On Monday night I was fortunate enough to have obtained a pass to the advance premiere of “Kick-Ass,” the new movie based on the comic book written by Mark Millar and drawn by John Romita, Jr. Of all the movies I wish I had seen before making my latest movie, this is the one that fit’s the category best.
The story is a Campbellian hero’s journey that takes the concept of “what if a real person tried to be a superhero” to the dirtiest, most violent, foul-mouthed, and glorious degree.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, it goes sorta like this: A high school student comic book geek wonders why no one has ever really tried to be a superhero. Of course this kid and his friends are regularly pushed around and ignored by girls, and muggers don’t even have to threaten them with violence. One day he buys a scuba suit and tries to be a superhero. It doesn’t work out, but he doesn’t give up. His example inspires others, and he winds up in a deadly, violent confrontation with an organized crime boss. People die, and he finds the hero within himself and becomes a man.
“Comic book movies,” that is, movies based on comic books or comic book characters, come in two varieties these days. There are those that are based on a character, usually with a long publishing history, and try to build a movie around the concept (with varying degrees of seriousness and success), ie: Superman, Bat Man, Spider-Man, etc. Then there are those that are based on specific comic book stories or graphic novels; A History of Violence, Sin City, Watchmen, Etc. Those of the latter kind seem to have a higher rate of success, both as movies and as adaptations, and this movie, fortunately, fits that pattern.
The casting of the movie is excellent; combining perfect talent (Aaron Johnson, Chloe Moretz) and some inspired “gimmick casting” (Nicholas Cage, Christoher Mintz-Plasse). As the hero, Johnson’s face echoes Toby Maguire’s “gee, something good actually happened to me” cockeyed half-smile, combining cultural reference with endearing honesty. Cage, as the ultimate badass superhero, does some of his best work as a mild-mannered father, and hits all the right notes imitating the delivery of a noted 1960’s TV actor. Mintz-Plasse brings a surprising darkness to a role that seems like a development of his character in “Role Models.”
There are differences between the movie and the book. Some of them are simply matters of the necessary structural difference between a movie and an 8-issue comic series. As Mark Millar stated in the Q&A after the screening, the miniseries was an eight-act structure, while a movie has a three-act structure. Some of the differences, though, were blatantly involving the difference between what you can do in a comic book and what you need to do to sell a movie. Millar pointed out that one change (and a very drastic one, I thought) was instituted because they simply needed to have some sex in the movie.
Another change was a bit more of a trade-off than a pander to the masses. There is a moment in the comic book where the hero makes a moment of immense personal sacrifice, paying off a setup from very early in the story and showing the character take control of a situation unlike he had ever done before in his life. That scene was eliminated in the movie, allowing for a touching moment between a father and daughter. This gave more of the movie to another character, and made it less about the titular hero. The hero did get to have his hero moment later, but it was not as strong and significant as the one in the book.
The audience, packed with fans of comics in general and the original comic in particular, ate this movie up with a spoon. They cheered and laughed at all the right moments. I happened to be sitting between two women who were not fans, and they seemed a little shocked at some of the violence, though at they end they admitted it was a good movie. I agree that the gun violence does get a little gratuitous at times, but this is not a movie for the weak of heart. Life and death can be an ugly, unforgiving business, and by not skimping on the blood and violence, they show how far you have to go if you really want to be a hero.
And that’s what heroism is about. It’s about taking your lumps for something you believe in. The hero, Kick-Ass, believes in fighting for decency, protecting the weak, saving lives, and helping people. Even in the face of death, he keeps true to his beliefs, and takes his lumps.
In my movie, “Redemption,” the main character proves that he is willing to take his lumps to be the best that he can be. This movie is the grittiest, gutsiest, most literal expression of that I have ever seen.