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The new hotness.

Never been a fan of Mark Millar’s comic books, especially the ones that get made into movies, but I do seem to like the movie versions. Wanted, Kick-Ass, and now Kick-Ass 2 are all much better films than they ever were comic books. This owes mostly to intelligent, often massive changes done to the source material. The books these movies are based on are fun in some ways, but also steeped in a repulsive nihilistic meanness that is watered down in each respective film. It seems odd to praise adaptations that not only massively alter the source, but also cut out significant amounts of darkness and shock value. That said, it fits here simply because tone is what matters and the filmmakers who’ve worked on Millar’s stuff all seem to have a better understanding of audience tolerance than Millar does. Or perhaps the comic book audience, particularly his, are just that different from the rest of us.

I’ll get into specific examples later but because it’s not my policy to use adaptive comparisons as criticisms (if it can be avoided), it’s not really pertinent to the broader question of whether or not Kick-Ass 2 is a good movie. It is a good movie, by the way, but not because it’s better than its book. Hopefully that makes sense!

Like the first tone, Kick-Ass 2 is an irreverent and crude little gem that takes the idea of real-world superheroes and runs with it, ending up far away from realism but still well within its own parameters. It’s more like “real-world superheroes in the world of Kick-Ass“. Along the way, it stops to joke about or comment on various comic book tropes. While some would call Kick-Ass deconstructive, it’s actually reconstructive. It only starts out taking a shot at the silly tropes and uncomfortable realities of real-world superheroes. Eventually, it circles around to embracing those tropes and thrusting forward its bonafides as an actual, legit superhero movie. So does Kick-Ass 2, and it is by far the more straight-forward of the two movies. That said, it lacks some of the balance and tidy structure of the first, as well as the ridiculous, awesome action of the first movie. Which is what most people remember about it.

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The age difference between the leads is smaller in the films.

A few years after their battle against D’Amico, the mob boss from the first one, Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz) are suffering through high school with their superhero days more or less behind them. Not fitting in at all, Mindy cuts class to go train while her adopted father Det. Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut) keeps an eye on her. Meanwhile, Dave is getting bored in his retirement and eventually decides he wants to get back in the game. Dave’s boredom is a valid character motive within the realm of this story, even if it isn’t very dramatic. Mindy is more interested in staying true to the life her father made for her and she gets all the cheesy little speeches about being a superhero and protecting folks this time around. If anything, Dave is even more juvenile and enthusiastic about the whole thing than he was the first time around. For him, Kick-Ass 2 winds up being about learning that there are consequences for the game he’s playing. For Mindy, it’s about figuring out who she really is… someone born to play that game.

Mindy has the more interesting arc in the film and as a result, it’s a lot more focused on her this time around.

That said, I may be doing Dave’s storyline a disservice. It’s more than boredom. He sees that his actions in the first movie have inspired a whole pack of new superheroes and he basically just wants to join them. He had to keep it all a secret before, and only had Big Daddy and Hit Girl for company. And they way, way outclassed him. The one lesson he definitely learned in Kick-Ass was the upsides and downsides of teamwork. That teamwork is what saved the day seems like something that he’s kept in mind. He puts the mask back on to belong, this time around, and it nicely parallels Mindy’s own search for the same feeling. What makes them different is that Dave basically knows who he is and Mindy is full of adolescent doubt.

Her biggest fear is that she’s just another girl, and her kryptonite is boy bands.

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But for a while, they get the team back together.

In high school, Mindy doesn’t fit in and doesn’t much care. She ditches class to train and takes Dave along with her once he decides he wants back in. Her doubts are compounded both by how other girls treat her and how Marcus is always trying to make her “normal”. This is a one-two punch of outsider story, really, and because Mindy is a huge geek (dropping fanboy-slapping jokes about Stan Lee even), this registers as fairly astute for a 2013 movie, let alone a 2013 comic book superhero movie. I mean, it’s close to the same stuff that usually gets stuffed into Peter Parker’s high school stories. So it’s true to comic zeitgeist and repurposed to comment on a specific type of person in a universally challenging phase of life. Nicely done, Kick-Ass 2. Did not see that shit coming.

