Homemade heroes

Comic book writer Mark Millar talks to HCC about Kick-Ass 2 and that Jim Carrey incident

Away from the ‘Big Two’ publishers, Millar has also developed a number of creator-owned comics including Wanted and Kick-Ass – both of which have been turned into films. And alongside this he also found the time to launch CLiNT, a British comics anthology magazine featuring work by himself, Jonathan Ross, Frankie Boyle and others. No wonder that in June of this year Millar was honoured in the Queen’s 2013 Birthday Honours List with an MBE for his roles as a ‘comic book writer and film producer, for services to literature and drama’.

With the film adaptation of his comic book series Kick-Ass 2 arriving on Blu-ray and DVD, we caught up with Millar to talk about the making of the film, what exactly happened regarding Jim Carrey’s infamous tweet and his love of Jaws

Where did the inspiration for the Kick-Ass comic first come from?

'It's actually pretty tragic, because it genuinely is autobiographical. When I was about 14 or 15 – a little bit too old for it to actually be funny – my best friend and I were planning on becoming homemade superheroes. It was probably the stress of exams or something. Anyway, we designed costumes for ourselves at the back of chemistry class and went to karate and the gym for six months. We were really planning it.

'Luckily our balls dropped or something and we suddenly thought: "Let's not do this, it's actually insane". So Kick-Ass is almost like an alternate reality diary of what would have happened in that Sliding Doors scenario if I'd been stupid enough to go ahead with it.'

Am I right in thinking that your original idea for the comic actually centred on Hit-Girl?

‘Years and years ago, maybe around 2005, I actually wrote two issues called Big Daddy and Hit-Girl. But it just didn’t seem right. You know the training sequence where Hit-Girl is getting shot in the chest? That was the opening scene for the whole series and I remember thinking that it was really cool.

‘But as I was getting to the end of the first issue, I started thinking that these guys were just too outrageous. They’re great, but the joke is that she’s got a potty-mouth and he’s a little crazy – and that would wear thin quite quickly if they were the lead characters across 25 issues. However, I knew I loved them and I that I wanted to do something with them, so I shelved it for a little while. About a year later I had this other idea for a comic, Kick-Ass, and it was while I was writing the first issue of that that I thought Hit-Girl could come into it.

'Star Wars was really my point of reference. Han Solo is so cool, but it would be awful if he was the lead in the film. You need Luke Skywalker as the entry-point for the viewer. So I used Dave as the entry-point for Kick-Ass. Then Hit-Girl became Han Solo… and Big Daddy was Chewie, I guess.'

Given the great job that writer Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn did with the first film, did you have any worries about handing Kick-Ass 2 over to a different filmmaker?

'I would have been nervous if it had been like Jaws 2, where Spielberg had nothing to do with it. As it was, this felt more like ...The Empire Strikes Back where the only thing that changed was the writer and director. Now I know that sounds enormous, but Matthew’s guiding hand was always going to be there. He was George Lucas in this scenario and hand-picked everyone, including [director] Jeff Wadlow. So I just relaxed.

'Matthew and I have a really good relationship, we talk on the phone almost every day, going back six or seven years to when he first bought the rights to Kick-Ass. And we're still doing a number of projects together – he bought the rights to Superior and is filming Secret Service right now – so I feel I'm in good hands with him.

'Anyway, I’m the eternal optimist. I never worry about anything. I remember when the first Kick-Ass movie was coming out and Matthew was really worried about it because nobody had ever done a superhero movie like that before and it might tank. But, I was like: “No, no, no. It’s gonna be gigantic. It’ll be bigger than Avatar” [laughs]. So I always think it’s gonna make two-billion dollars or something, where Matthew’s more like: “It’s easy for you to relax because it’s not your money. I’ve borrowed all this money to make this film”.’

Despite pulling back on a few of the more extreme elements from the comics are you surprised by just how much of your Kick-Ass has made it to the screen intact?

‘Whenever tweaks have been made, I’ve been in those meetings as well and we all come to a joint decision. So if something is edited, it’s always for the best of reasons. Nobody ever omits or changes anything to annoy anyone, they do it because it will work better.

‘The ending of Kick-Ass 2 is probably the best example. In the comic there’s basically an extra five-minutes where Hit-Girl gets arrested. But Matthew said that we should save that for the third movie, if we do one, because watching your favourite character going to prison is such a downer to end the film on. As a comic you can get away with that a little easier, because you’re reading it in chapters each month. But you want to walk out feeling great when you see a superhero movie. Matthew’s very good at that, he’s very instinctive. So he asked Jeff to amend that when he read the screenplay.’

Both the Kick-Ass 2 comic book and film came in for criticism for their use of threats of sexual violence against women as a narrative tool. How do you respond to those concerns?

‘It’s something you’ve got to be really sensitive about as a writer, even when you’re doing something really outrageous like Kick-Ass and you’re doing things that no other superhero movie would tackle and breaking taboos. You have to have some level of responsibility in there as well.

‘For example, I hate to see the objectifiction in artwork and comic books have suffered enormously from that – especially in the 1990s where they almost looked like Page Three shots where the costumes had just been painted on. I despise that kind of thing. As the father of daughters I’d be embarrassed to have my name on something that looks so cheap and crass.

‘But even when we do something that seems to be beyond the pale, I always try to have the worst of that kind of thing happen off camera. With the cartoon violence you can get away with a certain amount because it’s like Itchy & Scratchy in a comic book. But if you do something like sexual violence you have to be very careful. So in the comic we made sure we cut away before the scene and cut back after, because you don’t want to do anything that could be in any way crude looking.

