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This Week in Genre History: 'Kick-Ass' kicked superhero butt before the genre surpassed the violent parody

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Apr 14, 2021, 1:13 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

You and I can't be superheroes for a very good reason: We don't have powers. By and large, the costumed do-gooders we see in movies have extraordinary strength or can fly or can run really fast or breathe underwater. Unless you're Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne and have a ton of money, it's probably best that we mere mortals leave the crime-fighting to somebody else.

But as comic book movies have gained a stranglehold on the multiplex over the past 20 years, there's simultaneously been a wave of films that examine what would happen if ordinary people tried being superheroes. Usually, the results are comedic, even tragic, as seen in movies like Defendor (2009) and Super (2010). But the most popular of the bunch was Kick-Ass, which hit U.S. theaters on April 16, 2010. It told the story of a nerdy teen, Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who loves comic books and decides, hey, maybe he can be a crime-fighter, too.

Upon donning the title "Kick-Ass," he quickly discovers just how painful — both emotionally and physically (especially physically) — it would be to play Batman in real life.

Kick-Ass didn't just run counter to the superhero cinema of the time in terms of its puny main character — it was a more violent and irreverent strain of comic book action film. It was gleefully vulgar and graphic, featuring a vicious tween crime-fighter named Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who has no qualms about killing people. Designed to provoke a response out of audiences, which it achieved, Kick-Ass enjoyed tweaking genre conventions: The mob boss (Mark Strong) was knowingly cartoonish; the oddball father-figure mentor was played by none other than Nicolas Cage. It was both a satire of comic book excess and a loving delivery device for comic book excess.

"Basically that's why I wanted to make the movie — everything that made it different and fresh," director Matthew Vaughn once explained about his attraction to this outlandish material. But more than 10 years later, what once made Kick-Ass so different is now, ironically, very much part of the fabric of comic book movies. Kick-Ass and his cohorts don't seem so strange anymore.

Why was it a big deal at the time? An unwritten rule in Hollywood is that you should never spend your own money — meaning, it's far better to get deep-pocketed backers to foot the bill for your cinematic vision than to risk everything you have and potentially lose your shirt. Apparently, nobody explained this to Matthew Vaughn, who did that very thing to get Kick-Ass made.

"No studio would touch it," the English director said in 2020. "So I had to mortgage my house in order to finance the film, which was scary, to be honest."

But Vaughn was that committed: After directing the crime flick Layer Cake (with future 007 star Daniel Craig) and the fantasy film Stardust (based on the Neil Gaiman novel of the same name), he was introduced to Scottish comic writer Mark Millar. The two men hit it off, and Vaughn asked him if he had any properties that might make good films. Millar's Wanted had been turned into a blockbuster Angelina Jolie vehicle, and so he suggested to the director an idea he was working on about a loser high school kid who wants to be a superhero. Millar hadn't finished the comic yet, but Vaughn wanted it for his next project.

"I was desperate to make a superhero film, and I liked Mark's pitch the moment I heard it," Vaughn recalled in that same 2010 interview. "According to Hollywood, it was the wrong move because no one wanted to make it. That just got me even more excited, because it seemed so obvious to me."

Movies such as Mystery Men, also based on a comic, had imagined the comedic possibilities of ordinary folks trying to be crime-fighters, but Millar's Kick-Ass was ruder, bleaker, and more foul-mouthed. ("I don't really do happy endings, so there's a huge difference between Kick-Ass the movie and Kick-Ass the comic," Millar told The Guardian.) Even with Vaughn ensuring that Kick-Ass gets the girl — Lyndsy Fonseca played his school crush — the film was always destined for an R rating because of its body count and swearing. "You know, taboos have to be broken," Vaughn would later say. "And then we move on, and God knows what the next one will be."

For his leads, Vaughn did an excellent job finding promising up-and-coming actors. Taylor-Johnson had been performing since childhood, graduating to adult roles such as playing John Lennon in the 2009 drama Nowhere Boy, directed by his soon-to-be-wife Sam Taylor-Johnson. Playing Dave's unlikely archenemy Red Mist, Christopher Mintz-Plasse had been a scene-stealer in comedies such as Superbad. As for Moretz, she'd done some TV and film work before landing the part of Hit-Girl.

"When I was 11, and I did that, that was crazy," she said in 2014. "No 11-year-old was doing that." Not that she was much like her character: "I don't cuss in my own time," she insisted. "My mom is not cool with that." Which is pretty funny considering that, according to Millar, it was Moretz's mother who suggested one of Hit-Girl's most memorable expletives on set. ("Look, we tried everything [like] 'OK, you wanker,'" Millar later admitted. "Nothing had the force of the line that we used; it was just right, it worked.")

Hit-Girl's father, Big Daddy, was played by Cage, whose gonzo acting style was perfect for the film's over-the-top comedy and action. But even he was initially worried that having a young girl kill people would rub audiences the wrong way. "There were a lot of feelings about [the violence]," he said at the time. "I was concerned. I knew it was going to be something that was uncomfortable for me as an actor."

He wasn't the only person uncomfortable: When Kick-Ass started screening for critics, some reviewers loathed it, none more prominent than Roger Ebert, who trashed the film for its violence. "Will I seem hopelessly square if I find Kick-Ass morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point?" he wrote. "Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in." Meanwhile, New York's David Edelstein wondered, "Should a girl this age — the actress herself, say — be allowed even to see this thing? Is what's onscreen a form of child abuse?"

