I keep wondering when we might get our true cinematic Watchmen. When Watchmen came out in the mid-1980s, it revolutionized the comic book industry. It was a deconstruction of the cliches and conventions of the genre that really turned everything on its ear. It was the first of the "grim and gritty" style of comics that's still being felt to this very day. Which is why Watchmen: The Movie didn't have as much impact as Watchmen: The Comic. By the time we got our movie version, it felt like just another "grim and gritty" comic that we've enjoyed for the past 25 years. So that's what I mean when I wonder when we'll get our true cinematic Watchmen....when will we get a movie that deconstructs the cliches and conventions of the superhero film and does for the superhero film what Watchmen did for superhero comics.
And, of course, one of the ways that Watchmen went about it was ask the question: "How would the real world react to superheroes?" It's such a simple question...superheroes in the real world. And one recent superhero movie that tried to tackle that question was Kick-Ass.
Kick-Ass was the creation of comic book writer Mark Millar. It's one of his own creations, and he owns it, and it was published by Marvel comics under one of their indie labels. And it was because of the Marvel connection that it came to the attention of British film director Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn got his start producing some of Guy Ritchie's early films. He eventually broke into director with the critically acclaimed crime thriller Layer Cake. He'd been circling the Marvel universe for a while. He was the original choice to direct X-Men: The Last Stand, but he left that project when he got the opportunity to do one of his pet projects: an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Stardust. And he was in negotiations to direct Thor, but when he met Millar in the halls of Marvel Comics and read Kick-Ass, Vaughn decided he'd much rather do Kick-Ass. So, he bought the rights to Kick-Ass from Millar and started shopping it around Hollywood. But...Hollywood was not receptive. We'll get into why a little later. So, Vaughn resolved to make the whole thing independently, and find a distributor when he finished making the film. He made it, then started shopping the finished product around Hollywood, Lionsgate bought it to distribute, and it hit theatres in April of 2010.
Vaughn did eventually end up in the Marvel Universe when, after Kick-Ass, he was asked by Bryan Singer to direct X-Men: First Class. And the Marvel connection kind of continues into my personal life, as I first saw this in the theaters as a double-feature with Iron Man 2.
But yes...it seeks to answer the question, "Why aren't their superheroes in the real world?" a question asked by our hero, Dave. As Dave explains in his opening narration, he's a typical teenager. He's not in any specific clique or fit any stereotype...he just exists. It's just him and his Dad...his Mom keeled over and died from an aneurism at the breakfast table one morning. And as Dave says, all he pretty much learned from that was that life goes on. But that core question, "Why hasn't anyone ever tried to be a superhero?" plagues him, and he asks his friends about it one day. And something snaps inside Dave. He decides that he will become a superhero.
He fashions himself a superhero costume out of a wetsuit he bought online and he starts wearing it under his clothes and spends his evenings patrolling the rooftops. Eventually, he figures it's time to try it out for real, and he stumbles across two punks trying to steal a car. He dons his mask, confronts the robbers, and promptly gets his ass handed to him. He gets a knife in the belly for his troubles, and he's hit by a car as he's stumbling for help. Before he loses consciousness, he begs the paramedics to remove his superhero costume so no one will know that he was out playing superhero.
So, Dave gets out of the hospital a few weeks later, with his bones held together by screws and metal plates, and he also now has some "messed-up nerve endings" that give him a higher tolerance to pain. Needless to say, things are also awkward at school. Because the paramedics kept their mouths shut about the superhero costume, the official report says that Dave was found naked. So the rumor quickly spreads that Dave is gay and was the victim of a hate crime. The unexpected upside of this is the girl Dave was always crushing on is now into him, as she "always wanted a gay BFF." Some might say this is enough, but not for Dave. And it's not long before he's suiting up again and once again patrolling the streets as his superhero alter-ego, Kick-Ass.
While on patrol one night, Kick-Ass happens upon three muggers beating up one guy. Kick-Ass steps in to break up the fight, he and the three muggers have an epic beat down, and Kick-Ass happens to come out on top. Of course, the whole thing was filmed by passers-by on their cellphones, and it gets uploaded to YouTube, where Kick-Ass becomes a viral sensation. Dave sets up an official MySpace page for Kick-Ass where people can send him messages for help.
And even when this film came out in 2010, me and the rest of the audience were all like, "MySpace? Man, this movie is so old."
Anyway, as Dave gets to know Katie (his crush who thinks he's gay) a little bit better, he learns that she volunteers down at the local needle exchange, and that she's frequently harassed by an ex-boyfriend/low-level drug dealer. Dave decides to confront this creep as Kick-Ass to get him to start leaving Katie alone. But, of course, things go sour, and as the villains are about to deliver the deathblow, Kick-Ass is saved by Hit Girl.
Ah, yes, Hit Girl. Apparently, she's the main reason why very few in Hollywood wanted to touch this property. Apparently, the thought of a 12-year old girl who's a vigilante who curses like a sailor while she gleefully disembowels evil-doers was just a little too much for most Hollywood executives. Hit Girl was played by current tween superstar Chloe Grace Moritz, and this was one of her first big starring roles.
Back to the plot. After Hit Girl saves Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass meets Hit Girl's partner and father, Big Daddy, played by Nicholas Cage. I've got to admit, Cage is pretty good here. When he's in costume as Big Daddy, who looks very much like a homemade Batman, he adopts this Adam West voice. It's just so funny. But after seeing Hit Girl and Big Daddy lay waste to these villains, Kick-Ass is freaked out, fears he's in over his head, and is ready to hang it up.
