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Could Kick-Ass Be a Cinematic Watchmen?

Okay, I think we were all a little disappointed with Watchmen. Although the use of that word seems unfair. The book defined the comic book superhero genre in a way that bled into film long before the movie was made. Zach Snyder’s work seemed… redundant. Watchmen had influenced the comic books that came after and they had influenced the movies. If anything, the movie adaptation seemed much less mature and developed than the previous year’s Batman blockbuster – The Dark Knight. Publicity and reviews for this year’s Kick-Ass are beginning to emerge and it seems like it’s all good, so far. The film, along with Shutter Island, was the runaway hit of Butt-Numb-A-Thon this year, a sort of geeky Sundance. It’s an interest look at what “real” superheroes would look like, and part of me wonders if this is movie will end up being what Watchmen should have been?

Nicolas Cage's moustache could kick your ass...

The concept of a superhero – a person dressing up in spandex and fighting crime – is a ridiculous one. But it’s one that has caught on. It has grasped the public’s imagination and has gone on to define not only the medium of comics, but to heavily impact the production of blockbusters in the past decade. These are the stories of gods, in the classical tradition, men who can run faster than the speed of sound or leap buildings in a single bound. They’re the stories of small nerdy guys with big green monsters inside them. Most of them would seem at home on the Greek pantheon, the spiritual successors of Apollo and Hermes and Hercules.

Yet it wasn’t until the eighties that we got anything resembling an exploration of these characters. The Dark Knight Returns wondered aloud what kind of twisted individual dons a costume like that to beat the snot out of criminals and suggested that, if Superman existed, he would be a tool of US foreign policy. Alan Moore’s Watchmen arguably offered an even more insightful exploration of the genre and its conventions. The people inside these costumes were messed up individuals, sociopaths or outsiders or cynics. They never really succeeded in doing anything productive, and the world was going to hell. The only real ‘superman’ who existed had mvoed so far beyond humanity that he didn’t care, the power to recognise the workings of the universe serving only to make him a puppet who could see the strings. Watchmen was undoubtedly a game-chnager in a very great many ways, some of which – including the fixation on “darker and edgier” heroes – were very much not what Moore had in mind on writing the book.

But Alan Moore is a writer, first and foremost. His dilemmas were metaphysical, and always have been. You don’t sit there pumping your fist in the air and going “that was cool!”, instead you pause and stare thoughtfully into middle-distance. His literary frame of reference is so deep that the absolute editions of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen come with the original scripts to help you spot all his references. However, his knowledge and interest in modern pop culture is miniscule. He’s famously noted that he has to do a lot of research to ensure that the meta-references in the more recent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books (set in the modern world) are as thickly-layoured as in the Victorian-based stories.

This isn’t a criticism, just an observation. I love Moore’s work, but it is literary rather than cinematic. I think that might go someway towards explaining why a literal adaptation of Watchmen was never likely to work. It’s very hard to convince people to watch a three-hour movie about people in latex contemplating really hard, as opposed to knocking the stuffing out of each other.

Kick-Ass, on the other hand, has lots of people trying to knock the stuffing out of each other. The author, Mark Millar, is a lot less literary-minded than Moore. His work is always cinematic, which is perhaps why he seems to find his work so easily adapted. I didn’t really care for Wanted, but it was successful movie. It’s not hard to see his work on The Ultimates heavily influencing the upcoming Avengers film. His frame of reference seems to be more movie- and television-based than most. It has been observed that he writes movies in comic book form.

From all I’ve read, it seems that Kick-Ass is generating a very positive reaction. It’s an examination of the superhero phenomenon, but one that isn’t weighed down by existentialist philosophy. I don’t mean that as a jab at Watchmen, simply an observation that it’s hard to adapt that sort of superhero action to the big screen. A lot of people came out of Watchmen shaking their heads, unsure of what they’ve just seen. Everyone I know who has seen the trailer for Kick-Ass can tell that it’s a look at how ridiculous the idea of masked crimefighters is.

It’s much simpler than Watchmen, but you might argue that blockbuster cinema is inherently a simpler medium. I don’t mean dumber or stupider or any other euphimism. I just mean that it’s more straightforward. Alan Moore wrote Watchmen with dozens of textual and subtextual layours, relying on the audience to have a basic grasp of any number of abstract concepts to make it fully work. A typical reader digests the work over the course of a week, where the ideas have the opportunity to sink in and grow. With a two-hour movie you don’t get that.

From the trailers (always a dangerous thing from which to draw conclusions), it seems that Kick-Ass is more direct. More along the lines of “it’s crazy to think that you can build wings which will allow you to fly” or “being in fights like that would seriously mess you up” or “this is just a really sad male fantasy”. They are ideas which hint at an exploration of the superhero in modern pop culture mythos, but ideas that are much less complex than the concepts of pre-determination and moral absolutism which underpinned Kick-Ass.

I don’t think that any comic book or comic book adaptation will ever match the impact of Watchmen, but I do think that Kick-Ass may introduce these concepts to a new medium, in a slightly more blockbuster-friendly fashion.

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2 Responses

  1. Kick ass is going to be a hit I think it anyway

    • Yep, it has blockbuster written all over, despite the R rating, and the reviews are (thus far) fantastic. Reason to get my hopes up.

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