Monday, April 12, 2010

The "Kick Ass" Conundrum

Friday will see the release of "Kick-Ass," which its Wikipedia article describes as "the story of teenage Dave Lizewski who sets out to become a real life superhero only to get caught up in a bigger fight. He meets Big Daddy, a former cop who, in his quest to bring down an evil drug lord Frank D'Amico, has trained his eleven-year-old daughter to be the ruthless vigilante Hit-Girl." Based off the comic book of the same name, and generating some serious controversy for its profanity-heavy red band trailers featuring little Chloe Moretz cursing like a sailor, "Kick-Ass" has had the geekier fan sites like AICN buzzing for a while now. But from where I'm sitting, this thing isn't going to do much business.

To put it bluntly, I suspect that this is going to be "Watchmen" all over again. We've got another title that's hotly anticipated by a core group of comic-loving geeks, who have been singing the praises of the film's graphic content, completely heedless of the fact that even the title of "Kick-Ass" is giving a good chunk of theater owners heart palpitations and leaving mainstream audiences cold. The film is being listed as "Kick A" in some venues, with theater workers being coached to refer to the film as such. The last time this happened was Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," which had its posters censored and its DVDs sold in Wal-Mart as "Zack and Miri." That one didn't do so well either.

Fanboys may scoff at the prudish leanings of the corporate purveyors of our entertainment, but the awkward truth of the matter is that though everyone in Hollywood wants to make films that cater to the young adult male these days, they're only willing to go so far. The attitude that explicit sex and violence are always good, and the more extreme the better, is a common assumption among the young male audience. And it's the sort of attitude that gets films like "Kick-Ass" made. What these same fans don't seem to realize is that strong content tends to alienate everybody else, especially families and female viewers.

Everyone points to "The Dark Knight" as a darker superhero film that cleaned up at the box office, but "The Dark Knight" was also a PG-13 Batman film that played to all four quadrants of the general audience and couldn't have broken all those box-office records without all the non-geek viewers. Now compare the performance of "Dark Knight" with "Watchmen," a highly anticipated, heavily marketed, and very expensive R-rated superhero epic that garnered enthusiastic response from its target audience – and only its target audience. Niche audience films have been strong performers before, notably the "Twilight" films aimed at teenage girls, but the difference is that the "Twilight" films know they're niche and are made and marketed to scale. "Watchmen" was built up to be a blockbuster and fell on its face.

To the credit of director Matthew Vaughn and the film's other producers, "Kick-Ass" was made with a modest indie budget, so it has a good chance of making its money back. However, I am worried about how the film is being sold to appeal to broader audiences. The promotion has been mum on the film's adult content, which is probably going to cause headaches down the line. With a cast of superheroes wearing brightly colored costumes, and an eleven-year-old playing one of the leads, this has all the hallmarks of a general-audiences action comedy. Too much misleading advertising will undoubtedly lead to backlash from angry parents once they hear what's coming out of Hit-Girl's mouth – the red band trailer issue already has the MPAA looking at potential new rules for online content.

To put it bluntly, "Kick-Ass" is not going to be the breakout hit that the geeks are breathlessly anticipating. Geeks may be Hollywood darlings these days, but their values aren't the same as those of the mainstream audience. I don't envy Lionsgate, which has to be light on the cuts make the geeks happy while keeping angry parents at bay. But I wouldn't push too hard in either direction, because this one has the potential to blow up in everyone's faces.

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