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Why 'Kick-Ass' failed (and did it really?)

April 19, 2010 |  9:32 am


It seems a little wrong for us to evaluate the disappointing $19.8-million take of "Kick-Ass" this weekend when we (and many others) were, prior to its release, touting a possible runaway success.  But quarterbacks wake up on Monday too, and so it seems only right to take a look at what went wrong with Matthew Vaughn's stylishly bloody kid-superhero picture, based on Mark Millar's equally stylish and smart graphic novel. Here are a number of misconceptions held by us (and others) that were disproved this weekend (to go along with our belief that this movie could well pick up a little momentum and perform nicely in the coming weeks).

Many young people in this country are ready to embrace the shocking.
Tolerance for violence in youth-oriented movies has been growing for years, and even movies aimed at young people that land an R rating can become hits ("Borat" comes to mind). So apart from the 16-and-under crowd that couldn't (officially) get in -- and we all knew about that problem before -- the envelope-pushing of "Kick-Ass" wasn't going to deter any film-goers. But it turns out that large swaths of the country may not crave the shock-worthy, at least not the overt kind. Package those shocks in innocuous wrapping -- like a mustachioed Eastern European man and a harmlessly funny title -- and you're fine. But put them front-and-center and you're in trouble. All we needed to know about Middle America's discomfort with the film came when we saw a theater marquee in western North Carolina, where we're writing this; the theater wouldn't even use the second word of the title, preferring dashes instead. That's never a good indicator.

The mainstream is tired of the straight superhero story and wants something that subverts the form.

No matter how some try to categorize it, "Kick-Ass" isn't really a movie about superheroes. The character has as many powers as a house rabbit. The person who saves everyone is an 11-year-old in a purple wig. The characters in the film are, for one of the first time in movie history, just as slyly knowing of the tropes and conventions of superhero films as those watching it. "Kick-Ass" isn't so much a superhero movie as it is a post-superhero movie. In the era of "The Dark Knight" and Robert Downey Jr.'s "Iron Man," this is what we want, right?

Not exactly. Sure, "Dark Knight" raised the levels of darkness and complexity. And Downey in "Iron Man" makes self-effacing jokes about invincibility and freakish powers. But those films are ultimately still superhero movies. They improve the genre; they don't subvert it. And parts of the American audience, for whatever reason, don't want subversion when it comes to superhero movies. The only other big commercial film that really tried this before? "Watchmen." Exactly.

Kickass Controversy will sell tickets.

That's true -- but only if the right people object. They didn't here. Parents groups weren't debating "Kick-Ass" before the film was released-- critics were. And if critics matter less at the box office when recommending a movie, they matter less when objecting to it. That said, Lionsgate should have seized on the unrest. See how the CW turns the protestations over "Gossip Girl" to its marketing advantage by incorporating them into its campaigns? That could have worked nicely here too.

Internet buzz means robust ticket sales.
Actually, this one we believe. Yes, there's always a "Snakes on a Plane" that proves the exception. But that film was largely embraced as a goof, and goofy doesn't sell tickets. On fan sites and on Twitter, the Internet masses sincerely embraced "Kick-Ass." It's just that those masses were only large enough to sell a certain amount of tickets (and we still maintain that the movie will hold rather well in the coming weeks anyway, thanks in part to said buzz).

An abstract marketing campaign is almost foolproof.

If "Paranormal Activity" and other films can become mega-hits with marketers carefully withholding information about a movie's content, this film will too.  But simply throwing up some posters that obscures a movie's plot and themes, as Lionsgate did here, isn't enough. You have to give people a reason to care about what you're not telling them. And the studio didn't sufficiently do that.

Finally, after saying all this, we're not convinced that "Kick-Ass" is indeed a failure. That's not just because to negate that designation is to avoid buying co-workers lunch (or at least eating less crow when we do). There's a genuine success story lurking beneath "Kick-Ass," and not just for Lionsgate, which only bought the movie in August and will earn back its investment. This is a film that no studio wanted to make, one that Vaughn produced, financed and even promoted himself, in a time when it's harder than ever to do those things on your own.

And how did it work out? Last year, "Kick-Ass" became one of the only movies in Comic-con history to generate significant buzz despite the absence of studio backing. And just eight months later it will turn a tidy $40-$50 million at the domestic box office, a number well higher than its production budget. Do that at Sundance and you're a legend. Vaughn may not be that, but he's no slouch either.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Upper photo: Chloe Moretz in "Kick-Ass."  Credit: Lionsgate

Lower photo: A poster for "Kick-Ass." Credit: Lionsgate


Comments () | Archives (34)

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KICK-ASS is a huge failure on all levels. Mainly because Zeitchik and others bought into and gleefully added to the hype that gets super-heated on the net by geeks and raised the bar so high it never could reach it. This film was made for a select audience and it's going to die quick at theaters.

Reality check. The comic book never sold that well and isn't talked about among comic geeks. There is nothing that interesting in the book to talk about concerning "becoming" a superhero and besides everyone would rather read a much more inspiring (while still dark) BATMAN: YEAR ONE by Miller and Mazzucchelli.

