We’re just about exactly ten years into the wave of comic book movies kicked off with the surprise success of Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie in 2000, and the number of comic book movies both set for release and in development still appears to not have peaked.

The most-recent one-two punch of Kick-Ass and The Losers (with Iron Man 2 just around the corner) shows both how far comic-based movies have come while also demonstrating their limits. Having caught both movies the past few days, it’s clear that Kick-Ass is the superior film of the two, though The Losers is not without its charms.

Of course, Kick-Ass was always meant to be movie. The comic book first hit about two years ago (read my review of issue #1 here) and it took until just recently to bring “Book 1” to a conclusion at eight issues. When this book came out, Millar was riding high on the then-upcoming release of Wanted, the movie based on his Top Cow series. Wanted was a hit, and it was made clear in a couple of interviews that the experience on Wanted made Millar want to develop more creator-owned material that he could sell to Hollywood. Kick-Ass was the first such series, with the Image series War Heroes also cast in the same mould, and now his most-recent series, Nemesis.

Millar loves to push buttons, and arguably does it quite well. His comics take rather obvious premises and then takes them to an extreme. Wanted, for example, was about what if the villains won? War Heroes is about superheroes in the military. And Kick-Ass is the obvious what if some kid really did try to become a superhero? This works much better when Millar is playing with his own creations as fanboys are remarkably resistant to anyone messing too much with established icons.

The movie version of Kick-Ass, as adapted by director Matthew Vaughn and his co-writer Jane Goldman, sticks really closely to the comic and successfully retains its subversive tone and Millar’s button-pushing antics. The way the film plays with and subverts the conventions of the superhero genre works for movie audiences now that superheroes have become standard Hollywood fare. Movie audiences are now as familiar with the standard superhero arc as Dave Lizewski is in the movie, and you don’t have to be a comic book obsessive to understand that by becoming Kick-Ass, Lizewski is trying to live out the same arc as Peter Parker, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne have: finding the hero within as a way to find purpose in life, save the world and get the girl — even if nobody else can know about it.

All of which gets upstaged by the arrival of Hit-Girl, who takes everything up a level by being everything Dave wants to be. She has the tragic origin story, the mentor who provides the training, and pure certainty in the righteousness of her mission.

Much has been made of Hit-Girl by critics. I’m surprised at Roger Ebert’s take because I usually find him one of the most even-handed and least prejudiced of critics. And reading Anthony Lane in The New Yorker tear apart films like this that he has no interest in or even a desire to understand is an exercise best reserved for only the most supercilious film snobs.

Because Hit-Girl makes this movie. Far from being morally reprehensible, her actions and the circumstances she’s been put in do have repercussions. She isn’t just a one-note fantasy figure, and while she’s certainly not as complicated as Hamlet this character and her arc works just fine in a superhero movie. I could care less that she says the word “cunt” in the movie. That’s Millar pushing buttons, and the word is far more common and less pejorative in the United Kingdom, where both Millar and Vaughn are from. That this is an 11-year-old girl meting out extreme violence instead of an 11-year-old boy also doesn’t bother me — in fact, I think it’s an essential part of the subversiveness that makes this story and this movie work. It plays on the idea that girls (and women) are not capable of that kind of violence or language and that’s a bullshit argument that has become increasingly tiring with every iteration from Bonnie and Clyde to Ellen Ripley in Alien to The Bride in Kill Bill.

Vaughn brings to Kick-Ass much the same quick and slick vibe as he did to Layer Cake, a sadly underrated crime movie. Kick-Ass shares some of the same story elements with the somewhat generic mobsters who are the villains of the piece. The film has a few pacing problems. It dragged so much after the initial premise was set up that I was mentally preparing myself to be disappointed in the final result. But about halfway through, the pace really picks up and the complications begin to pay off and the whole movie gets more interesting as it goes along. The finale does what it needs to and becomes so much like a standard superhero movie that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. Kick-Ass gets his wish fulfilled of living out a comic book story, though as with any good story it’s not exactly everything he expected.

The overall result is an impressive and fun movie that works pretty much exactly the way it should. For all its button pushing, Kick-Ass is a solid film because there’s more to it than swear words and over-the-top violence. It establishes its premise and sticks to it, throwing enough loops into the process to keep it cool and compelling along the way.

So, why did the film not do better at the box office? It’s a good question, because the clips shown last summer at Comic-Con generated a ton of buzz and the extensive marketing for the film was good enough to raise expectations way beyond the $20 million opening. Obviously, the best result that could have been hoped for was a hit on the order of 300, which also was an R-rated, stylized, violent movie based on a graphic novel that few outside of fandom would have heard of. The good news is it did far better than The Spirit, which was nowhere near as good a movie and earned a total domestic gross about equal to what Kick-Ass did its opening weekend. And given that Kick-Ass was made for about $30 million and was financed in traditional indie fashion by Vaughn and his partners, it’ll make back its money at some point.

But the questions that have the most impact on comic book movies overall is whether anyone is interested in seeing superhero movies that are either R-rated or based on characters not well known to the general public.

Lots of comics folks will look at the box office on Watchmen and this film and not go too much further. But it’s not just superheroes that have trouble these days with R ratings, as R-rated movies in general have become a niche market. The days when the perceived edge of an R-rating lead to big box office grosses for the likes of Beverly Hills Cop, Terminator 2: Judgment Day or The Matrix is largely over. What’s worked in the past decade for studios is PG or PG-13 tent poles that can travel, like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, the Star Wars prequels and Avatar.

