Kick-Ass 2 belongs to that rare breed of sequel that builds upon every idea its predecessor introduced, rather than merely recycling old and familiar concepts. The first Kick-Ass had a great narrative hook–What happens when an ordinary teenager brought up on Spider-Man comics decides to try his hand at fighting crime? (Answer: He gets his ass kicked)–but ultimately devolved into the very brand of escapist wish-fulfillment it was lampooning (which, to be fair, was probably not only intentional, but also for the best). Now that the rules governing the setting’s heightened reality have been firmly established, new writer/director Jeff Wadlow is free to dig deeper into the premise and fully explore the consequences of costumed vigilantism.
Chloe Grace Moretz once again steals every scene as Hit-Girl, no longer quite so little, but every bit as fiery and foul-mouthed. If the previous film implied that Hit-Girl was deeply psychologically disturbed, Kick-Ass 2 screams it from the rooftops. Whatever his good intentions may have been, Big Daddy trained his innocent daughter to be a cold-blooded killer, ensuring that her attempts to acclimate to her new life as a “normal” high school student are destined to fail. She is incapable of defining herself as anything but a superhero, of viewing morality as anything but black-and-white, of responding to a challenge with anything but violence; when confronted with raging hormones and peer ridicule, she becomes a ticking time bomb, and Moretz nails every step of the character’s emotionally-complex journey.
Christopher Mintz-Plasse tackles his equally demanding role with similar aplomb. Any shred of decency that once lingered in lonely, love-starved Christopher D'Amico’s soul was obliterated along with Mark Strong’s rocket-propelled corpse; he is so traumatized by his father’s death at Kick-Ass’ hands that he honestly believes the only logical response is to become the “world’s first super villain,” gather a team of like-minded lowlifes, and seek bloody vengeance. His gradual descent into depraved, irrational insanity would be terrifying if it wasn’t so goddamn pathetic: he fashions his costume out of his late mother’s S&M gear, solves any given problem by tossing wads of cash at it, and names his “evil” organization The Toxic Mega Cunts. This remarkable lack of maturity transforms “The Motherfucker” into a tragic figure, and watching as his sympathetic bodyguard (played by a perfectly cast John Leguizamo) tries to help him cope with his confusion is a legitimately heartwarming experience.
The concept of characters donning colorful costumes in order to deal with personal issues actually becomes something of a recurring theme. The thoroughly bored Kick-Ass’ return to spandex-clad crime-fighting brings him into contact with Justice Forever, an Avengers-esque Super Team that could be more accurately described as a support group. The leader, Colonel Stars and Stripes, a former mobster turned Born Again Christian, seems primarily concerned with inspiring damaged individuals to channel their pain into improving the community (whether that means volunteering at homeless shelters or mutilating the genitals of human traffickers varies from night to night). Two of his recruits, a middle-aged husband-and-wife duo, patrol the streets to bring attention to the search for their missing child; another, a gay man, hopes to send a clear message by refusing to wear a mask: he’s through with hiding who he truly is. Thus, despite the inherent danger, adopting an alternate identity also represents a form of therapy, comforting these wounded souls with a shared sense of purpose and belonging–which is, when you think about it, the essence of many great comic book characters.
Kick-Ass 2’s execution is far too uneven for me to confidently argue that it is superior to the original (the pacing and editing of several key scenes is downright atrocious), but it strikes such a delicate balance between cynical deconstruction and loving reconstruction (a strength that, incidentally, helps the film transcend its Mark Millar-penned source material’s reputation as excessive, exploitative trash built solely on shock value) that it still feels like a worthy addition to the mythology–and, indeed, to the ever-evolving superhero sub-genre.
[Originally written August 21, 2013.]