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.
It's a fight he picks, a reminder that the impulse toward costumed do-goodery isn't far removed from the impulses of those sons of bitches who post in internet comment threads that Trayvon Martin had it coming. In 2011, real-life superhero-wannabe The Ray, who patrols the suburbs of San Francisco, complained about black "thugs" to SF Weekly's Lauren Smiley: "I'm not racist," he insisted, but "stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason." Recounting a fight in a skate park, he said, "There were so many black people there, they turned day into night."
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 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 9-year-old demon moppet whose whirligig slaughter of a roomful of badasses was a comic high, in both senses of comic.
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 G.I. 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. Her scenes are surprisingly tender. Snuffling about with her peer group, 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. 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.
The most welcome change is the tone. Wadlow has decided he's making a straight-up comedy, and he demonstrates a knack for it. At its dark heart, though, 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?"