Both in print and on the silver screen, Kick-Ass arrived at just the right time to smack around a tired superhero genre. The film, which arrived not long after Marvel began its dominance and the market became flooded with capes, was an irreverent and hyper violent breath of fresh air, a deconstruction of the fanboy-powered craze in the same way that Heathers completely took down '80s high school comedies. But it was also a product of its time, and director Matthew Vaughn brilliantly explored the idea of real life "heroes" with dark comedy and a biting self-referential wit.
Kick-Ass 2 is not Kick-Ass, though, not by a long stretch. It piles up more bodies and spills more blood, but the subversive element is completely absent, perhaps due to the presence of writer/director Jeff Wadlow, taking over for Vaughn who moves into a producing capacity. Wadlow's a name most aren't familiar with, and as a director he's been a mixed bag with the stylish and underrated slasher film Cry_Wolf his shining credit, and the brawny/brainless teen-MMA flick Never Back Down mostly a stinker. Under his guidance Kick-Ass 2 loses much of its sense of humor and is often a muddled mess of contradictions, even if hanging out with these characters again remains as electric as ever.
The irony of Kick-Ass is that the title character is basically a supporting character in his own story. When things kick off we see Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) giving up on his life of battling crime after the bazooka-filled conclusion of his last mission, while Mindy McCready aka Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) continues to pummel the bad guys in her purple-clad costume and wig. Legacy and responsibility weigh heavily on them both, as well as their former pal turned villain, Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) aka the Red Mist. Dave fights because his sad sack father never did all his life, and he wants to avoid becoming like him. Mindy is still trying to live up to the memory of her dead father, the former hero Big Daddy, while at the same time is yanked in the other direction by her guardian (Morris Chestnut), who her father chose to usher her into a normal life. Meanwhile, Chris is struggling with his father's death, which he rightfully blames on Kick-Ass. To get revenge, Chris decides to put his considerable wealth to evil use by building his own super-team and criminal empire under the guise of leathery villain The Motherfu**er.
The shock of watching kids committing horrific acts of violence is dulled by the growth spurts of Johnson and Moretz, with him growing into a bulky, ripped mass of muscle. The most drastic transformation is in Moretz, now a young woman and believable as a girl navigating the high school social order. Again, the idea of "identity" takes center stage as Mindy is forced to give up wearing masks, and becomes involved with a Mean Girls-esque click of popular girls. As Mindy molds herself to fit in, we're hit over the head with the obvious message that high school is the facade, and being out there on the streets kicking butt is the real world. Got it. But there's nothing in the way of subtlety about these scenes, which could really be described as the primary storyline, and nor are they particularly original. Mindy begins to get hot over boy bands and tries going out on a date, only to discover that regular people wear masks of a different sort to hide their true nature. Rather than exploring this idea with any depth, Wadlow gives us a puke and poop-filled payoff.
There's something undeniably exciting about the gathering of costumed superfolks, though, and Kick-Ass 2 gets a lot of mileage from its supporting cast. Jim Carrey is delightfully bonkers as Colonel Stars and Stripes, an ex-Mafia thug whose mental state changes with the wind. At once a fatherly mentor to Kick-Ass, he's also incredibly twisted to his foes, gleefully siccing his dog to chomp on a victim's balls. The earnest enthusiasm of Doctor Gravity (Donald Faison), coupled with his penchant for stretching the truth, capture some of the prior films' energy. The relationship between Kick-Ass and the sexy Night Bitch (Lindy Booth, a Wadlow favorite) is notable for borrowing from the Watchmen playbook for costumed hero sex, "Let's keep our masks on".
Things get downright Oedipal as Chris embraces his evil nature, seeking the approval of his late father yet wearing the leather S&M gear of his mother (Yancy Butler), who he accidentally killed in a nasty tanning booth mishap. Cool comic book splash pages (drawn by the great John Romita Jr.) introduce his crew of supervillains, The Toxic Mega-Cunts, with the standout proving to be the massive, towering Mother Russia (bodybuilder Olga Kurkulina). In perhaps the film's most shocking and over-the-top moment, she systematically destroys an entire squad of cops in increasingly hideous fashion, utilizing a lawnmower in ways that would make Machete jealous.
It all ends with a massive super-brawl that is awesome in its madness, delivering in the wanton destruction comic book readers have come to love, and that the last film was content to mock mercilessly. Major characters are slaughtered suddenly and the impact of their loss is meant to be poignant and sobering, but it's hard to take seriously when the very next scene indulges in the absurd. Vaughn was more adept at taking the more sadistic elements of Mark Millar's novel and molding them cleverly for the screen, whereas Wadlow merely ports them over without much in the way of imagination or nuance. He's not bad, but the difference is certainly felt. This is a film that succeeds because of our connection to the character. While it's awkward to watch Taylor-Johnson trying to play a high schooler, he's still refreshingly "normal" as Dave. But just as before, he's overshadowed by Moretz and Mintz-Plasse, who get the flashiest characters to play and make the most of it. Moretz gets a little more to work with, and it's safe to assume she's channeling in some of the teenage angst she'll be portraying in the upcoming Carrie remake.
There's a reason that Jim Carrey has come out publicly against the film's violence, and it has nothing to do with him looking for a little attention in the mainstream press. It's that there's no real rhyme or reason to just how excessive it is, nor the brief flashes of sexism and racism that rear their ugly heads on occasion. On its own, Kick-Ass 2 would be a solidly entertaining, vulgar and offensive look at what defines a "hero", but it's impossible not to compare it to its predecessor, which also had something to say about it.