For many viewers, Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 adaptation of Mark Millar’s aspirant teen superhero comic book Kick-Ass was a kind of litmus test for nihilism. Crossing grotesque violence with broad, goofy humor, and a corrosive journey of moral damnation with a standard-issue coming-of-age tale, it seemed like the last word in ironic cynicism. Still, if you could accept its unholy crossing of the pop-culture streams, Kick-Ass worked as a kind of mad teen opera — taking you to some truly dark places in a way that the average superhero flick never dared. Of course, that was before the massacres in Tucson, and Aurora, and Newtown. But it was not before the massacres in Columbine, Virginia Tech, and elsewhere; Kick-Ass 2 isn’t being released into a culture any more or less violent than the one that received the first Kick-Ass. But it is a culture that, for some good reasons, is more sensitive about such things.
This apprehension has reached all the way to one of the stars of the new film — Jim Carrey, who, post-Newtown, has decided not to promote it. I don’t know why I mention this. Other than perhaps as a kind of touchstone for coming to terms with my own response to Kick-Ass 2, a movie that, for all its predictable sequel-ness, manages to conjure up pretty much the same dark magic that the earlier film did, albeit with more troubling results. Believe it or not, Kick-Ass 2 is even more of a provocation than the first Kick-Ass.
It knows it, too. The new movie opens on a young girl pointing a giant gun: This is 15-year-old Mindy Macready, a.k.a. Hit Girl (Chloë Grace-Moretz), who, with our hero Dave Lizewski, a.k.a. Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is testing out a new bulletproof vest. She shoots him, and he falls back — stunned, but alive, thanks to the vest. Then she tries to shoot him again. Having had enough, he yells, “Don’t! Not cool.” “Okay,” she replies and then, as he’s walking away, cavalierly shoots him in the back, and giggles. The scene is pretty much a warning shot across the brows of anyone getting ready to tut-tut the spectacle of kids with guns cracking jokes. The words “YOU MIGHT AS WELL LEAVE NOW” flashing across the screen would be less blunt.
But that scene is hardly the most disturbing thing here, which ups both the scarring violence and the devil-may-care attitude towards it from the original. In the new film, Kick-Ass, the teen hero, has now inspired waves of imitators. The streets are inundated with costumed characters of varying levels of competence. Kick-Ass himself wasn’t a particularly good hero; that honor belonged to Hit-Girl, who had been trained from a very young age by her rogue, mad ex-cop father Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), who died a horrific death near the end of the first film. Hit-Girl is foul-mouthed, fast, and lethal. But she’s now also a teenage girl, and, in an effort to better fit in at school, she attempts to give up crime fighting, try out for the cheerleading squad, and befriend a Heathers-like clique of rich, mean girls. That leaves Dave alone, so he finds his own team to join: A collective of superhero-wannabes who call themselves Justice Forever, led by The Colonel (Carrey), a mob enforcer turned crime-fighting do-gooder. Kick-Ass even begins to fall for one of them, a young lady who calls herself Night Bitch (Lindy Booth).
Also out there, however, is Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), an impressionable, rich nerd who in the first film also wanted to be a superhero, named Red Mist. Unfortunately, his father happened to be the ruthless head of a gangland empire, and was killed by Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl. (Dads don’t last long in the Kick-Ass universe.) Chris now wants to be a supervillain, and, after accidentally frying his mom on her tanning bed (okay, fine, no parent lasts long in the Kick-Ass universe) and inheriting all the family money, assembles his own team of deranged mercenaries. He calls himself the Mother Fucker. “My superpower is that I’m rich as fuck!” he bellows.
The first Kick-Ass worked in part because of the energy and cartoonish visual grace director Vaughn brought to it: For all one’s objections, it was hard not to get swept up in the cascading insanity of the whole thing. Vaughn is producing this time, with Cry_Wolf’s Jeff Wadlow directing, and while Kick-Ass 2 does a decent job of replicating the look and feel of the original (as well as that of the Millar comics), it doesn’t have the same urgency. In the first film, the tension was between a hapless kid who got caught up in the murderous antics of a serious, and seriously violent, criminal enterprise. Now, because the bad guy is the thoroughly evil yet ridiculous Mother Fucker, it’s hard to build much drama. So, the film replaces all that with even more ridiculous violence. Various characters are castrated by a dog that leaps at their crotches whenever someone yells, “Schwantz!” Two cops are killed by a lawnmower that’s backed into their car. Others merely get beheaded. There’s also an attempted rape that’s played for laughs when the bad guy can’t get an erection — a tough scene to watch, even for those of us generally able to go with the Kick-Ass films’ ethos. It’s the kind of boundary-crossing that threatens to sink the whole enterprise. Is it worse than the spectacle of entire cities being leveled in other action movies? No, probably not. But, to quote that greatest of script doctors, Joseph Stalin, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a revenue-generating four-quadrant PG-13 summer tentpole.”
Perhaps to offset all that ghastliness, Kick-Ass 2 also furthers an empowerment narrative: “I never made varsity football. I never got cast in the school play. But if I had, it would have felt like this,” a character says of joining Justice Forever, which is made up of outcasts and victims. (One of them is a young gay kid who’s tired of getting beaten up. Also there is a middle-aged couple out to avenge their abducted son.) And after her disillusionment with the popular girls at school, Mindy realizes that her crime-fighting alter ego is that of a strong and independent woman who can’t be bullied by anybody. The film wants to take this kind of empowerment seriously – to find some light inside this pitch-black world – but such moral clarity isn’t really within its field of vision. It’s an uncertainty echoed by the characters themselves: “Maybe that’s the real meaning of being a superhero: Taking that pain and making something good out of it,” Hit-Girl says to Kick-Ass at one point, somewhat awkwardly and half-heartedly. “Now help me find some wire,” she then adds, perking up. “I’m going to make this guy eat his own dick.”