Mindy’s story is really progressive, even more so than in Kick-Ass. With her dad gone, she’s the only real superhero left and the movie (mostly through Dave) keeps reminding us of that. Her superior training, reflexes, and unflappability just make her a step above even Col. Stars and Stripes (a born again mob enforcer played with aplomb by Jim Carrey). Even though he finds a home with the Colonel and his superteam Justice Forever, all Dave really wants is to bask in Hit Girl’s shadow. His hero-worship of her is always notable, never more silly than it should be, and totally informs the interesting and possibly unique gender politics of Kick-Ass 2. And the admiration works both ways. Dave is the first boy Mindy ever crushes on, has sexual attraction, to, or kisses. He’s brave, she says, which is really the only requirement to being a superhero. They inform each other, as characters, and this in turn informs the movie, elevating it beyond the schlocky sequel it easily could have been.

It’s around the time when all this comes together that the movie finds its footing and mostly takes off. Jeff Wadlow takes the reigns from Matthew Vaughn this time (writing and directing the movie) and seems to stumble a bit in the set-up phase. Once Mindy takes off her mask and Dave goes looking for more people like him, the movie gets not only much better than anybody probably expected, but also genuinely interesting. It’s a bit messier than Kick-Ass was and has much less awesome action, hip musical cues, and uncouth Mindy jokes but these flaws don’t really get too much beyond being slightly disappointing due to the very different ambition of Kick-Ass 2 and its consequent tone.

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When Mindy accesses her inner self, she’s more confident and capable than 200 mean bitches.

The beautiful parallel to Mindy’s girl-power storyline is the character Mother Russia. Like Mindy, she’s the only “real deal” on her side of the fence. Menacing and iconic, Mother Russia is the heavy hitter on the evil team formed by The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). In an intentional echo of Hit Girl’s ridiculous hallway shootout in the first movie, Mother Russia gets the most memorable action sequence in Kick-Ass 2. She takes out a squad of cops single-handedly in a series of moves that escalate their barbarity, cleverness, and gleeful violence. This is not a heroic sequence, but it’s beautifully done and gets the audience raring for the inevitable showdown between Hit Girl and Mother Russia. The point, though, is that these are the most badass characters in the Kick-Ass universe and they are both women.

Speaking of The Motherfucker. After his dad’s death at the hands of Kick-Ass, he’s been trying to figure out some way to get revenge. When he accidentally kills his mom, he inherits the family money and sets about using Javier (John Leguizamo) to hire his own private gang of thugs: The Toxic Mega-Cunts. He reimagines himself as The Motherfucker, the world’s first supervillain and walking advert for bondage gear. If Mintz-Plasse failed to make this all work, the movie would have fallen apart. Aside from the story and themes that work so well for Kick-Ass 2, he’s one of the best things in it. Rumor has it that he took some additional acting coaching to be able to play the character. Thankfully, there’s nothing pretentious about the performance and it’s note-perfect whilst juggling infantile egotism, anarchic cruelty, and self-deprecating humor.

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Also the most ridiculous part, which must not be easy in a movie this ridiculous.

As the Mindy vs. The Mean Girls storyline resolves itself with Mindy getting awesome revenge and realizing who she really is, The Motherfucker has begun a rampage that puts Kick-Ass in the crosshairs whilst creating tons of collateral damage, including his dad. Night Bitch (Lily Bloom) stands in for the old girlfriend (who, in the book, isn’t ejected from the story in amazingly perfunctory fashion as she is here) that becomes another target for The Motherfucker’s vendetta. The borderline offensive, shock-baiting rape scene from the book is adapted with sensitivity and even humor (The Motherfucker can’t get it up), without wading into the casual misogyny and mean-spiritedness that typifies Millar’s work. Though their relationship is just a fling, we still applaud when Dave shows up at the hospital with flowers (Dave is just a nice guy) and then again twice as hard when Night Bitch goes back on her (understandable) doubts and joins in for the final brawl between the superheroes of New York and The Motherfucker’s evil army.

It would have been nice to see more little snapshots of that big fight, but the movie makes time for all the secondary characters throughout its running time. The core group of Justice Forever gets to do plenty, and have plenty of fun with jokes, heroic violence, and even some pathos when the Colonel is brutally executed by Mother Russia. That said, the big fight doesn’t make as much room. Most of it is taken up by Hit Girl vs. Mother Russia and Kick-Ass vs. The Motherfucker. These are glorious fights, full of fun and meaty subtext, and they are intercut with other moments like Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison) unleashing the new beating stick, or Hit Girl making good on her claim that she can kill a guy with his own finger. But still, there’s nothing in Kick-Ass 2 that measures up to the hallway shootout (or the hotel assault in general) even though Mother Russia’s cop killing spree comes close and maybe only falls behind because it’s bad guy stuff and because we don’t actually especially like seeing cops get killed. Hopefully.

