The Ideology of Kick-Ass: the Film vs. the Comic

Last Friday night, I finally saw Kick-Ass. Why was I a week late to the party? I wanted to make sure to read the source material first: Mark Millar's series of graphic novels, which are also called Kick-Ass.

I gave Alan Moore's V for Vendetta the same treatment (I went out of my way to read the graphic novel before going to the movie). Coincidentally, the film adaptation for Vendetta is cut from the same cloth as the adaptation for Kick-Ass: both comics contain radical political ideologies which get watered down in the film version. Vendetta's protagonist explicitly encourages terrorism -- only when the cause is "just," of course -- and Kick-Ass's heroes are lawless vigilantes with private arsenals. The film adaptations of these two comics include but de-emphasize the uncomfortable moral questions, making audiences fall in love with protagonists who were less lovable and more complex in their comic book iterations. This is particularly interesting in Kick-Ass's case, since the comic and the film were actually written in tandem. Mark Millar pitched the idea as a film before he had even written the first issue.

I wouldn't say that either the comic or the film of Kick-Ass is "better" -- they're more like two halves of the same coin. If you only check out one or the other, you're missing out on half of the meat of the story. The comic is darker and more political, and it has a punch-you-in-the-gut twist ending. The film takes the comic's grittiness, leaves most of the politics behind, and throws in a heaping of glitz and romance ... oh, and it leaves out the twist at the end.

The comic also includes some uncomfortable racism -- mostly due to the fact that a lot of the thugs are not white, but all of the superheroes are. The film improves upon the comic's racism by turning the thugs into a variety of races, and by introducing a new black character, Marcus, who is a positive role model. The film also leaves out Big Daddy's political views, which I'll delve into later in this post. (Although, both film and comic do fine on the sexism front; Amanda Marcotte over at Pandagon talks about this and dissects the film's portrayal of Hit-Girl in her review.)

Spoilers follow for both the film and the comic, so consider yourself warned.

1. The straight, white, male hero

I'm pretty forgiving of the fact that Hollywood simply can't fathom a movie without one of these, and Kick-Ass does not fail to deliver. However, the fact that Kick-Ass is the protagonist in the comics seems like much more of a joke than it does in the film. He fights battles that don't seem very important, and his attitude about being a superhero seems to stem more from narcissism than an idealistic wish to "fix" societal ills.
In the comic, Kick-Ass has an Aryan complexion and often points out the races of other characters whenever they aren't white; the comic's in color, so putting the races in writing feels unnecessary and kind of uncomfortable. In the film, he keeps the baby blue eyes, but instead of straight blond hair, it's curly brown. As for his attitude, it's not snarky or acidic so much as innocent and relatable. (Also, he doesn't keep bringing up people's races.)
Part of Kick-Ass's likability in the film is due to the insults he uses. In the comic, blondie Kick-Ass throws "homo" around as an insult. The movie version replaces this with "shitheads" and other more socially acceptable insults.
In the comic, Kick-Ass's first villains are three kids defacing a wall with some spray paint. In the film, it's two older dudes hot-wiring a car. He gets his ass handed to him in both scenarios, but the movie version of Kick-Ass is more of a hero. Stopping graffiti artists just isn't as noble as stopping grand larceny.
Here's the cherry on top: in the comic, Kick-Ass allows his crush to believe that he's gay for months on end (specifically, that he's a male prostitute and/or occasional rape victim -- this extra layer of WTF is not included in the movie). When he finally tells her that he's straight, she spurns him for a black dude, who she was actually already dating before he decided to "come out."
In the movie, Kick-Ass allows the girl to think he's gay ... but when he tells her that he's not, she jumps him. (He also tells her that he's Kick-Ass -- this seems to help his sex appeal.) She isn't angry for longer than thirty seconds about the months of lying.
Hollywood not only needs to have a straight while male lead; that lead also needs to get the girl. Is this better or worse than the comic, in which Kick-Ass seems like more of a jerk and therefore less deserving of said girl? I'm not sure -- they're different characters, and different stories.
I will say that the girl's response seems a lot more realistic in the comic, though. Months of lying and manipulation might work in a romantic comedy, but in real life, it doesn't usually go over too well.

