When we think of comic-book superheroes, most of us who grew up in the last century think of mild-mannered reporters, or perhaps urbane millionaires with a secret identity, who fight crime heroically. They collar the bad guys and deliver them to justice. Even the supervillains they’d fight always seemed to escape so they could resurface in a later issue, and the struggle of Good vs. Evil continues.
That is not what a customer will find if he makes the mistake of taking in the new movie crudely titled “Kick-Ass.” The concept seems innocent enough – teenage comic-book devotee with absolutely no powers puts on a goofy wetsuit and tries to be a hero. But that's just the first few minutes.
What follows next is an entirely different movie, a gory slasher film, except the vigilante mass murderer is an 11-year-old girl in a costume that included a purple wig and a plaid private-school skirt. This little “Hit Girl” doesn't play by any moral rules, however. In her first mass-murder scene, she even double-spears a prostitute armed with only a broken booze bottle.
Is it any wonder that Hollywood and their cynical media surrogates loved this film and openly cheered for its success? Los Angeles Times writer Steve Zeitchik foresaw a massive sensation in this grotesque and wildly implausible sixth-grade Lizzie Borden scenario: “We rarely get in the business of predicting sensations, but it's hard not to feel that something is in the air...Something bigger, that is, then even some of the pre-release hype suggests. And not just in the fanboy world, where it's of course already huge.” So confident was he of his views that he predicted the “stylishly bloody” romp would spur a big opening weekend, and the film “would keep the cultural heat on long after.”
Times film critic Kenneth Turan agreed. “This shrewd mixture of slick comic-book mayhem, unmistakable sweetness and ear-splitting profanity is poised to be a popular culture phenomenon because of its exact sense of the fantasies of the young male fanboy population.”
But that's not what happened at the box office. The “shrewd” people took a super-beating. The shock merchants ended up shocked. On the first weekend, it finished barely ahead of the family cartoon “How to Train Your Dragon,” and then by the second weekend, it finished a distant fifth, behind the smash-hit dragon cartoon.
John Q. Public’s reaction? The movie is pure junk.
How is it that allegedly intelligent people in Hollywood's shoe-shining circle, people who must have passed grade-school mathematics, haven't figured out that a gory R-rated movie featuring an 11-year-old doesn't have great odds of becoming a blockbuster? The movie about the dragons is currently grossing more than $180 million, which amounts to five times more than “Kick-Ass.”
The L.A. Times was not alone. The Lionsgate film studio also clearly expected a blockbuster, since the film ends its ridiculous festival of death (including one bloody implosion in a human-size microwave oven) with the bold suggestion of a sequel.
Embarrassed by the movie's failure to bring the “cultural heat,” Zeitchik of the Times tried to defend his bold proclamations and ridiculous predictions. The movie wasn't really a failure, he claimed. It was a “genuine success story” because the movie was produced and financed independently when no studio would touch it, and it would eventually turn a profit. This is like predicting the Dodgers would win the World Series, and when they don’t, they’re still successful because they didn't finish in last place.
Much of Zeitchik's self-defense sounded like he was disappointed that a culture war didn't break out. Parents groups weren’t painted as cardboard villains to spur ticket sales. Middle America was still too backward, he found. Theater owners in western North Carolina wouldn't even spell out the A-word in the title on the marquee. He seemed disappointed that the 16-and-under crowd didn't lie about their ages in droves to see the R-rated movie. Sadly for him, “it turns out that large swaths of the country may not crave the shock-worthy, at least not the overt kind.”
Yep. Junk is junk is junk.
Zeitchik also discovered that movie audiences weren't ready for the superhero movie to be “subverted” for laughs. In other words, he discovered that people want heroes who fight with some sense of honor, not merely a dead-eyed taste for revenge and “slick mayhem.” Most people aren't sick enough to think it's red-faced funny to see a hallway of people get slaughtered by a little girl to a cheeky teen punk anthem.
We still want out heroes to be heroic.
Even if that’s so yesterday.