Crude, crass, callous and filled with carnage, Kick-Ass 2 commands our attention. Half smart-allecky satire, half semi-plausible vigilante fantasy, the movie is a worthy, if inferior, successor to Matthew Vaughn’s original. The series’ first director and co-writer remains on board as producer, but the creative reins have been handed down to the little-known Jeff Wadlow.
2010’s Kick-Ass, a brilliant, brazen, charcoal black action-comedy about a shy, nerdy teen trying to make it as a crime fighter was a breath of fresh air, the anti-Spiderman young superhero adventure I’d been waiting for. This screwy, savvy, self-conscious and self-satisfied sequel fills the screen with even more arterial spray and lays the irony on even thicker. By the second outing, however, it’s getting harder to distinguish Kick-Ass from the polished, name-brand superhero flicks it seemed to offer us respite from.
While still bone-crushingly brutal, Kick-Ass 2 drops its punchy predecessor’s attempt to pass the visceral, vicious violence off as something shocking or subversive. Gory, gimmicky, and grisly, the first film was deliciously and insolently provocative; it introduced crime-fighting children who toted guns, shot to kill, and cursed like Samuel L. Jackson. A joke is rarely as funny the second time you hear it, but Kick-Ass 2 offers a fresh infusion of comic energy in the loose, flippant approach to its source material, the ongoing Marvel series by Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr.
As the movie opens, the self-styled superhero Kick-Ass, a.k.a. likeable but clumsy coming-of-age teenager Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is taking a few tips from the Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz) book of badassery, toughening up with a vigorous training regimen prescribed by Hit-Girl herself. His final test, which involves a handful of street thugs, some pipes and at least one knife, goes grindingly gory, and Hit-Girl sprints and slashes to the rescue. Unfortunately, the event comes back to Mindy’s legal guardian Marcus (Morris Chestnut), who insists she hang up her purple wig and give up her crime-fighting ways.
Moretz, now old enough to get past the childhood-exploitation issues and general controversy surrounding her first iteration of the role, remains the series’ biggest asset. For those who missed the original Kick-Ass, her Hit-Girl is a lethal fighting machine trained since early childhood by her cop father who moonlighted as the Batman-styled Big Daddy (played Nicolas Cage in the previous film at his most entertainingly oddball). At 11, she splattered onto the screen wielding nun-chucks and announcing, “All right, you cunts, let’s see what you can do now,” as the bones break and the blood runs. Unfortunately, nothing she does in Kick-Ass 2 comes close to topping that unforgettable entrance, although the character hasn’t lost any of the striking skills for separating men from their limbs and other extremities, and a roughly rendered highway sequence that places the girl atop a speeding vehicle filled with soon-to-be-dead baddies is memorable to say the least.
After Hit-Girl promises Marcus to stay out of trouble, the film gets split into two tracks, both comparatively sharp and satisfying, with parallel plotlines smoothly kept in motion through a series of stylistic flourishes like cross-cutting, comic book-style captions, and voiceover narration. While Dave joins a league of amateur vigilantes, Mindy decides to enjoy what’s left of her young adulthood and tries to fit in at high school.
Here Wadlow effectively enters Mean Girls territory—if Mean Girls featured graphic spontaneous projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea—to hilarious effect. The director channels the classic high school outsider story, complete with bullying and comeuppance, as Mindy befriends the most popular girls at school, a trio of queen bee bitches concerned with protecting their turf, experiences a mild sexual awakening via boy band music video, gets a makeover, and all but loses sight of who she really is. At 11, Hit-Girl could take on the world, but a few years later, entering an awkward adolescent stage, she is pressured by social norms to abandon everything and become just another simpering teen only interested in clothes and boys. I’m not sure this was the filmmaker’s intention, but the need Mindy feels to be ordinary instead of extraordinary says a lot about our high school culture.
Meanwhile, Kick-Ass joins a squad of brave misfits that includes Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison), Insect Man (Robert Emms), and Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), all led by Col. Stars and Stripes (a Jim Carrey barely recognizable in facial prosthetics and army fatigues). A former mob enforcer and born-again Christian, the Colonel and his team start cleaning up Manhattan’s streets by attacking sex-trafficking gangsters with a crotch-biting dog called Eisenhower (Carrey’s character reminded me uneasily of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian from Watchmen).
Col. Stars and Stripes metes out cold, bloody justice with great flair and gusto. “It hurts,” a bound evildoer whines as Eisenhower chews on his genitals; “Of course it hurts,” the masked hero says with utmost sincerity, “you’ve got a dog on your balls.” The unlikely avengers group is destined for a short and unpleasant life though, as the self-declared “world’s first super-villain” starts targeting them for elimination.
