Celebrated for its originality and gritty but fresh take on comic book superheroes in real-world New York City — with as much pulpy violence, graphic language, and sexuality as its R rating allowed — the graphic novel-derived Kick-Ass became a sleeper hit in 2010. Kick-Ass 2 feels derivative, especially in comparison to its critically lauded predecessor. Where Kick-Ass broke new ground with its speculative treatment of what might happen if civilian comic book fans were to don capes and masks and try to fight crime in the real world (i.e., where the bad guys run drug rings and organize human trafficking rather than try to take over the world), Kick-Ass 2 comes across as a multi-genre mashup of overplayed story lines. The writers hit on a number of tropes: the popular clique adopts and then swiftly dismantles the image of Chloë Grace Moretz’s high school misfit Mindy McCready; a training montage furnishes the nerdy-handsome Dave Lizewski with a rippling bod in a matter of minutes; and by the last few scenes, not one but two dead parents serve as motivation for the simultaneous heroism and revenge of the protagonists in the climactic final battle. It’s Mean Girls meets Spiderman (or Batman, or any comic book adaptation with an orphaned lead — so basically all of them), with the deliberately over-the-top graphic violence of a Tarantino film (read: hands cut off, heads popping like watermelons under tires) and the irreverently foul-mouthed humor of Superbad.
If you’re thinking all of that actually sounds like a lot of fun, you’re not wrong. Despite the predictability inherent in a film that ends up falling into many of the tropes it tries to satirize, Kick-Ass 2 is still a riot to watch. A number of laugh-out-loud moments carry on the flavor of the original, the feel-good ending won’t give you cavities, and the one truly original storyline unfurls like a natural continuation of the civilian superhero phenomenon Dave kickstarted in the first film — complete with the undertones of social critique that allowed Kick-Ass to pack such a punch in 2010. Kick-Ass 2 even manages to feel slightly broader in scope, staunchly depicting the flip side to a world where the geeky and the marginalized can play out their superhero fantasies: some people will inevitably choose to become real-life super villains instead. Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s reprisal of his role as obnoxious rich kid/foil Chris D’Amico, who has discarded the identity of superhero Red Mist in favor of newly-minted super villain The Motherfucker, engages in more of the ugliness of real-world crime than what makes it into most comics (you wouldn’t see the Green Lantern shooting flares at a funeral party, and the beating and near-rape of momentary love interest and Justice Forever member Night Bitch* steps outside the usual boundaries of comic book villainy).
Although Kick-Ass 2 is so obviously comedic it occasionally veers into slapstick territory, several scenes attempt to swap comedy for emotional depth — but stock action-movie lines make potentially tear-jerking moments feel throwaway. During a scene where Mr. Lizewski discovers Dave’s Kick-Ass costume in his room, I half expected the father to go all Uncle Ben and preach “with great power comes great responsibility.” The emotional core of the movie resides in the first half, when Dave as Kick-Ass joins up with a number of other civilian superheroes to form a team called Justice Forever, the majority of whom choose to fight crime in response to past tragedy. In one of her final lines, Hit Girl tells Dave, “You don’t have to be a badass to be a superhero… You just have to be brave.” This theme, woven throughout the movie, is no more resonant than in the doggedness of the members of Justice Forever. They may look like a bunch of geeks who got lost on the way to Comic Con, but they manage to make the world a better place — at least a little, and at least in terms of finishing what Dave started when he became Kick-Ass.
In terms of individual characters, Chloë Grace Moretz once again steals the show. However, during the middle portion of the film she disappointingly discards Hit Girl’s leather jacket for newly popular freshman Mindy McCready’s cardigan and dresses, and we’re deprived of those fabulous martial arts displays (with the exception of an adrenaline-inducing imagined fight sequence, where Mindy/Hit Girl gets to show up the queen bee during dance team auditions). And while Hit Girl engages in plenty of explicit banter when she does get to kick ass, a number of lines fail to carry their own weight and were clearly thrown in for the shock value — as well as to capitalize on the popularity of the foul mouthed then-tween’s banter in the first film. Moretz does her best with the line’s she’s thrown, but a couple of jabs can’t help but sound cardboard. Notably, Jim Carrey puts in an inspired performance as Colonel Stars and Stripes.
The verdict: If you’re expecting the same caliber of self-aware humor and social critique as the original, Kick-Ass 2 will disappoint you — but if you’re in the mood for an irreverent and entertaining romp that carries on some of the vibrancy of the first film (with a couple of moments that tug at the heartstrings thrown in for good measure), then you’re in for a kick-ass two hours.
*I have not read the source material for either Kick-Ass film, but apparently the graphic novel has the rape play out — albeit off the page. The fact that this potentially triggering scene gets written off as an opportunity for physical humor (The Motherfucker would do the deed, but he can’t get it up) belittles the gravity of a serious and traumatic real-world issue, and I can’t imagine watching this scene as a victim of sexual assault or rape. Not a good move on the writers’ part — they should have duplicated the scene from the comic in full or cut it altogether.