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.
—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.