If anything, some of those outraged reactions only further generated buzz for Kick-Ass. Vaughn had done something pretty untraditional, financing a superhero movie himself — albeit, a relatively low-budget one — and then sold it to distributors after the fact. But when he showed some clips at Comic-Con, his creative team knew they had a hit by the way the audience cheered and applauded. "It was amazing," co-writer Jane Goldman later told The Hollywood Reporter. "Except, then you realize it's actually not as wholesome a story as it sounds because we'd just basically shown a clip of an 11-year-old saying the C-word and then massacring a roomful of people."

What was the impact? For all its pre-release hype, Kick-Ass just barely beat out How to Train Your Dragon on its opening weekend — which was even more surprising considering that the DreamWorks animated film had been out for about a month at that point. Grossing approximately $96 million worldwide against a reported $30 million budget, the film (which had debuted in the U.K. a few weeks earlier) wasn't a commercial colossus, but it had done well enough with genre fans despite never really breaking through into the mainstream.

And yet, Kick-Ass helped propel Taylor-Johnson, Moretz, and Vaughn to greater success. The man who played Kick-Ass has gone on to Godzilla and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as won a Golden Globe for his work in the moody thriller Nocturnal Animals. Moretz collaborated with celebrated directors such as Martin Scorsese and Luca Guadagnino and was really funny in her recurring role as the scheming nemesis of Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock. (If anything, her coldblooded turn as Hit-Girl prepared us for Kaylie Hooper: We knew this seemingly innocent young person was capable of anything.) Meanwhile, Vaughn jumped aboard X-Men: First Class and then adapted another Millar comic for the popular Kingsman franchise, which amped up the Kick-Ass aesthetic to the next level. (The third installment, The King's Man, is expected around Christmas.)

In 2013, Kick-Ass 2 was written and directed by Jeff Wadlow — Vaughn served as producer this time around — but it lacked the novelty of the first go-round, even though Taylor-Johnson and Moretz reprised their roles. Of course, it didn't help matters that Jim Carrey, who played the vigilante Colonel Stars and Stripes, condemned the sequel before its release, saying "in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence" after the Sandy Hook shootings. (That kind of publicity is probably not the sort of thing most films are seeking, but Millar, for one, was thrilled: "For your main actor to publicly say, 'This movie is too violent for me' is like saying, 'This porno has too much nudity. We'll have to go and see this now.'")

The sequel only brought in about $61 million, but soon other superhero movies adopted the series' R-rated ebullience. (Frankly, it's hard to imagine Deadpool without Kick-Ass: Both movies roll their eyes at the bland decency that's endemic to most comic book-based good guys.) But perhaps more interesting, Kick-Ass shared with indie comedy-dramas like Defendor and Super an interest in the psychology behind ordinary people who put on a mask. Dave is tired of feeling like a helpless nobody, and for a while as Kick-Ass, he gets to be adored by the world — but the other would-be superheroes he meets along the way seem to be deeply damaged. That's especially true of Big Daddy, whose vigilante behavior is, in part, a way for him to process the grief of losing his wife to suicide. (His relationship with daughter Hit-Girl is a twisted but also weirdly poignant look at two people coping with death.)

Superhero movies had sometimes delved into the darker side of its characters' mental makeup — the Batman/Joker rivalry is really two sides of the same psyche — but Kick-Ass argued that comic books (and comic-book movies) attracted extreme individuals who want to play out those fantasies in real life. Getting the audience to laugh at that dark joke was the movie's most ambitious gambit.

Has it held up? For all its thoughtful ideas and sneaky emotional undercurrent, Kick-Ass ultimately worked mostly as a shockingly profane action flick. The problem with pushing the envelope, though, is that eventually other films come along and are even more transgressive, leaving your provocation seeming rather tame by comparison. Even at the time, Kick-Ass was just a kicky distraction — not particularly memorable or deep. (And its strain of homophobic humor, while meant to be self-aware, has aged poorly.) But now, more than 10 years later, a movie featuring a vengeful 11-year-old that boasts a matter-of-fact portrayal of real-life vigilantes doesn't have the same jolt as it once did.

There's been talk of a Kick-Ass reboot — maybe even a Hit-Girl movie, although Moretz has expressed little interest in a spinoff film. When Netflix purchased Millar's publishing house, the news prompted speculation that the streamer would bring back Kick-Ass in some form. But the superhero world is very different today than it was in 2010, back when Kick-Ass could feel genuinely edgy. Nowadays, comic book movies come in so many different variations, whether it's fun kids entertainment (Teen Titans Go! to the Movies), Oscar-winning animated films (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), or even Netflix comedies (Thunder Force). The acclaimed HBO continuation of Watchmen demonstrated how grown-up and politically astute a superhero story could be, while Zack Snyder's Justice League offered the most epic and dour comic book adventure ever attempted.

Never say never, but it's hard to imagine how a new Kick-Ass would find breathing room amidst our glut of superhero options.

When Moretz was asked about making more Kick-Ass films in 2018, she spoke for a lot of viewers when she said, "As much as I love the character of Hit-Girl, I think she lives and survives in Kick-Ass, and I kind of want to keep her there. I kinda wanna keep everyone's mind in Kick-Ass."

You and I can't be superheroes, a fact that Kick-Ass explored enjoyably. But one film was enough — why not leave the crime-fighting to the professionals?

Tim Grierson is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Will Leitch review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site. His new book, This Is How You Make a Movie, is out now.