Superheroes vs. Meaning: Kick-Ass grows up, improves —but still isn't about anything

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz. Daniel Smith

Kick-Ass 2
Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow.
Adapted from the comic-book series by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jim Carrey, Morris Chestnut, Clark Duke, John Leguizamo and Olga Kurkulina.
Opens Friday, August 16, at multiple locations.

Despite the giddy, gory ridiculousness of Kick-Ass 2, this summer's most violent yet least punishing comic-book movie, there's a kernel of ugly human truth at the core of the Kick-Ass fantasy. In the first issue of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.'s Kick-Ass comic, from 2008, a lonely high school twerp dons a wetsuit and sets out to clean up the streets of New York. This white boy's first adventure: calling a trio of black graffiti taggers "homos," threatening them with his fighting sticks and then getting his ass stomped in brutal detail the movies just can't match.

The first Kick-Ass flick tidied all that up. The taggers become carjackers, one white and one black. They've previously mugged the costumed aggressor, and they work for the mob boss who will be the film's principal villain. In short, these guys, according to story logic, truly do have it coming — which means there's nothing complex or upsetting about Kick-Ass confronting them other than the violence itself, which wasn't all that shocking, as the movie was to the comic books what Coors Light is to an oatmeal stout. The comics, soaked through as they are with arterial spray, at least on occasion suggest that it's destructive and stupid to go out looking for asses to kick. The movies, not so much, especially the shoddy original, which aspired to be a grim sugar-rush yet posited that teens with self-esteem problems need only survive torture and a couple bloodbaths to land their out-of-their-league high-school crushes. (In the harder-edged comic, that crush tells Kick-Ass to fuck off.)

The sequel is better in every way except one: surprise. The original film (directed by Matthew Vaughn) peaked with the arrival of Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), a nine-year-old demon moppet whose whirligig slaughter of a roomful of badasses was a comic high, in both senses of comic. This was a hilarious, can't-believe-they-filmed-it perversity, the only time Vaughan improved upon Millar and Romita's gorgeous, sometimes inexcusable work. But great as it was, that scene made it absolutely clear that the filmmakers had no interest in the source material's interrogation of entertainment violence — instead of any horror at the sight of a pre-tween murdering bad guys who we haven't seen do anything all that bad, Kick-Ass the movie just asked us to get juiced on it.

Kick-Ass 2 doesn't ask for much more, but this time the juice gushes with impressive consistency, usually with such power that you might not mind that director Jeff Wadlow, even more than Vaughn, has made sure that it's only the images that are provocative — never the ideas.

This time, Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) throws in with a league of misfit crimefighters organized by Jim Carrey's born-again Colonel Stars and Stripes. Carrey is a stolid marvel straight out of a World War II-era comic cover, a gray-stubbled GI with a Jack Kirby jaw. With this crew, Kick-Ass takes the time to do the one thing all the other movie superheroes forgot to this year: save some people from problems that weren't a direct consequence of the existence of those superheroes.

Hit-Girl, meanwhile, deepens into a full character as she takes on puberty and high school, facing mean girls, drill-team tryouts, a first date and her promise to her adoptive father that she'll try to live a normal life. (She seems to have been bit by that between-movies-aging bug that got hold of Anakin Skywalker.) Her scenes are surprisingly tender. Snuffling about with her peer group, plucking up the courage to hang with them even as she tries to hide the steel inside her, she's even more compelling than when she's playing the pixie avenger.

She and Kick-Ass, of course, get pulled back into senseless, satisfying battle, this time by new villain the Mother Fucker, who is actually just the same rich yutz Christopher Mintz-Plasse played in Kick-Ass. (Thankfully, the original's many joyless scenes of conniving gangsters, all showstoppers in the bad way, are gone.) The Mother Fucker hires assassins and MMA types to serve as his own supervillain crew, the Toxic Mega Cunts, including former KGB killer Mother Russia, a giantess whose one-on-one with Hit-Girl does not disappoint. In the name of revenge, the Mega Cunts do some cop-killing and attempt to destroy Kick-Ass' life — one noxious scene from the comic series, a sexual assault, is rewritten into a crowd-pleasing dick joke, almost as if Wadlow (also the screenwriter) were weighing in on that argument Lindy West started at Jezebel: Can rape ever be funny?

The most welcome change is the tone. Wadlow has decided he's making a straight-up comedy, and he demonstrates a knack for it. There's a lightness even to the beatdowns and head-shots, a punch-line timing on the stabbings and severed limbs and the good sense to hustle through the dark material setting up the climax — a rumble, West Side Story-style, except with a shark tank and a heroine named Night Bitch. At its dark heart, Kick-Ass 2, like its predecessor, celebrates a worldview awfully close to Ted Nugent's: Wouldn't it be fun to bust the heads of some thugs? That's not great, but it beats ponderous follies like The Wolverine or The Dark Knight Rises, which asked an even less fruitful question: "Wouldn't it be awesomely miserable?" 

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