooking (the whole naked in the streets bit, excised from the movie). So, everybody loves Kick-Ass and nobody knows Dave. And, they think he's a gay prostitute. Dave rolls with it and sets up a Myspace page where people can ask for help. In one job gone nearly awry, he meets Hit-Girl (Chloë Moretz). She's a ten-year-old girl who, along with her father, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), dresses like a superhero and kills criminals in a manner that would make Frank Castle jealous. Kick-Ass has inadvertently started a trend, whereby normal people become superheroes. More emerge, including Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who wants to team up with Kick-Ass. Then, shit gets real. Kick-Ass is a damn entertaining comic, and well worth a read. Sure, the whole "real superheroes" thing has been done a bunch of times, but it's rarely this entertaining.
Kick-Ass the movie retains the tone and violence from the comic in a manner that most adaptations don't. Hit-Girl is still a ten-year-old vigilante sociopath that mows through mobsters like a muppet with a chain saw. Many of the shots from the film are right out of the comic, and in a way that feels very natural. As Kick-Ass was destined for the theaters from the start, the two sit more comfortably next to each other than other adaptations that are as direct. This is mostly because the film naturally drifts from the source material where necessary. In fact, some of the changes are improvements in their own right. First, the origin of Damon Macready--Big Daddy--is a straight-ahead revenge story. In the comic, we learn that his story--good cop, murdered wife, out for revenge--is a lie, and that he's just a comic geek living out a fantasy life with his daughter in tow. In the film, he was sent to jail after being framed by Frank D'Amico (John Genovese in the comic, played by Mark Strong here). His wife died in childbirth during his sentence, and he promptly trains her to help him as a vigilante after his release. And Jesus Christ, little Mindy Macready is a brilliant terror. She steals nearly every scene she's in, and highlights the absurd, deliciously repugnant tone of the film. Kick-Ass embraces its characters amoral or immoral actions for sick laughs and does so gleefully. Seriously, it begs you to criticize it so it can say you don't get it. Watching a kid bounce around the walls shooting and slashing criminals to the Dickies' "Banana Splits" has to be seen to be believed. The scene where her father shoots her while she's wearing Kevlar is sick and wrong in all the right ways. Kick-Ass is, in its own right, similar to Sin City, Watchmen, and Punisher: War Zone in that it carries the violence from page to screen faithfully. Once in a while, mainstream audiences see what comic readers revel in every Wednesday--a bastion of creative freedom where a child vigilante is nothing shocking.
But, Kick-Ass does a nice job of keeping in step with enough quirky comedies to make it accessible. It lifts a lot from Judd Apatow's movies, with a bit of old-school Kevin Smith nerdy slice-of-life stuff thrown in. There's more dramedy here than in the comic, and some of it's a lot happier. Dave tells Katie that he isn't gay much earlier in the story. Rather than reject him and send him lewd pictures, she accepts him. The comic ends on a bit of a downer note in that regard, as we see Dave go back to being a regular schlub. But, the film throws him a bone in that he and Katie stay together. It's arguable whether it serves the story better or not, but it's certainly happier for the viewer, which is appropriate enough for a comedy.
Kick-Ass (the movie) has two main problems, one of which it shares with the comic. The first is the Red Mist subplot. In short, Kick-Ass's friend and fellow superhero turns out to be the main mob boss's son. He only becomes a superhero to lure Dave in so that his father's men can execute him, along with Big Daddy and Hit Girl. In the comic, we don't learn this until the climax. We don't really see this coming, whereas in the film, it's explained from the beginning. D'Amico's son, Chris, suggests the idea, and uses his father's money to outfit himself as a crime-fighter. This gives Mintz-Plasse a more prominent role in the story, but rather than shock the audience along with Dave, it makes us watch uneasily as he walks into a trap. It's not an unforgivable change, but one wonders why it was necessary.
The other problem with Kick-Ass is one carried over from the comic, but made worse. So, superheroes are real. That's great. Both the comic and the film show Dave wearing a wetsuit for a costume and getting his ass beat quite a few times, which is what would probably happen in real life. But, Big Daddy and Hit Girl swing things towards more traditional superhero fare. They're well-funded, highly-trained, and extremely effective. And, their costumes don't look as homemade as Dave's. The sort of vicious precision they bring is more in line with any Marvel comic, minus the super-powers. It's more like Frank Castle and his daughter--a comparison Kick-Ass himself makes. But, fine, whatever, it's not impossible. However, the high-flying, crazed acrobatics, gadgets, and action-flick gunplay are ratcheted up to 11 in the movie. Sure, in the comic Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl use handguns, swords, chair legs, and a flamethrower to take out a bunch of mobsters. It's over-the-top, but not so far removed that we can't buy it for 22 pages. In the film, Kick-Ass flies up in a damn jetpack to the office where Hit-Girl is fighting D'Amico and lights up the place with twin gattling guns. Then, he blows D'Amico out of the window with a bazooka. By this time, Kick-Ass has transitioned from a movie about "real" superheroes into a regular superhero movie--albeit a sort of postmodern, adult one with more in common with Watchmen than Spider-Man. That tonal shift really undermines all of the plausible high school comedy-romance that comes before it.
Kick-Ass (the movie) is a hell of a lot of fun, but it could've been even better if it hadn't strayed in the realism department. The idea of real superheroes begs to be explored even further on film, and this comes across as something of a missed opportunity. To ground it more would've meant sacrificing some of the over-the-top action and stylized camera work, but it might've worked better in the end. As it stands, it's a fun action comedy that feels like a breath of fresh air after seeing dozens of superhero flicks at the box office. Is it perfect? No, but it's damn good. You might even say it kicks ass.