2. Hit-Girl and Big Daddy

In the comic, Big Daddy is a burly trucker type with a handlebar mustache. He swears up a storm and doesn't bat an eye about the fact that his 10-year-old girl has taken up the same habit. Every meal is meat, meat, meat. He quizzes his little girl about different types of weaponry, and she parrots back the correct answers with pride. When he asks her for "the dictionary definition of a Democrat," she responds, "Oh, that's easy. A fucked-up prick who will march for the right to murder babies but hold candlelight vigils for serial killers." That little exchange of dialogue happens while Hit-Girl is in the midst of literally being a serial killer, all at dear old Dad's behest.
The movie removes almost all of these elements of Big Daddy's character.
In the comic, Hit-Girl's alleged backstory is that "bad guys" killed her Mom, and she and her ex-cop Dad are out for revenge. In the movie, Big Daddy is still an ex-cop, but his ex-partner Marcus is in the story too, helping from behind the scenes (this adds a layer of morality to Big Daddy's fight in the film, because he has a cop on his side). Mom committed suicide instead of being killed; she did the deed while Dad was in jail, framed by the "bad guys" for a crime he didn't commit. And, instead of being big and burly, the film's Big Daddy is lean and fit, and wears glasses and a cardigan.
Meanwhile, Big Daddy's Batman-esque persona seems noble and distinguished, a far cry from the psychopathic anarchist Big Daddy of the comics. His handlebar mustache in the movie is a fake one that he only wears when he's in his superhero outfit.
Hit-Girl's character, however, stays almost the same in both film and comic -- she still swears like a sailor, and she's still a stone cold killer. She and her Dad still have a private arsenal, and she still wants cold steel for her birthday instead of a pretty dolly. But in the film, Big Daddy doesn't swear -- or at least, I don't remember him ever doing so, but I'll admit I don't have the script handy.
We understand how the film-version of Hit-Girl learned to fight, but where did she learn the naughty language and the abrasive personality? From her enemies, presumably. This adds a different kind of darkness to her story. Although in the film Big Daddy has managed to stay above it all and is fighting gangs without taking on their unsavory charactertistics, his young and impressionable daughter has not managed the same feat. She's a lot more murderous and crazy than her dad in the film, whereas in the comic, Big Daddy is very clearly the crazed one and Hit-Girl is just his dutiful puppet.
And now, here's the biggest difference between the comic and the movie: the ending.
In the comic, it turns out at the end that Hit-Girl's back-story was a lie. Her mother isn't dead at all, and Big Daddy was actually an accoutant ... and an obsessed comic book fan. He left his wife and raised his daughter as a superheroine so that her life would be more interesting. Fucked. Up.
The movie does not deliver this ending. Perhaps it's too much of a downer to make audiences go home with that  ... so, instead, Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass ride away into the sunset. Her dad really is an ex-cop out for revenge, and everybody's a hero because all of the bad guys are dead.

3. Red Mist, and the rest of the villains

In the comic, Red Mist is still secretly the son of the leader of the villain gang. However, this information is withheld until the very end. Not much else changes, except that Red Mist is a lot cooler in the comic, and seems much older and more mature than Kick-Ass (even though they're actually the same age). In the film, Red Mist is a much bigger loser -- he's socially awkward, nervous, and starved for attention. He's also a much more sympathetic character.
These changes take out some of the film's suspense, since the audience knows that Red Mist is a bad guy from the beginning, and they get to see what he and the rest of the villains are planning most of the time. In the comic, we don't see nearly as much of the villains -- they're not characters so much as faceless victims of Hit-Girl's swinging swords. Although I preferred the comic's bait-and-switch withholding of Red Mist's true identity, I understand why the change was necessary in order to make the gang members more well-rounded characters. The story's different, but it's effective either way.

The film had some benefits that the comic lacked by definition, like an amazing soundtrack and expertly edited action sequences. Meanwhile, the comic had a few visceral moments that the film shied away from, such as Hit-Girl literally cutting entire heads in half, and later using a gun to castrate a dude. I didn't exactly mourn my inability to see those things happen in real time on the big screen, but it does speak to how much the film was unwilling to do that sequences like that weren't included.

Audiences are already scandalized about the fact that the film features a very young actress swearing (and, y'know, killing a TON of people, but for some reason she's not getting as much flack for that). She actually swears even more in the comics, though, and she is even more ruthless. Hollywood is also, apparently, afraid to make a movie where the male lead doesn't get the girl. But most of all, the movie is reluctant to show how terrible being a superhero really would be. At the end of the film, Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl's actions are held up as heroic much more than they are in the comic, especially since in the comic it turns out that Hit-Girl (and, by extension, Kick-Ass) was fighting for absolutely no reason at all. The film allows the young pair to have justification for their actions, and doesn't take this away from them at the end like the comic does.

Kick-Ass in comic form preaches that being too obsessed with comic books is dangerous, and that in real life, such an unhealthy disconnect between fantasy and reality will bring nothing but serious shit. The character of Big Daddy is an exagerrated, unrealistic version of a "crazed fan", but the story is a chilling one all the same. In the movie, this lesson about fantasy and reality remains, but it's considerably muted by the fact that Big Daddy dies a legitimate, honest hero.

Which ending is the "better" ending? I expected the comic book one, so I couldn't help being disappointed and slightly confused by what I got instead -- but I'm not sure how I'd feel if I had taken in the two in the opposite order (movie first, comic second).

Meanwhile, Millar is already writing more comic books in the Kick-Ass series, so that alone convinces me that the heroes haven't hung up their capes for good (although apparently the next comic will be about Hit-Girl coping with her retirement and attempting to live a normal life). It'll be interesting to see if the filmmakers attempt to continue their story as well, and how they intend to negotiate the differences between the stories.

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