‘As a writer, as an artist, people need to have a sense of responsibility, which is what we try to adhere to. So even though we have a comic called Kick-Ass and a character called The Mother****er, we try to be semi-responsible at the same time.’

It's impossible to talk about Kick-Ass 2 without asking about Jim Carrey. Have you spoken to him since he publicly distanced himself from the film due to its 'level of violence'?

'No. Nobody has spoken to Jim since he put that tweet up. Nobody has heard anything from him. We were all excited about the release and then suddenly Jim puts that tweet up saying that he's not going to be promoting the film.

‘If the problem was fictional violence on-screen perpetuating actual violence in the real world, then to me the argument is extremely simple – in the UK and Europe we have the same movies as America and yet gun fatalities are 300 times lower than they are in the States. So clearly the films aren’t the problem. The problem is entirely down to the access to weapons.

‘So I think it’s actually clever of the gun lobby to get people talking about violence in movies because it distracts from the real issue. And Jim played right into their hands by raising the subject of screen violence. But I can understand why he did it, because he had been getting a lot of flak from them for some online videos he'd done. So they used the fact that he was in Kick-Ass 2 to make him look like a hypocrite. I think they had him in checkmate and he felt that he had to distance himself from the film. That's my own reading of what happened.' 

Moving on from Kick-Ass 2, what can you tell us about other screen adaptation of your comics?

‘I’ve still got a few movies at Universal as well, we’ve got Kick-Ass, War Heroes and the Wanted franchise, but I’ve also built this really quite rapid and fun relationship with 20th Century Fox. Secret Service, which is the next movie I’m doing with Matthew Vaughn, is over at Fox and is shooting right now.

‘I’ve also sold a comic called Nemesis to them as well, which Joe Carnahan is directing. That’s like a reverse Batman movie, where a city’s worst nightmare is a billionaire who wears a mask and uses all his weapons against the cops. You don’t really get that many nice billionaires anyway and I thought in these austere times that it would be good not to have a hero billionaire out there.

‘Another thing I’m doing over at Fox is a children’s book I’d written a couple of years ago called Kindergarten Heroes, which is about the children of superheroes and where they go during the day. And then there’s Superior as well. So that’s four adaptations of mine all happening over at Fox right now.’

You’ve also been a helping out on the studio’s Marvel superheroes movies…

‘Yeah, Fox also asked if ‘d like to be a consultant and oversee their Marvel movies. They have Fantastic Four, the have Wolverine and they have the X-Men franchise, which can spin off lots of other characters. So I’ve been doing that for about a year now and it’s tremendously exciting.

‘There’s nothing I enjoy more than not working, not writing, and actually just sitting there and criticising other people. I really just enjoy chewing the cud with these guys and it’s so different and so social compared to be a writer where you’re just sitting on your own on a computer all day.

'I love more than jumping on a plane and hanging out with the Fox guys for a few days.  And they’re all lovely. It’s funny, as liberals growing up in the UK we assume that Fox is evil, but they’re not. So either I’ve gone evil or they’re really nice [laughs]. I find that we tend to think along the same lines, so it’s a total pleasure going out there to sit and talk about superhero stuff.’

Clearly superheroes are big business in cinemas at the moment. But do you think that long-form comics are maybe better suited to episodic TV adaptations rather than as films?

‘Yeah, I actually think that some things have been mistakenly squeezed into the movie format, like Constantine. That was something that would have been a terrific television series...'

It was the oft-rumoured film adaptation of Y: The Last Man that always chilled me to the bone...

'Absolutely. It would have been horrendous to squeeze something as wonderful, complex and full of ideas as that into two hours. It’s like trying to squeeze Breaking Bad or The Sopranos into two hours. So I think it’s really exciting that things like Daredevil and Luke Cage are on track for TV shows. The Walking Dead really paved the way for all of that.

‘That said, I tend to work quite differently. My comics tend to have a classic three-act structure and endings, so I don’t really think that any of it would work especially well on television. But there are so many great comic out there. Preacher is one I would love to see. I always slightly dreaded the idea of a Preacher movie because I had a feeling they would butcher it. And Preacher’s probably my favourite comic of the last 20 years, so the idea of them butchering it as a two hour movie would have been horrible. But it would be a wonderful five-season HBO show.‘ [coincidentally, days after this interview was conducted a Preacher pilot was green-lit by AMC in the US]

Finally, do you have any favourite films that you like unwinding with at home?

‘Definitely, and they’re the most obvious ones in the world. Populism is always frowned on, especially here in the UK. But sometimes things are popular because they're really, really brilliant, like Jaws, The Godfather and Star Wars. I remember doing my first interviews when I became a writer at 19 and my friends at the time told me not to tell people that Star Wars and Jaws were my favourite films because people would think that I was an idiot.

‘I genuinely do believe that Jaws is the greatest movie ever made. I probably watch it about twice a year and it’s a perfect film. The thing I love about it is that you could show it to an Eskimo, you could show it to an Aborigine, you could show it to somebody in Southampton and it would mean the same thing to all of them. There’s a threat to the village and three men get together to end the threat – it’s such a classic, basic story. And I always marvel at that, I love it when somebody can simplify an idea like that.‘

Kick-Ass 2 is available to buy on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download from December 9 courtesy of Universal Pictures