A curtain call can never surpass the performance that came before it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a wasted effort. Critics have come down on Kick-Ass 2 for not being as innovative and eye-catching as its predecessor. That misses the point a little bit .It doesn’t want to surpass the first Kick-Ass. It just wants to take the scenario to an interesting place. And it definitely finds a few interesting places to go.
The title character actually doesn’t benefit from that as much as he should. It’s not that Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s titular teenage vigilante isn’t fun to watch – this time benefiting from a lot of training that still doesn’t stop him from getting very badly hurt – it’s just that his arc is just about completed. They give him a little more angst to handle here, some trite lessons to learn, and a revisit from his old nemesis Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to keep the plot moving. But basically we’ve learned everything there is to know about this guy, and the conclusion here feels like it just about taps the well dry.
The best elements involve him grappling with the phenomenon he started, as new vigilantes take to the streets and the whole costumed crime-fighting thing becomes a bit of a fad. He soon joins a burgeoning team led by the righteous-but-scary Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), while starting a torrid romance with the possibly deranged Night Bitch (Lindy Booth). The idea makes for a mildly diverting variation of his original mission as the various vigilantes have to balance their endeavors with something resembling a life (one pair calls an evening patrol off because they scored tickets to The Book of Mormon). It plays nicely with the franchise’s whole heroes-in-the-real-world thing (including some rather brutal repercussions), but it doesn’t expand much beyond what we’ve seen so far.
What makes Kick-Ass 2 worthwhile is that other character on all those posters.
The moment she kicked down that drug dealer's door in the first film, we knew that Chloe Grace Moretz was something special. She's proven that in subsequent films (and the Carrie remake got a lot less worrisome with her in the lead), and this one could have been fine just letting her do her thing. But as Hit Girl, the possibly psychotic engine of her late father's vengeance, she finds some amazing places to go here. The best conceit involves her trying to navigate the social waters of high school: a world that is at once infinitely more perilous and utterly unprepared for her. Kick-Ass 2 slyly infers that the evils in the locker room are no less awful than those on the street; the bad guys just use different weapons and strike at different vulnerabilities. The heroine is at first completely upended by the dynamic, but she soon adjusts once she realizes how to apply her unique skills to the new rules. It's a stone groove to watch, and very much in keeping with the series' ethos.
More to the point, Kick-Ass 2 insists on treating her as a fleshed-out character instead of the extension of a male. She has wounds, she broods, and she occasionally lashes out, but it's not displayed as the foolish hysterics of a woman. She doesn't need to flash any skin to demonstrate her power, and yet she's still a girl instead of a boy in drag. In perhaps the boldest move of the entire franchise, Kick-Ass 2 actually shows us her blossoming adolescence… defined on her terms and with none of the misogynistic judgment with which most movies handle women's desires. It's a little transgressive, but it makes the character one of the most fascinating yet put forth in a comic book film. I find it impossible to believe that Hollywood can't do something similar with better known superheroines and finally start evening the genre’s badly unbalanced gender scales.
The rest of Kick-Ass 2 is pretty much what you’d expect: appalling violence, satirical jibes and a strangely fitting approach to four-color fantasies in the real world. Director Jeff Wadlow lacks the insight that Mathew Vaughn brought to the first film, but he captures the same spirit and makes progress with it instead of just marking time. You can’t ask for much more from a sequel, especially at the tail end of a summer like this. A Part 3 would definitely be pushing it, but we ain’t there yet. As it stands, Kick-Ass 2 more than earns its spurs.