At this point, we're treated to Big Daddy's back story. He was an honest cop, coming down hard on local drug lord and crime kingpin Frank D'Amico. D'Amico had this cop framed for drug dealing, and he went to prison for 5 years. The cop's wife was so overcome with depression at this that she committed suicide. But, she was pregnant, and doctors were able to save the baby. When the cop got out of prison, he was able to claim his daughter, and started training her to be Hit Girl, while he became Big Daddy, and they swore to take down D'Amico once and for all...no matter the cost.
And Big Daddy and Hit Girl have been doing a good job of putting the squeeze on D'Amico. He's starting to get twitchy about this masked vigilante taking down his empire. And since Kick-Ass is all over the news, D'Amico naturally assumes it's Kick-Ass. While his usual methods of taking down his enemies aren't working on Kick-Ass, D'Amico's son Chris comes up with an idea. I find Chris interesting. He desperately wants to follow in his dad's footsteps and become a crimelord himself, but his father just seems so...indifferent towards the whole thing. Being a comic book geek, Chris says that the way to draw out a superhero, is with another superhero. So, with funding from his father, Chris becomes the hero Red Mist, and by (fake) taking down some of his father's low-level goons, the news is all about Red Mist.
Thanks to that MySpace page, Red Mist reaches out to Kick-Ass and proposes a superhero team-up. Kick-Ass obliges, and after a night hanging out on the town, they decide to check out this one girl who asked for help...but it's really a trap, as D'Amico's thugs are waiting there. However, when Kick-Ass and Red Mist arrive, they find the whole place in flames. Turns out Big Daddy got there first and took out D'Amico's thugs. After rushing into the burning building to search for survivors, Kick-Ass and Red Mist escape, and Kick-Ass is once again convinced that he's in over his head and vows to give up this life. But before he finishes, he decides to unveil his true identity to Katie and admit that he's not gay. Katie seems to be very understanding about this, and they promptly hook-up.
I have a bit of a problem with this. Apparently, in the original comic, rather than hooking up, Katie promptly brands Dave a creep and a perv, and gets her boyfriend to beat him up. And, if you're going to stick with the "superheroes in the real world" concept, I do believe that's a more realistic reaction. But hey, this is Hollywood, right? So the hero's got to get the girl.
And now that he's got the girl, Dave is ready to hang it up and go back to being a normal teenager. But the world is not done yet. Red Mist was able to save some security cam footage from the warehouse fire, and D'Amico finally sees that Big Daddy is the superhero he's after, not Kick-Ass. Red Mist admits that Kick-Ass told him that there are other superheros out there, and perhaps Kick-Ass can draw them out.
Once again, Kick-Ass and Red Mist meet up. Red Mist says that D'Amico's thugs are after him, and that they need back-up. Kick-Ass then summons Big Daddy and Hit Girl for assistance. Kick-Ass and Red Mist head to Big Daddy's lair, but of course, D'Amico's thugs tail them. As soon as they arrive, Red Mist blows away Hit Girl, and D'Amico's thugs overpower and capture Big Daddy and Kick-Ass.
To send a message to anyone else out there who might think about becoming a superhero, D'Amico plans to have Big Daddy and Kick-Ass tortured to death on a live web feed. The entire city watches the web feed, horrified at the brutal punishment D'Amico's thugs dish out on these two heroes. But, it turns out Hit Girl lived, thanks to some body armor, and she shows up to take down the thugs and rescue Big Daddy and Kick-Ass. Sadly, though, she's too late to save her father, and Big Daddy dies in her arms.
Hit Girl and Kick-Ass return to Big Daddy and Hit-Girl's home. While Dave once again resolves that he's done with this, Hit Girl decides to finish what her father started and that tonight, it ends. Of course, she guilts Kick-Ass into helping her. The two lead one final assault on D'Amico's penthouse, with Hit Girl unleashing all her power and fury, and I've got to admit, this is a pretty awesome fight scene. But, the goons get the upper hand, and when it looks like all is lost for Hit Girl, Kick-Ass swoops in on a jet pack armed with Gatling guns, and saves Hit Girl. We have one final fight, where Hit Girl does battle with D'Amico to avenge her father, and Kick-Ass dukes it out with Red Mist to punish him for his betrayal. Everything ends when Kick-Ass knocks out Red Mist, and then blows away D'Amico with a bazooka.
With evil punished, it's time for these masked heroes to retire. Kick-Ass once again becomes Dave and walks off into the sunset with Katie. Hit Girl, for the first time, can be Mindy and goes to school for real. And, to set up the sequel, coming this summer, Dave mentions in his closing narration that he and Hit Girl inspired dozens of real life superheroes that now patrol the streets, but, the final shot is of Red Mist, vowing to avenge his father by becoming the world's first super-villain.
And that's Kick Ass. Kick Ass suffers from what I've come to call "The Shrek Conundrum." Many years ago, I read an interview with Shrek's director Andrew Adamson, who lamented that his one regret with Shrek was that, in order to bring their fairy tale movie to a satisfying conclusion, they had to switch gears about 2/3rds of the way through from mocking the cliches and conventions of the genre to embracing them. And it's the same thing with Kick Ass. While you believe this could be taking place in the real world, once you start seeing the spectacular fights that Hit Girl pulls off, and we have a hero swooping in on a jet pack, it starts to become just another superhero movie.
But don't get me wrong, it's still a very entertaining film, and very funny as well. From the Adam-West-Batman-ish Big Daddy, to D'Amico's goons, who get dangerously close to bumbling cartoon henchmen.
It wanted to be the cinematic Watchmen, but fell a little short. So I'm still waiting for that epic film that will turn the superhero genre on its ear.
Until then, I'll just sit here and groove to the film's awesome opening credits song.