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Once Jim Carrey is out, Mother Russia is in as the character second most fun to watch in the movie (after The Motherfucker, obv). I mean, just fucking look at her.

As good as Mindy’s story is in general, it really lets its hair down with the vs. the mean girls stuff. I mean, there’s enough potential in the performances and material to carve out its own movie. Here, it could easily have been a weird left turn and a bad distraction from the reason we’re all really here: superhero shit. Instead, Wadlow makes it work completely and that in itself is worth pausing again to praise. It’s the instinct we all have to buckle down and get along that drives Marcus and his gross misinterpretation of his adopted daughter, and he stands in to represent the overarching and mostly benevolent source of this kind of adversity. The mean girls stand in for a lot of the rest.

Mindy doesn’t look at what her dad did to and with her as a theft or an abuse. She looks at it as a gift, but can’t articulate it until she gets over her self-doubt and realizes that you don’t make the world a better place by sitting around and living how other people tell you to. While it’s massively ridiculous on the surface, Kick-Ass 2 is driven by core themes (like that one) which are generally paid lip service to (everybody needs to chase their dreams, outsiders are the people who make a difference, hell is high schoolers, etc) but rarely as broken in as they are in this movie.

All that and it is still a straight-up superhero team-up movie. I mean shit, that’s something ain’t it? If I can carry on with this for another moment or two, it’s also important to note that Kick-Ass 2 is not subtle about these things. Everybody who sees this movie should have a good grasp of the themes I’m talking about. It’s not some secret, obscure bit of subtext that winds its way through the movie, only to be picked up by the astute and attentive viewer. I like that kind of thing, too, don’t get me wrong… but it doesn’t belong here.  This means that nobody has an excuse to miss this stuff or dismiss it because they didn’t like something else about the movie.

If there’s any weakness to Kick-Ass 2 aside from the perfunctory way it occasionally handles its narrative (which feels true to character and universe, but still a bit jarring), it’s that the movie will occasionally come right out and tell you what the big picture is. It doesn’t do this any more than your average, PG-rated, ostensibly for kids superhero movie so I guess it only feels odd because Kick-Ass 2 is very much a grown-ups’ movie about growing up. But it’s also a perfect movie to watch when you’re fifteen and just starting to be able to deal with the adult stuff.

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I honestly wish Carrey had more roles like this one in him.

Though everybody has ample reason to quit by the end, and most do, Dave takes the whole thing as a sign that stepping up to the next level is what’s needed. Up to this point, he’s been a “punk in a wetsuit”, just playing superhero even with some flirtation with the real thing, but the example set by Big Daddy and Hit Girl finally gets him to acknowledge the seriousness of what he’s doing. For Dave, Kick-Ass and 2 feels like one complete superhero origin story. This is why the ending, where you see him training even harder than before and a brief shot of a metallic helmet designed after the wetsuit pattern, works. In many ways, another theme of the Kick-Ass movies is that going against the grain, even when it makes no sense, is just the right thing to do. The grain is practically a character in these movies, too. Like I said, everybody involved on the superhero side gets ample reason to go “wait what the fuck am I doing!?” and cut it out. None more than Dave. That he perseveres anyway is ridiculous in a realistic sense, but thematically correct.

In fact, it’s rousing. The same way that Kick-Ass was rousing in spite of the fun it had at the expense of the ideals that characterize superhero fiction. Ideals that seem laughable in the dangerous, complex, and morally uncertain world we really do live in. These movies are about stepping up and being the change you want to see in the world. It’s nice that they are so funny, that the characters are so diverse and fun to watch, and that the whole endeavor is couched in an excellently progressive narrative. What’s really important, though, is that there’s no real philosophical difference between putting on a costume to literally fight crime and speaking up when you see someone harming another. Most superhero movies take these ideas for granted, which is usually understandable, but every now and then it’s nice to be reminded why there are superhero movies in the first place.

People seem to mistake Kick-Ass as attempting and failing at being a satire. Kick-Ass has satirical elements, and so does Kick-Ass 2 (though lessened), but they are not satirical deconstructions meant to leave you with the comforting reaffirmation that real people becoming superheroes is a dumb idea. Instead, these movies totally embrace the superhero metaphor for daily involvement and the heroism that comes with not being indifferent. Stepping up, in other words.

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Whatever else they are, the Kick-Ass movies are thoroughly goofy and crude and lovable.