Review: Kick-Ass 2
I’ll confess something right now… I never much cared for Kick-Ass 1. It was slick, the action was nicely choreographed, the acting was decent and sometimes it was funny, I’ll grant you all that. My problem is that it had no reason to put “Kick-Ass” in the title.
The premise was clever: a teenager with nothing better to do puts on a costume, beats some people up, becomes an internet sensation and inspires others to do the same, except this is the “real” world, where violence is ugly and folks who hide behind masks to self-justify their own antisocial behavior are often dangerously imbalanced. So the hero’s world of innocent fantasy becomes a tragic nightmare. Yup, that's clever.
But that's not the movie we got. Kick-Ass didn’t inspire anyone. He wasn’t even the first superhero. Instead, the first superheroes were Big Daddy and his daughter Hit-Girl, who donned costumes completely independently of Kick-Ass. The first film’s entire story revolved around their personal vendetta against organized crime, in which Kick-Ass became accidentally involved, and to which he contributed nothing. So Kick-Ass shouldn’t even have been in his own movie. So I find Kick-Ass rather annoying.
But Kick-Ass 2 finally follows through on the premise of Kick-Ass 1. Self-made superheroes have become a social phenomenon in the gap between the two films. The media thinks these do-gooders are kind of funny, and for the most part all they do is perform community service at homeless shelters and hang out in their dorky clubhouses. No harm, no foul. But Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s original killing spree has serious repercussions when Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) decides to get revenge on Kick-Ass for killing his father at the end of the last film, leading to an escalation in violence that makes every hero question whether putting on silly costumes and acting out their fantasies was such a good idea in the first place.
That’s still clever, but even though we actually see the premise play out this time, the movie still kind of sucks. I'm going to talk mostly about the plot and themes from here on out, but trust me, even the action is subpar compared to the last movie. This is not a good film.
There is a message in Kick-Ass 2. It’s about accepting responsibility for making the world a better place without pretending to be something you’re not. That’s what the end of the movie tells you, in no uncertain terms, but it’s hard to accept an inspirational message about personal responsibility after watching an entire motion picture that irresponsibly glorifies violence and writes off the ugly consequences as funny jokes. Kick-Ass 2 makes superheroes look cool while claiming that the world would be better off without them. Kick-Ass 2 says attempted rape is hilarious so long as the assailant has “performance issues.” In short, Kick-Ass 2 is just as confused, conflicted and poorly conceived as the hero himself.
If Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has any reason to be in Kick-Ass 2, it’s because the movie needed someone to enter this new world of faux superheroes so we can laugh at or pity them. He does get a more dramatic character arc this second time around, questioning the fad he started and also dealing with a pretty downbeat subplot about his disapproving father, but once again, the actual plot only superficially includes him.
Red Mist renames himself The Motherfucker, dons his late mother’s vinyl fetish gear (get it? he has serious psychological problems and they’re a funny little joke), and he assembles a team of psychopaths to take revenge on Kick-Ass. But although Kick-Ass pulled the trigger, Hit-Girl is the real reason why Motherfucker’s father is dead. The plot once again completely revolves around Hit-Girl, this time only relying on Kick-Ass to pad out the running time with a rote self-doubt narrative and sidebars with a supporting cast of lovable, or at least tragic losers. And once again, a movie called Kick-Ass (in this case, 2) would have been better off simply making Hit-Girl the focus all along.
With Big Daddy dead, Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) now lives with her kindly police officer… uncle? Godfather? In any case, he’s played by Morris Chestnut and he convinces Hit-Girl that living a normal teenaged life is just what Big Daddy wanted her to do. So she tries to fit in. She even has her first pangs of pubescent lust while watching a tacky boy band music video. But the need to live by a hero’s code, instilled by an overzealous and mentally disturbed father, simultaneously prevents and inspires her to embrace this normal kind of life.
The notion of a born-and-raised superhero, with no secret identity to escape to or from, struggling to develop her own personality outside of a costume is an intriguing one. It’s based on fundamental personal conflict and could only exist in this particular world. Unlike Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl puts on the costume of a normal person, but like Kick-Ass she's pretending to be something she’s not, and even though it only results in a tedious Mean Girls knock-off high school bullying storyline, at least that’s somewhat novel. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the story of a guy who becomes a superhero and simply suffers the consequences; in other words, every other superhero movie, including the other two-thirds of Kick-Ass 2. If Motherfucker had simply blamed Hit-Girl for his father’s death, we could have cut out every pointless, self-contradictory part of this movie and had a film that actually made sense and felt satisfying.
So again I ask, why is Kick-Ass in his own movie? The only function he serves to the main plot is based on Motherfucker’s fundamental misunderstanding of the events in Kick-Ass 1. As in the last film, Kick-Ass given more to do in the last act, but only because the escalating violence forces him to, and even then Hit-Girl does most of the heavy lifting. Kick-Ass spends the big climax beating up on a helpless nerd with Mommy and Daddy issues while Hit-Girl singlehandedly fights the only supervillain who could hold her own in a conflict, the musclebound Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina). Why aren’t these movies called Hit-Girl? If she’d been the one caught on YouTube in the first movie instead of Kick-Ass, she’d literally be the only character who matters.
Maybe Kick-Ass exists only to be an audience surrogate, showing what “you” would be like if “you” tried to be a superhero. In that case these movies have a very low opinion of you. They think you’re a pawn in a game played consistently above your level by people who are fundamentally better than you could ever be. They think you’ll settle for a film with confusing and contradictory themes that exploit the glory and comedy of ultraviolence for surface entertainment while simultaneously claiming these events are somehow meaningful. Kick-Ass 2 isn't well-written enough to be meaningful, and it's too critical of itself to be any fun.