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 its core. 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.
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. 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. The comics, soaked through as they are with arterial spray, at least on occasion suggest that it's destructive and stupid to go out looking for asses to kick. The movies, not so much, especially the shoddy original, which aspired to be a grim sugar rush, yet posited that teens with self-esteem problems need only survive torture and a couple of bloodbaths to land their out-of-their-league high-school crushes.
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 nine-year-old demon moppet whose whirligig slaughter of a roomful of badasses was a comic high. But great as it was, that scene made it absolutely clear that the filmmakers had no interest in the source material's interrogation of entertainment violence; instead of expressing any horror at the sight of a pre-tween murdering bad guys who we haven't seen do anything all that bad, Kick-Ass the movie just asked us to get juiced on it.
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.
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.
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.