Former superhero wannabe Red Mist a.k.a. Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has repurposed his mother’s black patent-leather-and-chains fetish gear as super-villain garb, renamed himself The Motherfucker—Freudian implications left unexamined—and is seeking revenge against the masked man that killed his father. After a few unfailingly funny attempts to learn how to fight—he looks sort of like Loki did during his run-in with the Hulk in The Avengers—D’Amico proudly proclaims, “My superpower is that I’m rich as shit,” and goes about buying himself an army of murderous henchmen.
Taylor-Johnson gives a solid, committed performance, but seems to be playing second fiddle in his own superhero film; the titular Kick-Ass is far less formidable than his firebrand sidekick, who pinches the camera’s attention in every scene she’s in. More fully developed this time around, Hit-Girl is smart, frighteningly powerful and touchingly vulnerable in equal parts.
Kick-Ass 2 presents a full-on war between the forces of good and evil, but those moral poles might well as be interchangeable as the body count rises on both sides. The movie displays a facile attitude that falls somewhere between a shrug and a snicker, and the intermingling snark and sincerity all but cancel each other out. Never sure what he wants to say, Wadlow is determined to shock as well as mock; the harsh, hard-hitting violence is often at odds with the comedic sendup of the superhero genre, especially when it comes to The Motherfucker, a character so unrestrained, uncontrolled and over-the-top that it’s impossible to take him seriously, yet whose actions of mayhem and murder are often too stark to be funny.
Instead of navigating these tricky tonal shifts, it seems as though Wadlow simply gave up and decided to play everything, jokes as well as jarring massacres and rape attempts, for laughs, and the wit is not as consistently sharp as the many instruments of bloodletting. In a movie that doesn’t take anything seriously—least of all itself and its characters—how are we supposed to pay any serious attention to the script’s tentative attempts to say something thoughtful about kids losing their parents and the ability of masks to conceal not only identity but trauma as well? Kick-Ass 2 fairs best when acknowledging and accepting what it is instead of making puerile attempts at grownup drama.
If there’s one sure explanation for why the second Kick-Ass seems like it’s had much of the originality and edge kicked out of it, it might involve the number of similarly themed films we’ve been subjected to in the past three years. There’s been a lot of talk this summer of “blockbuster fatigue”; well, I’m experiencing a more specific strain of that same malady, which I’ll dub “superhero fatigue”—and I don’t think I’m alone.
The comic book geeks this series turns into heroes are no longer the underdog. Just count the number of assorted masked and/or caped crusader blockbusters released in the past year (or the past decade) and you’ll come to realize the meek have already inherited the earth; the geeks won. So what might have been new and fresh only a few years back now seems like a reiteration of the same stories, themes, and motifs, and Kick-Ass 2 is just another superhero movie.
Although there’s still something seductive and sweet deep down in the film’s concept—average Americans without any special powers dressing up and fighting for a better world—it’s not developed with enough imagination. The final battle, with dozens of costumed nerds attacking each other, looks like a heated argument at Comic-Con gotten way out of hand, and by the end of the film, an Iron Man/Dark Knight pastiche that promises a sequel if the box office warrants it, the movie is no longer lampooning the genre’s tropes, but has whole-heartedly bought into them.
So… Is Kick-Ass 2 anything but an excessive, entertaining diversion? No. Is it weightless, wacky, wildly offensive, and—for the right audience—wickedly funny? Of course it is. But it all depends on what you expect to get out of it. Ask yourself this: does the thought of a German shepherd in a star-spangled mask trained to react (violently) to the word “schwanz” make you chuckle a bit inside? If the answer is yes, then Kick-Ass 2 is the movie for you, in all of its unpretentious, undisguised, uncontested inappropriateness.
Note: Reactions to the movie’s graphic teen-on-teen violence have been varied and vociferous. People wondering about what message Kick-Ass 2 sends in a post-Sandy Hook environment—and there are many who fall into this category, including star Jim Carrey—need to remember that kids shooting each other in real life is not funny, but Wadlow’s movie is just that, a movie. While it’s true that film doesn’t function in a sealed-off void, that it reflects and sometimes influences reality, one of cinema’s greatest accomplishments as a medium and as an art form has long been its ability to imagine, create, and immerse viewers in worlds that are different and separate from our own. If we actually thought everything we laugh at inside a movie theater was also funny in the world outside the theater’s walls, we’d all be raging psychopaths.