Second reality check. The movie is NOT that good. Repeat. NOT THAT GOOD. Has moments but there is no STORY to speak of, just a vile and nasty take on the world with goofy, giggling, geek tripe thrown in. Boils down to...Who cares? Obviously nobody despite this and other online chatter from those desperate to claim that ONLY they know cool and want to ram it down people's throats to justify being so utterly wrong about the film and its appeal.

even if this film was made to appeal only to a select audience it is still #1 in the box office, expected to have up to twice as much audience next weekend, and as of now is the most popular movie in America and features two of the most popular characters as well. over the past week kick-ass popularity rate has gone up at least 100% every day.

also just because the comic was not very well known does not make it a bad story and does not mean the movie will not be a success. you also cant assume that everyone would rather read a "much more inspiring" comic because *news flash* NOT EVERYONE WOULD! you arent right about everything and while you are entitled to your opinion Mr. Snakes on a Plane, so is everyone else who did enjoy the movie and/or comic and they don't have to put up with your criticism of their own opinions.

lastly, you say others want to ram what they think is cool down peoples' throats but you are no better if you are going to do the very same thing you are attacking.

How funny, the media declaring this film a failure despite it being no.1 in the box office. The media ignored the fact that it already made 41 million from a 30 million budget within it's first week of release. And that's suppose to be a failure? Give me a break. The media dosen't decide on this. It's the studio. If they think a sequel is worthwhile, they will do it, regardless of what the papers say.

The girlfriend and I saw it last weekend and loved it. Plan on seeing it again this weekend. Some movies are just destined to be sleeper hits, and thankfully so. The straight out of the gate hits usually lose steam after a few weeks and other movies supplant them. That's why most studios crave- like ravenous hyenas- that the opening box office explode like a too thin condom!

This one will take a little time to build steam, but I have a feeling once word spreads, it will do just fine.

Oh, and to those that feel "Kick-Ass" is an offense title that their children shouldn't have to bear witness to, I hate to break it to you, but 'ass' and words much worse are spoken on television (and not just cable) every day of the week. Sorry, but if you're hoping to cloister them away from the offenses of society you're better off shipping them to a convent right now, because the truth will (eventually) set them free.

"it will turn a tidy $40-$50 million at the domestic box office, a number well higher than its production budget."

I didn't expect to see something this shockingly naive on the LA Times' entertainment page. The producers of the film sold Lionsgate the US distribution rights for $45 mil (other companies are handling the foreign), so they're in the black. Lionsgate, however, also has marketing costs, etc., to pay. If the film only makes $40-$50 mil as you state, Lionsgate will get roughly half of that -- $20-$25 mil. Not such a very good deal for an investment that could be in the neighborhood of $70 mil.

The best movie so far this year.

This is a great movie, but not outstanding. It is not without it's flaws. You see, the premise is excellent, and not too overdone (the ordinary kid/man becomes a superhero, but this time, with no powers). The subgenre calls up thoughts of movies like Blankman and Iron Man. Nicolas Cage was FLAWLESS-this is the kind of role he excels in (dramatic and somewhat moody, yet warm-hearted and compassionate). Other good points of the movie are the strong family and romantic bonds in the movie, the "real life", chillingly convincing, heartless villains as the antagonists, the teenage drama that comes off as somewhat "realistic"-not too vulgar, not too overdone, not too worldly, and not too "cheesy", and likeable main characters (who did a great job acting), as well as certain twists in the plot that help to keep you involved with the movie. It is so hard to not want to shield that little girl from the violence the mob inflicts on her, as well as the protagonist himself!
Which leads me to my critiques. You see, this movie has "lets "mildly" offend every single family out there", by making a movie geared for kids and families to watch, not to mention teens and other young people curious about the movie, that REALLY shows what villains are like in REAL life-cold, heartless, ruthless killers (like Scarface, yes), AND it has plenty of blood and gore, profanity, and, yes (gasp), a little sexual innuendo to boot. After all, kids will hear this stuff in school, right? Oh, and lets make a movie with... a simply adorable little girl who swears as much as a drunken sailor. But that's okay, because she lost her mom, and she's daddy's little girl, and she's gotta be tough (this is a cruel, uncaring world after all), so she's gotta swear at least some of the time...
THIS is why the movie doesn't REALLY score with the more principled folks and families in America, it has SO much going for it, but every time something potentially objectionable comes up (which can be quite often), it chips away at the "family movie" image that it sends out. That, and the R rating... "Honey, this movie looks so good to see with the kids. But its rated R, and I've heard some bad things about it..." Etc.
You've gotta find your audience, and if you've got as broad of an audience as possible that you're trying to market to, make sure that you don't ALIENATE the folks who make it a point to never swear or tell dirty jokes, etc., by putting in all that garbage. Few movies really appeal to EVERYONE. They're called blockbusters, and they don't need garbage to help them sell, because they have so much going for them already. Out of 5 stars? I'd give it a 3 and a half. Because, like I said, after all, there are some strong points to the movie. But it could have been much, MUCH better...
Oh, and keep in mind what kinds of subject matter "rougher" types REALLY go for-esp. the folks interested in Vin Diesel, Quentin Tarantino, etc. type movies (Everyday teenage/kid superheroes with tons of guns? Sounds risky... but doable... if you add this and this and this), and you begin to see the shortcomings of the movie even more.

Personally I thought it was an awesome movie It had great graphics, a good story line, and the choice of music throughout the movie was perfect. The little girl in the movie was great she had the best stunts. I don't know why it would bomb.

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