'KICK-ASS' Proves With Great Power, Comes Great Adaptability

Kick-Ass - World Premiere


For all the talk of the box-office potency of comic book movie adaptations, the category is chock full of films that fell short in terms of critical and audience satisfaction. Simply put, a lot of comic book movies are disappointing.

The reasons why are many. Whether it be miscasting (”Superman Returns”), sloppy storytelling (“X-Men: The Last Stand”), slavish devotion (“Daredevil”) or just plain awful filmmaking (“Ghost Rider,” Both “Fantastic Four” movies, all three “Punisher” films), movies based on comics have a spotty track record in sending audiences out of the theater happy. The euphoria whenever an “Iron Man” or “The Dark Knight” manages to hit the critical and commercial bulls eye tends to mask the stench from previous failures, but the odor is still there.

“KICK-ASS” need not worry about having to spray an extra dose of Axe to mask any foul filmmaking choices. If you’ve been reading all the reviews that have sprung up across the Internet since its debut at SXSW, you know that director Matthew Vaughn’s version of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s hit comic series has been extraordinarily well received. You’ll get no argument here.

“KICK-ASS” is a spectacularly inappropriate piece of adolescent wish-fulfillment moviemaking. It captures the absurdity of the comic book while also managing to unearth the wholesomeness Millar stashed within his hyper-violent story. Yes, I realize using the word wholesome when discussing a movie loaded with microwaved bodies, severed limbs and enough blood to fill the Rose Bowl seems rather strange, but it’s true. It’s also true that “KICK-ASS” is one of the purest cinematic adaptations of a comic book ever, one that actually surpasses the comic in many ways. It achieves that by taking dramatic detours from its source material only makes it that much more impressive.

Like the comic book that inspired it, “KICK-ASS” keeps its focus squarely on that often-overlooked segment of the population, the Utterly Average. Through Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Johnson), we experience the mediocrity of his existence as one of those high school kids who blends into the daily background of life like an extra on a movie set. Dave is so lame, when a rumor spreads in school that he’s gay, he goes along with it because it affords him rare access to the girl he likes.

Vaughn, who secured the financing for the movie himself after every major studio in Hollywood rejected the pitch, has obvious affection for the story. But having the warm and fuzzies for the story you want to tell doesn’t necessarily lead to a good movie. Mark Steven Johnson being a huge Daredevil mark didn’t exactly spark quality cinema, did it?

Vaughn succeeds in capturing the essence of the “KICK-ASS” story – a gloriously demented coming-of-age tale about a nerdy comic book fan who wonders why no one has ever tried to be a superhero before – because he recognizes a simple fact that often escapes filmmakers doing a comic book movie: What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen.

Whether it be a costume, power set or origin story, having the ability and gumption to make a potentially controversial change is vital to properly adapting any type of book, not just a comic. In the age of instant analysis and in a time when fans have unprecedented influence over what movie studios commit to film, that’s easier said than done.   

Sam Raimi stuck to his guns and tuned out the outraged group of fans who decried the idea of Spider-Man having organic web-shooters. He agreed with James Cameron’s assertion in his early-90s treatment that the average moviegoer probably wouldn’t buy that a high school kid in Queens could invent his own quick-stick web formula within the context of a two-hour film. That debate lost steam right about the time in “Spider-Man” that Tobey Maguire was practicing his newfound powers on the rooftop.

Likewise, Vaughn saw certain things in “KICK-ASS” that he wanted to adjust.

Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman give Dave’s relationship with Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) more texture by having Dave reveal to her his secret identity. Instead of bogging the story down with Rom-Com fakery, it provides the movie an additional stake in reality. Because if a teenager in the real world was to get dressed up in a scuba suit to fight crime and gained any kind of fame, you can bet your monthly comics allowance he’d try to parlay that into getting some action from the opposite sex.

Another major alteration involves the Red Mist and his secret identity, which isn’t much of a secret (at least to the audience) in the movie. The character’s motivations are more clearly defined, however, thanks to Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s dorky rich-kid portrayal.

The film’s biggest storyline departure has to do with the origin of Big Daddy and Hit Girl. It’s dramatically different onscreen, and it fundamentally changes the tone of their involvement in the movie. Those two characters are no longer just the byproduct of Fanboy obsession gone completely, buy-it-wholesale INSANE. Now, their twisted existence is given purpose. It doesn’t make them any saner, just as Frank Castle’s raison d’etre doesn’t make the Punisher any less psychopathic. But it does give audiences a more legitimate reason to cheer for them, namely, the deranged familial bond they share.

Nicolas Cage’s sly, self-aware turn as the doting Big Daddy is the most sedate performance he’s given in years. Chloe Moretz flat-out steals the movie every time she’s onscreen, and her giddy reaction to her birthday present from Big Daddy – a set of butterfly knives – somehow manages to be simultaneously disturbing and endearing.

If you’re worried that one of the ways “KICK-ASS” is different from the comic involves toning down the outlandish violence, don’t be. It’s ridiculously bloody. Kick-Ass still gets kicked around by just about everybody, and Hit Girl still slices up bad guys like a sushi chef preparing a rainbow roll, all to the beat of Joan Jett and “The Banana Splits” theme song. If anything, it was shocking that Vaughn didn’t change much in regards to Hit Girl.

We’re talking about one of the most inappropriate child film characters in years. There may be a new multiplex record set in terms of parents who storm out, once the ‘Tween Ninja starts piling up the bodies and unleashing her profanity-laced verbal carnage.  For those kids whose parents don’t drag them out within the first 30 minutes, Hit Girl will be the, err, hit of the film.

Vaughn took his liberties, presumably with the full support and encouragement of Millar, one of the film’s producers. Millar laid the groundwork for creative license during a scene in his comic book when Dave and his friends argue about the infamous ‘Galactus as a dust cloud’ moment in “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.”

His point? The Big G’s purple suit may look cool on the page surrounded by Kirby crackle, but it wouldn’t go over very well in a live-action movie.

All of this isn’t to say that “KICK-ASS” works because the director changed lots of stuff from the comic. That would be a disservice to the original story, which is a fantastic piece of visceral, satirical storytelling. Change for the sake of change isn’t the answer. The reason “KICK-ASS” is so good is because Vaughn made changes to the story that worked.

[Worked so well, in fact, that I’ve devoted an entire column to discussing the greatness of a movie based on a comic book that revels in its own shallowness. I guess you can call this post-ironic analysis.]

The changes give you the opportunity to become more invested in the story, and allow you to care about the characters more. Whereas the comic was more about the having a good-natured laugh at the expense of the medium’s mores and standard practices – and its more devoted fans – “KICK-ASS” the movie is more about celebrating the Average Joe.

Webster’s defines adaptation as the “modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment.”

Directors don’t have the luxury of 500-600 pages to tell their story. They get two hours and change. How one translates said work, with the resulting editorial decisions are the keys to success. The passion and demands of the core fan base make it that much tougher to get comic book movies done right, which is why there have been so few truly great films based on comics.

You can add “KICK-ASS” to that list now.

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