The problem with being shocking is that you can only shock once. 2010’s Kick-Ass packed a fair amount of shock for those who hadn’t read the comic book it was based on. Here was a high-school boy, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who took to the streets in costume as the self-styled superhero Kick-Ass and found that fighting crime was grubbier and bloodier than it usually was in the comics. Here also was an eleven-year-old moppet, Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who rattled off unprintables and drenched entire rooms with the arterial spray of gangsters. The whole affair was a winking satire of what the superhero genre had become, in comics and in the movies.
But, again, this sort of thing can only be fresh once. The Kick-Ass comic’s creators — writer Mark Millar, artist John Romita Jr. — turned out two sequels to the first series (Hit Girl and Kick-Ass 2), and are currently cranking out a third. The comics, trying to top the original story, have gotten progressively nastier. The movie Kick-Ass 2, based on elements drawn from the first two follow-ups, softens those elements considerably. Gone, for instance, is a scene in which Kick-Ass’ nemesis (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who went by Red Mist in the first film but has rechristened himself the Mother Fucker, guns down four little kids and goes on to rape Kick-Ass’ girlfriend. The movie, showing more satirical wit than Mark Millar did, short-circuits the rape before it begins, and no little kids are harmed. In some ways the movie is more ruthless: the Mother Fucker will not be back for Kick-Ass 3.
Written and directed by Jeff Wadlow, Kick-Ass 2 does deliver spatially clean action set-pieces that build nicely and sometimes, as when a fearsome brute called Mother Russia deals with a pack of cops, outdo what John Romita Jr. drew. (The use of a lawnmower in particular made me happy.) The Kick-Ass movies have also succeeded in attracting eccentric stars for support: the first film had Nicolas Cage as Hit Girl’s doting superhero dad, and here we have Jim Carrey, obviously enjoying himself at the time despite his post-Sandy Hook misgivings later, as a superhero team leader named Colonel Stars and Stripes. Carrey satirizes this gravel-voiced born-again-Christian hero but doesn’t ridicule him — in his way, the Colonel is a man of honor trying to redeem his past as a mob enforcer. When Carrey leaves the movie, a substantial amount of energy goes with him.
The movie is most interesting when Hit Girl, now living with a cop guardian and trying very hard to be a nice girl named Mindy Macready, navigates the social pitfalls of high school (she’s fifteen now). Hit Girl has always been a bit softer onscreen than on the page, because Chloe Moretz projects the warmth and charisma denied her comic-book predecessor, and she’s fun to watch here when trying to cope with mean girls in the cafeteria. The least interesting character continues to be poor benighted Kick-Ass himself, who functions here only as a target for the Mother Fucker’s vengeful fury. He often gets lost in the crowd — many of the folks on the Colonel’s team, like Night Bitch (Lindy Booth) or the parents looking for their missing son, are far more intriguing. They do it, like Batman, out of pain; Kick-Ass didn’t.
The Kick-Ass franchise has been a reliable piggy-bank for Millar and Romita, though it might not look as bright on Universal’s books — Kick-Ass 2 doesn’t seem to be packing ‘em in on its first weekend, and might peter out much as the Mother Fucker does. The comics haven’t been particularly inspiring either — just more of the same foul language and slice ‘n’ dice and political correctness used as a piñata. Some things just shouldn’t be ongoing concerns, and perhaps the satirical world of Kick-Ass is one of them. The first Kick-Ass comic and the first Kick-Ass movie said that the concept of superheroes is absurd, an idealistic bubble that pops bloodily against the sharp edges of reality. Once you’ve said that, what can you say that isn’t merely saying it again louder?