As this year's cycle of summertime movie-time disaster and destruction winds down, the time seems ripe for a film to ponder just what we want from all those superhero fantasies and exaggerated adventures. "Kick-Ass 2" would like to be that movie, but it's not.
Just as the characters in the film are average people running around in homemade costumes calling themselves super, "Kick-Ass 2" is a lesser version of what it appears to be, an uncertain jumble rather than a true exploration of outrage, violence and identity.
Both the original comic and 2010 film "Kick-Ass" reveled in provocations best exemplified not by the bland title character — a teenage boy masquerading as a costumed crime fighter — but rather the astonishing creation of the foul-mouthed pre-adolescent dervish of pain and punishment known as Hit-Girl.
The comic "Kick-Ass 2" is a lean, unpleasant piece of work, with a slight, straightforward tale of blood and revenge, so Jeff Wadlow, in taking over duties as writer-director from Matthew Vaughn, had to expand on the story. High schooler Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is desperate to get back in action as his alter-ego Kick-Ass, while the now teenage Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz) is struggling to maintain a promise that she no longer adopt the persona of Hit-Girl. Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is leaving behind his identity as superhero Red Mist to assume the mantle of the world's first super-villain, with a new name unprintable here.
As in the first film, Moretz and her character of Hit-Girl largely overwhelm the rest of the film. Wadlow's main addition to the story is expanding the attention given to the adventures of Mindy in the land of other young women, grappling with other people's ideas of normal. Among the film's best moments is when young Mindy, trying to fit in, sees a boy-band video for the first time, unleashing a wave of hormonal responses that Moretz captures perfectly.
The adventures of Hit-Girl as a regular person are far more compelling than those of Kick-Ass as a superhero. (Though even her story line is marred by a cheap, unnecessary joke in which a mean girl is made to evacuate her body from both ends at once.) As in the first film, it also doesn't help that as a performer Taylor-Johnson is a charisma-free zone.
Wadlow also expands slightly the role of amateur superhero Colonel Stars and Stripes, played by Jim Carrey. The increasingly un-fun actor is a rather poor substitute for the madcap performance of Nicolas Cage in the first film as Hit-Girl's father. Carrey recently declared he would not be promoting "Kick-Ass 2" due to a crisis of conscience regarding the film's violence. Not to be overly cynical about this change of heart, but Carrey got more notice, for himself and the film, by not participating.
Anyway, he needn't have worried. The sequel's violence feels soft-pedaled compared with the first film, continually shying away from being too graphic and with little of the gleeful revelry that give the first "Kick-Ass" its energy and punch. That internal tension — reaching for outrage but hesitantly pulling back — culminates in Wadlow's handling of the comic's notorious rape scene. (And the comic's writer Mark Millar recently sparked controversy with comments on his repeated use of rape as a storytelling device.)
Wadlow switches the character who gets attacked from Kick-Ass' high school-age girlfriend to the adult female character known as Night Bitch. Wadlow also attempts to diffuse the scene with humor by having Mintz-Plasse's character unable to, er, perform. Transforming a rape scene into a sex joke makes an ugly moment into a tacky one and would seem the definition of not getting it.
The entire film feels like something of a cop-out, a soft shrug rather than a hard slap. When a character says something racist or hateful, another will comment on how racist or hateful it is, trying to have it both ways. As the story goes on there are increasing references to the distinction between real life and comic books and a couple mentions that life does not have sequels. In adapting "Kick-Ass 2," it is as if Wadlow got trapped within fanboy culture's self-referring hall-of-mirrors with neither a map to guide him nor a hammer sufficient enough to smash his way out of it.
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, crude and sexual content and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In wide release