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Non-Review Review: Kick-Ass 2

Kick-Ass was a rare treat, a movie that managed to perfectly balance wry cynicism with an almost surreal optimism. It was the story of a kid with a crazy and reckless idea that somehow managed to do some genuine good. It was also arguably a movie that benefited from the fact that it wasn’t a franchise or a brand – it was cheekier and freer than most superhero films. While still an enjoyable ride, Kick-Ass 2 loses a lot of that edge.

"Right, so everybody has watched the Avengers, right?"

“Right, so everybody has watched the Avengers, right?”

In a way, you could argue that Kick-Ass was an update of the classic Spider-Man archetype for modern audiences. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko stumbled on the character of Peter Parker as a character that the teenage audience might be able to relate to – geeky, insecure, shy, overlooked and bullied. Although revolutionary at the time, that template went on to inspire an entire generation of four-colour heroes. Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar is an avowed fan of Spider-Man, even writing a short run on the character in the early 2000s. With Kick-Ass, you could make a convincing case that Millar was repurposing that classic Spider-Man origin for a new generation.

Although the comic book that inspired the film was especially cynical and bleak, there’s something approaching romanticism in Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. Sure, it begins with the title character as a total loser who winds up beaten and bruised and defeated – surviving through luck rather than skill. Although the movie’s version of Big Daddy is somewhat more sympathetic than his comic book counterpart, it’s still a brutal deconstruction of Batman and his habit of recruiting child soldiers. However, it ends with our hero riding a jet pack and firing a bazooka. It’s hard to feel completely cynical and disillusioned after that.

Zip it up, eh?

Zip it up, eh?

Which is to say that Kick-Ass 2 has a lot riding against it, from the outset. The climax of Kick-Ass really disarmed a lot of the movie’s early cynicism, so director Jeff Wadlow has to struggle to balance the tone of the film. There are times when Kick-Ass 2‘s relentless pace and impressive action sequences run the risk of seeming more like a straight example of (rather than a playful subversion of) the standard superhero action set pieces. (In particular, I’m thinking of some high-speed gun-fu involving Hit-Girl on a motorway.)

The character of Hit-Girl – arguably as much that main character of the franchise as Kick-Ass himself – also presents a bit of a problem for the sequel. Part of the subversive and underhanded thrill of Kick-Ass was getting a rather brutal twist on the familiar “kid sidekick” routine. Hit-Girl’s dialogue and brutality was shocking, because it came from so young a character. Chloe Moretz is only three years older, but they are three long years. She’s grown from a child into a teenager, to the point where – as a performer – she can anchor the upcoming Carrie remake.

Kicking Kick-Ass' Ass...

Kicking Kick-Ass’ Ass…

The last three years have done a lot to dull the edge of Hit-Girl. To be fair, the best parts of Kick-Ass 2 are the parts that play with genre expectations – reimagining high school power struggles in light of Hit-Girl’s superheroism. (At one point comparing the girls’ fascination with a generic boy band to fanboys’ fixation with Stan Lee.) Drawing on Millar’s Hit-Girl miniseries, the film is strongest when it plays with the idea of the pint-sized heroine trying to fit into high school.

The plot with Kick-Ass himself is less successful. Like Hit-Girl, our hero has changed in the intervening years. In Kick-Ass, our eponymous hero was skinny and geeky. He seemed like a kid throwing himself in way over his head. By the climax of Kick-Ass 2, actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson has bulked up to the point where he could credibly be cast in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. (Which is handy, since he apparently wants to.) Turning Dave Lizewski into a muscled-up superhero takes a lot of the charm out of the basic concept of Kick-Ass.

Not so young-anymore Turks...

Not so young-anymore Turks…

There’s also the fact that Kick-Ass explored its own themes relatively thoroughly, rendering the sequel a little pointless – something all but conceded when Kick-Ass 2 declines to end in the kind of sequel hook we’ve come to expect from the genre. Writer and director Jeff Wadlow finds himself skirting a line with the film, trying to balance the fact that we know the series isn’t as cynical as it would like us to think, but also trying to demonstrate that it still has teeth.

You can see that in the awkward relationship that Kick-Ass 2 has with its source material, Wadlow apparently aware of how far he can push a mainstream superhero flick. Despite Mark Millar’s protests that nothing would be cut from the film, Wadlow decided to excise two of the comic’s more controversial scenes – including the rather infamous rape sequence. (“Thank God,” Christopher Mintz-Plaisse was quoted as saying, and many film-goers and fans of good taste would agree.)

And his little dog, too...

And his little dog, too…

Wadlow tries to avoid these gruesome set pieces without seeming like he’s wussing out. When one villain proposes a particularly vile misdeed, our wannabe supervillain declares, “Jesus, I’m not that evil.” At another point, Wadlow is sure to keep the comic’s dialogue intact while stopping just short of following through on Millar’s more controversial content. There’s a sense that Wadlow is trying to balance the fact that he’s directing a major theatrical release with a desire to be a bit subversive and wry.

To be fair, the scene itself is too big an issue to delve into thoroughly here. After all, you’re looking for a review of Kick-Ass 2, rather than an exploration on the gender politics of superhero comics. Despite Millar’s inflammatory rhetoric on the topic, and arguments that we need to have about the depiction of sexual violence in comics in general, as well as an apparent need to discuss what makes rape different from other typical supervillain-y stuff, the movie does well to remove it from a simple story-telling perspective.

Striped for action...

