How the makers of 'I Kill Giants' made a non-superhero comic-book movie for kids

Madison Wolfe as Barbara in <em>I Kill Giants</em> (Photo courtesy of TIFF)
Madison Wolfe as Barbara in I Kill Giants (Photo courtesy of TIFF)

In this golden age of comic-book cinema, there are a plethora of superhero options for the young (and young at heart), as well as more serious-minded fare for the grown-up crowd adapted from graphic novels and series like Road to Perdition and American Splendor. But what do you do if you’re a tweenage or teenage comics fan caught between Spider-Man and Harvey Pekar? Our recommendation would be to keep your eyes peeled for I Kill Giants, an adaptation of a 2008 Image Comics-published limited series that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week.

The feature debut of Danish director, Andres Walter, who previously won an Oscar for the 2013 live-action short Helium, I Kill Giants — which is currently without a definite release date — occupies that perfect middle ground for young viewers who are hungry for more challenging fare outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe, but aren’t quite ready for the graphic violence on display in, say, David Cronenberg’s version of the graphic novel A History of Violence. “Most films based on comic books tend to be based on plot, unless it’s a small film like Ghost World,” Walter told Yahoo Movies in Toronto. “I wanted to do something that had a strong theme, and the courage to deal with something really important. You don’t see that kind of drama in kids’ movies anymore; I think people are afraid that it’s going to be too much or too dark.”

Sydney Wade, Madison Wolfe, Rory Jackson and director Anders Walter attend the <em>I Kill Giants</em> premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo: Tara Ziemba/Getty Images)
Sydney Wade, Madison Wolfe, Rory Jackson and director Anders Walter attend the I Kill Giants premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. (Photo: Tara Ziemba/Getty Images)

There are certainly dark elements on display in I Kill Giants, which was adapted to the screen by its original author, Joe Kelly (who created the comic with artist J.M. Ken Niimura), and introduces viewers to Barbara, a young girl living in a seaside town with a very active fantasy life. In her mind’s eye, she sees her small community being continually threatened with destruction by oversized monsters and has made it her mission to be the resident giant slayer. She even has a superhero costume of sorts, which includes a pair of bunny ears and a blue windbreaker. “She has her own uniform and quirks,” confirms Madison Wolfe, the 14-year-old actress who plays Barbara. Adds her co-star and onscreen friend Sydney Wade, “Superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman save the world, but she saves her own world. The movies shows that beautifully.”

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Barbara’s fantasies are a necessary escape from real-world trauma that she’s not ready to face. But Kelly’s script and Walter’s direction smartly withholds the exact details until they can land with maximum emotional impact. At the same time, the seeds of that final revelation are planted throughout the film in a way that kids will pick up on, making the final act extra satisfying. I Kill Giants premiered in Toronto as part of the festival’s TIFF Kids program, and the theater was filled with parents and children who were visibly moved as the film drew to a close. “When I drew the comic, I never thought it was going to be for kids,” co-creator Niimura told us. “But I’m really happy younger readers are approaching the material and understanding it. I remember as a kid reading mature things and enjoying them all the same.”

And if they weren’t aware that I Kill Giants was a comic book going into the theater, there’s a good chance they’ll come out eager to track down a copy. According to Kelly, that’s a benefit that books from small presses enjoy more than titles published by DC and Marvel. “These movies don’t drive sales for mainstream comics as much, but they really do for independent books. The tentpoles are always going to be there, and as a fan, I’m thrilled they exist. My son is 16 and Guardians of the Galaxy is his Star Wars in a way. But if we get to be in the pantheon of non-superhero movies like Ghost World and Scott Pilgrims vs. the World — which I’ve literally watched about 100 times — that would be amazing.”

Asked whether there are any non-superhero books that they’d most like to see follow I Kill Giants to the big screen, Kelly name-checks Brian K. Vaughn’s Pride of Baghdad and Steven Seagle’s Genius, while Niimura recommends two titles from Raina Telgemeier, Smile and Sisters. “They’re for young adults, but they work really well as comics, and I’d like to see them as movies.” Adds Kelly: “In American comics, we don’t have enough of these books for the ‘Young Reader’ section of the comic book store.” Or, for that matter, the multiplex.

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