As for lesser known comic book characters, I think it’s less of an issue for Hollywood than for comics fans. These days, Hollywood simply doesn’t make big movies that are not based on something — a comic, a book, a toy, an old TV show, a play or an old movie. And with Comic-Con still ground zero for taste making in fandom, even the least known superhero comics will continue to get at least a shot at the big screen. This is at least in part due to the fact that the big characters from Marvel and DC are already completely locked up, so anyone who wants to make a superhero movie will have to look elsewhere for a property to develop.

Which brings me to The Losers, which is more of a typical action movie than a comic book movie. When I saw the movie, they played a preview for the upcoming reimagining of The A-Team, a movie that appears to be shooting for the exact same audience as The Losers.
The Losers, directed by Sylvain White, is a mixed bag. A lot of that has to do with it playing very heavily into the conventions of the action movie genre, which is even more well worn than the superhero genre. As such, this movie does a lot of the things that all action movies do — things that I think responsible for the genre’s decline and replacement by the superhero movie. Namely, that it avoids exposition or explanation of character or circumstance. In the real world, people who do high-end covert military operations are not exactly fun-loving, quippy or even likeable folks — except in action movies. 

That such people would also have Main Street-style patriotism and “honor” as their primary motivations also rings hollow in a real-world setting. The heroes in action movies also have no problem staging operations of massive destruction in public areas with almost no consequences to themselves or the world around them. The only such event that comes to my mind that’s even close to the kind of thing we see in action movies is that big showdown in Hollywood about 10, 12 years ago. Superhero movies work better because the fantasy elements are more obvious and force filmmakers to build stories strong enough to support them. They’re also easier to make work as PG or PG-13 movies, giving them a much wider potential audience to appeal to.

Putting all that aside for a moment, the best thing The Losers has going for it is a good cast and relatively likable characters who interact and conflict with each other in interesting ways. Jeffrey Dean Morgan looks a little too old to be in this movie, but Idris Elba, Chris Evans and Oscar Jaenada all deliver nice performances as characters with distinct personalities. Zoe Saldana also is good, though Hollywood’s predilection for casting waifishly thin supermodel types as tough action heroines undermines her credibility. It’s almost laughable to see this wisp of a girl fire a rocket launcher without the kickback tossing her on her pretty behind.

The movie also has a lot of style, though it’s not consistent. The action sequences are nicely stylized, but in the plot scenes in between, the movie is generic enough to be an episode of 24. The film also is color graded within an inch of its life. It looks interesting, but it also looks very little like the real world.

On the negative side, the film’s biggest problem is it lacks a really compelling villain. Jason Patric does a good job giving Max the air of eccentricity, though he can’t help that the script gives him no motive beyond greed, with the exception of one single throwaway line about wanting to start a war that will restore the proper order to the world. As in a lot of action movies, he’s bad because he crossed the good guys and the script says he’s bad, rather than anyone seeing him actually do anything bad.

Another problem is a lack of scale and perspective. The action sequences in the film are well staged in that it’s always pretty clear what’s going on. But in typical Hollywood fashion, every action sequence is so maxed out with intensity that there’s no sense of things building to a climax. The first sequence in the film is as crazy and over the top as the last. And these sequences are all hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world — the cops don’t seem to respond at all to trucks being blown up in city streets or explosions and machine gun fire at one of the world’s largest ports. Bringing in the outside world, giving some context and believability to the picture, would only help. But this is what happens when movies become stuck in the conventions of their genre. It all becomes so much white noise, with none of the variations in intensity that would provide some suspense and add some scope and stakes to the story.

At the box office, The Losers grossed less than half of what Kick-Ass earned in its first weekend. I think this says more about the marketing push for the film and the general reception for action films than it does about comic book movies. It will be interesting to see if The A-Team is good enough to bring some life back to the action genre. It looks to be a hit, but I think it’ll have to be a huge hit and offer at least a slightly different approach to the genre to have a wider impact.

And getting back to whether R-rated comic book movies work, it’s interesting to not that the performance of these movies is not that far off from the estimated sales of the comics they’re based on. Kick-Ass made a bit of a splash when it debuted and sold well through its run. The series sold very consistently, with most issues selling in the range of 46,000 to 50,000 copies, according to estimates at ICv2.com. That puts it solidly in the same range as such Marvel mainstays as Hulk, Mighty Avengers and Invincible Iron Man. Still it’s only about half as much as it would need to get near the top of the charts.

The Losers, which ran 32 issues from 2003 to 2006, was critically acclaimed and earned a couple of Eisner Award nominations. But sales were always an issue, as they are with most of DC’s Vertigo line. The debut issue of the series sold just under 20,000, dropping to about 8,100 with the last issue in 2006, according to estimates at ICv2.com.

The point being that even when more R-rated properties do well, they don’t come close to competing with the big numbers that PG or PG-13 properties can rack up in either medium.

With Kick-Ass not having been financed by a studio, it’s an anomaly that can’t be used to predict future studio behavior. Which means that you probably won’t see much change in studios’ approach to comic book movies. The genre is still lucrative and the heat will pick up again in just a couple weeks when Iron Man 2 arrives and its grosses make executives all over Hollywood want to get into the comic book movie business.