Striped for action…

Still, the awkward relationship and the seeming need to reference those moments from the comic betray a sense of the film’s insecurity, as if it wants to remind the audience that this isn’t simply a generic superhero film. The problem is that it feels a lot more like one than Kick-Ass did, which is a logical consequence of building off the climax of that film. Instead of being a deconstruction and reconstruction of superhero films, it feels like a fairly standard example – just with a little edge.

One of the many reasons that the first Kick-Ass worked so well was because director Matthew Vaughn was able to parody the cinematic language of the superhero origin story. Here, it seems like Wadlow is having a bit of fun with concept of the superhero crossover fad that really kicked off with The Avengers and will continue through next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past into the following year’s Batman/Superman.

One bad-ass mofo...

One bad-ass mofo…

Here, the team-ups are presented as a bunch of outcasts banding together. Like the original film’s relationship with its hero, the movie is never entirely sure whether it pities or admires them. The film never sinks its teeth into these masked do-gooders and almost romanticises the fact that they are doing their bit to show community pride and stop petty crimes. “We want to do good!” Dave himself exclaims at the climax, which is a laudable goal – even if his method is messed up.

There are moments of wit here. In particular, Chris’s mini-arc as an “evil Bruce Wayne” (“you know what?” he declares after one physical training session, money is my superpower!”) works surprisingly well. Wadlow and actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse manage to keep Chris relatively sympathetic despite his actions. In a way, he reminds the audience more of the protagonist from the first film than any of the movie’s heroic characters actually do – he is a kid dealing with the death of his mother in a decidedly messed-up way.

Team-up time...

Team-up time…

(The fact that it’s the loss of his mother – rather than that of his father – which spurs Chris to action is a recurring Millar-ian theme. It’s interesting how many of these dysfunctional characters are spurred by a void where the maternal figure should be, each reacting in their own completely screwed-up way to that absence. Millar tries to distract from his moments of sweetness and sincerity with healthy lashings of violence and cynicism, but there are rare occasions where it shines through. Indeed, it almost seems like provocatuer Mark Millar has a decidedly conservative side.)

That said, too many of the ingredients here feel like they came from some sort of comic book movie IKEA, to fit together to form a fairly standard-looking superhero set up. There’s the arch-villain with the personal grudge. There’s the brutal attack on the people close to the hero to make it even more personal. There’s a promise to never wear the mask again, which is swiftly broken. There are gimmick henchmen. There’s toyetic accessories, including a purple motorbike. There’s even philosophical shouting match between the hero and villain at the climax about mankind’s capacity for good or ill.

The good goon...

The good goon…

And yet Kick-Ass 2 works best when it’s more grounded and human. Colonel Stars ‘n’ Stripes gets a nice personal moment examining a custom-made table cloth for his low-rent Justice League. (Er, sorry, “Justice Forever.” That feels like it has to be a shout out to Carrey’s other superhero role.) The bond between Chris and his “Alfred” figure, the goon Javier, is the most touching relationship in the film. As deeply dysfunctional as it is, John Leguizamo and Christopher Mintz-Plasse have great chemistry. These elements get brushed aside rather quickly as the movie races towards a suitably large-scale climax.

Kick-Ass 2 feels more like a generic superhero film than a playful subversion or reconstruction. A lot of the spark of the original is lost, with Kick-Ass 2 feeling like a fairly standard sequel rather than its own quirky beast. It’s still solidly constructed and well-made, with more than a few smart observations and clever twists, but it also feels a lot less… well, super.

7 Responses

  1. Cant wait to see this Friday

  2. I loved the Kick-Ass 2 graphic novel. Loved the first one, too, but the second seemed to show how badly things really can mess up for these characters. It’s not just “oh we’ll form a league and everything will be great.” It’s basically forming a league screws them up even more, everything falls apart. To me, it took a little from different superhero films and showed how bad it would work out in the real world. I will watch the film, but I’ll be watching to see if any of the stuff I really liked about the graphic novel made it in. As always, love your review.

    • I don’t know. Millar’s comic felt a little bit too cynical and too grim and too much like it was trying to be provocative. I think the film actually did a much better job balancing the cynicism and the weird admiration – sort of a “… but his heart’s in the right place” sort of feeling.

      • Good point, but I do like darker stories. Then again, I think there are different expectations of films. They need to be a bit more light hearted to have a stronger reach. I can imagine the storyline with his gf being quite different in the second, though, with a bit more impact…I kind of preferred that in the first one she just…hates him for pretending to be gay. Not preferred her as a character, but to me it felt a little bit more real. But it made sense to have it differently in the film.

        Still need to see the second movie before making a full judgement, though.

  3. I loved the first one and have been waiting for this with great anticipation! When I saw it on Comcast On-Demand I immediately rented it. Like most sequels, this wasn’t as good as the first and it’s hard not to make comparisons to the first movie.

    The first thing I noticed was the lack of a good soundtrack that went with the first movie. Scenes like Hit-Girl whooping ass to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”, or the old Banana Splits song “Tra La La” Song totally made the first one awesome for me. The soundtrack was as important as the characters.

    As the movie was unfolding I kept waiting for some funny/rocking music to play. Unfortunately, I was pretty let down that they didn’t spend the money to acquire some interesting/funny/rocking songs for this movie.

    Then the plot was sort of handicapped by the fact the characters had matured. I felt the actors all did a good job, but the built in humor that came along with an innocent naive Kick-Ass character getting his butt beat, or the irony of a 10 year old foul mouthed girl killing someone with the same zeal she would pursue a boy band with was gone.

    I think they spent a little to much time developing the idea of a group of super hero’s and and not enough time developing Kick-Ass & Hit-Girl characters. Overall, I liked it, and I’m sure most will… It just wasn’t as fresh and new as the original.

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