2010’s Kick-Ass, directed by Matthew Vaughn and based on the Mark Millar/John Romita, Jr. Marvel comics, began with a question: what if superheroes really existed? In that film’s first action hero sequence, teenager Dave Lizewski takes to the streets as crime-fighting costumed crusader Kick-Ass… and is nearly beaten to death – in bone-crunching, blood-spurting detail – by a group of street thugs.
It’s an ingenious premise, mixing superhero ideology with sickening real-world violence. It was so timely, in fact – given the deluge of superhero movies hitting the multiplexes – that it was used to equal success by two other films released around the same time, Defendor and Super.
And now here’s the inevitable sequel, an otherwise well-produced affair that has one big problem: a major case of identity crisis. Unlike the subversive satire of the first film – which asked if you should really be enjoying all the action violence – this one seems to revel in the over-the-top brutality; by the big action-packed finale, it has become the kind of superhero movie it originally set out to parody.
I’m reminded of the Death Wish franchise: where the first film had a genuine point to make about vigilante justice, the second (and each subsequent) film became about the violence, perverting the intent of the original in the process.
That’s not to say Kick-Ass 2 is necessarily a bad film taken on its own merits: turn your brain off and this is a mostly-satisfying tale of comic book vengeance gone wrong. The subversive nature of the original may be lost, but if nothing else, the hard-hitting violence throughout the film reminds us of the real-world implications of comic book mayhem; it’s a welcome sight after the mass destruction (but zero accountability) of films like Man of Steel.
A few years after the events of the original, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, conspicuous here as a high school senior after his roles in Savages and Anna Karenina) has hung up his costume. But Kick-Ass inspired a number of costumed vigilantes to take to the streets, including Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison), Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), and Dave’s friend Marty (Clark Duke), as Battle Guy. When Lizewski gets bored of the daily grind, he has a team of vigilantes to fight crime with.
But the one person he really wants to work with is Mindy Macready, a.k.a. Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) who has given up the mask in order to lead a “normal” high school (read: Mean Girls) existence. Moretz, with more screen time and a greater character arc, is the real star of the show here, though Nicholas Cage is sorely missed as her mentor (a role Morris Chestnut attempts to fill as Detective Marcus, Mindy’s guardian).
Meanwhile, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is seeking revenge on Kick-Ass for the death of his father, the gang lord who served as the prime villain in the first film. Using an alias adopted after accidentally killing his mom, Chris assembles a team of supervillains to deliver his especially nasty brand of justice. Mintz-Plasse is so over-the-top it’s hard to take him seriously, though that’s kind of the point.
But it’s Carrey who steals the show as Colonel Stars and Stripes: he’s the one cast member who seems to know what kind of dark, subversive satire this film ought to be, with deadpan one-liners (some of which were improvised) in the face of sickening violence. While the rest of the cast plays it broad – and writer-director Jeff Wadlow follows suit, turning this into a more outright comic feature than the first film – Carrey underplays to great success (also memorable: Olga Kurkulina, as supervillain Mother Russia).
Ironically, after the Sandy Hook shooting Carrey spoke out against the film and refused to do advance press for it, tweeting “I did Kickass a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence.”
Of course, an excessive of violence is likely to be just what fans want; the film, however, doesn’t quite live up to expectations heightened by Carrey’s statements (it’s certainly no more violent than the first film, though the image of a high school prom queen simultaneously vomiting and spewing diarrhea has its own unique gross-out factor).
Lions Gate’s original Kick-Ass was something of a critical darling and surprise box office hit, taking in $86 million in the US on a $30 million budget. While this Universal-produced sequel cost roughly the same to make, it tanked at the US box office this weekend, debuting in 5th place with $13 million. The door has been left wide open for another sequel (stick around for that post-credits scene!), but it’s unlikely a follow-up will see the light of day.