Some Kick Ass Reflections
This is Not a review:
- The best thing about Kick Ass the comic was always the art of John Romita JR, one of the greatest working artists in comics nowadays. When I read there was a movie coming, while I could see the obvious commercial potential in such blackly funny and outrageously violent material, without the visuals of JRJR, it seemed a little pointless. The comic is never quite as shocking or as funny as it seems to think it is, a common complaint with Writer Mark Millar's putatively "edgier" work. He is instead at his best when he sticks to straight Super Hero material (his very best work may be his run on DC's tie-in comic with the Superman the Animated Series cartoon from the late 90s) or inflects such material with just the slightest trace of his more sensationalist authorial personality (as in the brilliant The Ultimates). Unsurprisingly, the comic remains grittier and far more violent than the often slick excesses of the film. And it provides JRJR with a chance to depict lots of his putty-faced people being beaten to a pulp with his always beautiful and dynamic storytelling giving everything a fantastic, hyperbolic, almost sickening impact.
- Aaron Johnson, who does just fine, is wrong for the role. A valid comparison would be the casting of Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. Maguire is geeky-looking, slightly bug-eyed, not too tall or pretty or athletic. He could have been the nerd Peter Parker is meant to be. Johnson, on the other hand, is obviously a handsome boy, and a geeky afro and pair of specs don't really change that. He's also too jocky - tall, broad-shouldered, fit. A young leading man, in other words. Anybody who is cast as a young John Lennon , which is a role requiring a brooding, charismatic, smouldering kind of teen, is wrong for Kick Ass.
- Nicolas Cage, on the other hand, finds just the right film for that chihuahua-on-acid energy of his. Here he doesn't feel like he's wandered in out of his bubble of celebrity where its ok to marry Elvis' daughter because hey, you're a big fan and where you should say yes to every film that goes over a certain figure for your salary. Here he feels like he's caught the tone of the film just right, like he even exemplifies it. His Adam West impression is funny for a few seconds, he has plenty of action scene experience, and he doesn't jolt us out of the film with any bizarre line-readings or twitches for once. Do this and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans constitute a comeback?
- There have been films before parodying the Super-Hero genre. It is eminently parody-worthy, and comics have been doing the job for decades. Special (2007) is probably the most obvious recent example of this sub-genre, and Mystery Men is probably the most famous. There are numerous problems with this approach: a Super-Hero film really has to deliver Super-Hero action to achieve any commercial success. But fulfilling that particular cliche doesn't really square with mocking the genre and all of its cliches. Hancock, for example, begins as a semi-parodic, or at least certainly extremely revisionist, Super-Hero film, before abandoning any attempt at wit or satire for its actioncentric, exposition-filled finale. Revisionism complicates the issue, having usurped parody in the comics medium in the 1980s. The key mainstream works of that decade, the influences of which can very definitely be felt in Kick Ass, are definitively revisionist texts. Last year's Watchmen, based on one such text, perhaps failed commercially due to its extreme revisionaism- general audiences didn't recognise the archetypes these characters played off, and more to the point, they didn't really care.
Kick Ass proves that audiences are ready, though. Years of watching Big Summer Blockbusters about Super-Heroes and absorbing formulas, identifying types and recognising narrative beats has made us all geek-literate. Everybody gets the joke. As long as its well told.
- Set in New York City, Kick Ass was mostly shot in London, and there are times when the difference between the two cites is all too apparent. London and New York look different, basically. The architecture is different, the street furniture, the shopfronts, the alleyways...Vaughn and his people do well dressing up locations, for the most part, but this New York just feels wrong. It never coalesces into something that feels like a real city, with all its vague locations - lumber warehouse, drug dealers pad in council estate, suburban high school - and for all is references to NYC, the attitude and spirit of the place are utterly absent. It feels plastic. It feels like the generic "Metropolis" which is home to Superman, and is an obvious analogue of New York without being tied to the actual New York in any way. It feels more comic book-influenced then the same city does in Raimi's Spider-Man films. But this is the film that purports to be a realistic view of Super-heroes. Here New York is full of knife-wielding muggers, and there are plenty of darkened alleyways, just like in my 70s Marvels. In some films, geographical uncertainty can work well. David Fincher's Seven, for instance, is set in an unnamed city which we assume is New York for the first two acts of the film. But at the end, as three characters drive out of the city and into the countryside, they drive through the sun-blasted scrub of what can only be California, and the city seems suddenly more likely to be Los Angeles. This small detail shakes an audience a little, rocks its preconceptions and expectations about what it is watching.
I generally hate when films are shot in one place and set in another, though the strange atmospherics of an everycity can be effective in the right hands. Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut was famously shot in a London standing in for New York, while Vancouver finds itself repeatedly impersonating American cities, often badly. Lost is a treasure trove of city masquerades, as Honolulu impersonates everywhere from London to Seoul to LA. But Lost does it either very well or horrendously badly. Either way is somehow better than the just-slightly off attempt made by Kick Ass.
- The most interesting material in both comic and film is in the early scenes, before the arrival of Hit Girl and Big Daddy into the narrative. Here Millar and Vaughn take on the concept of the Super-Hero and its application in a cynical, frightened world, but also a scattershot approach to modern culture, from viral video to cash-in merchandising. Then Hit Girl and Big Daddy show up, and it all turns into a big ridiculous stupidly entertaining action scene. Betraying the influence of both Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Jason Pierson's Body Bags, their characters are hilarious and fun and yet they are a big part of some of the film's problems. In the first act, they are somewhat uncomfortably crowbarred in to a story which is not theirs. And then later Hit Girl's central role is undermined by the fact that she is entirely without an interior life - we see her kill and maim and flip and stab, we see her beaten and shot, but we never have the slightest idea what she is thinking or feeling. This reduces her to a pretty black sight-gag, a flash of Japanese anime in the film's DNA, or perhaps a slightly offensive reduction, a character created purely for fanboys, which is never a good thing. Kick Ass himself, by comparison, is all interior life, as his voiceover fills us in on his every thought and aspiration, rendering him without mystery or much nuance. A better actor than Johnson might have given him more shades of despair or horror, but he remains a two dimensional creation throughout.
- The film is the very epitome of the modern genre spectacle. In a post-Tarantino world, that means that it is broadly post-modern, casually fascist and directed with an efficiently anonymous "stylish" sheen. It is also more concerned with being fliply funny than with being an effective action film, sacrificing emotional impact on several occasions for a gag. It has a scene with a heavy video game (read: First Person Shooter) reference in Hit Girl's night vision POV massacre, lots of martial arts and insane gunplay, and a soundtrack littered with pop culture ephemera and rescued trash - Sparks, Joan Jett, the Dickies' version of the Banana Splits theme, the Prodigy's sampling of Manfred Mann and a very Tarantino usage of Morricone's "For A Few Dollars More". In other words, it feels like a DVD movie, the sort of film made for Chapter Selection where you can rewatch favourite scenes and moments.
- The worst material in the climactic scenes is not from the comic. The comic stays gritty and horrifying whereas the movie finally aims for purest fantasy in a sort of betrayal of its own earliest impulses. Its a shame.
- What Kick Ass is, unexpectedly, is a great portrayal of adolescent male friendship. The protagonist says of himself that he "just exists, like most teenagers". He and his two best friends seem like the film's most authentic element, to me. Their warm camaraderie, based on mutual geekiness and constant ribbing, reminded me of my relationship with my friends at that age. Comic shops, sexual frustration, continual teasing of one another, not belonging to any of the teen tribes - all evoked lightly and wittily. Even if the film has little use for this side of its character, its brilliantly done while it lasts, before the costumes and the fight scenes come out.