About midway through Kick-Ass 2, the sequel to 2010’s normal-guy-becomes-a-crime-fighter fantasy, a budding archrival corners the new girlfriend of his costumed nemesis. “You’re done banging superheroes, baby,” he sneers at the terrified teen. “It’s time to see what evil dick tastes like.” That line, pulled verbatim from Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass comic-book series, tells the uninitiated everything they need to know about the franchise’s controversy-courting mastermind. A savvy huckster provocateur, blessed with Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbuster instincts and Bret Easton Ellis’ gift for pissing people off, Millar has conquered the cape-and-cowl industry by putting "edgy," attention-grabbing spins on superhero mythos. This second adaptation of his flagship title pulls back a little on the showy repugnance of its source material; the unsavory scene described above, for example, ends with a performance-anxiety joke instead of a rape. Yet even with its edges sanded down, Kick-Ass 2 is unmistakably Millaresque—a juvenile comedy of excess, in which skewering adolescent power fantasies looks an awful lot like indulging in them.
As before, the diamond in the rough is Chloë Grace Moretz, reprising the role of foul-mouthed, adolescent vigilante Hit Girl. Determined to honor her father’s dying wishes, the orphaned avenger hangs up her mask and blades, turning to face the equally daunting obstacles of high-school. (Her rivalry with the mean girls culminates in a quintessentially Millar money shot.) Left to clean up the streets alone, the titular everyhero (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, bland as ever) falls in with a motley crew of fellow costumed civilians, led by a born-again bruiser (Jim Carrey, on movie-star duty in Nicolas Cage’s absence.) On the other end of the good-to-evil divide is Christopher Mintz-Plasse, still hurt about the way Kick-Ass blew his mobster father up with a bazooka. Slipping into black-leather bondage gear, he reinvents himself as the world’s first supervillain (“Motherfucker”) and begins assembling an army of thugs. The film can’t seem to decide if his character is a joke or a genuine threat, and that’s a pity because there are hints of actual menace in Mintz-Plasse’s volcanic hissy fits.
Like most second chapters in comic-book series, Kick-Ass 2 is better than its predecessor, though there was really no place to go but up. New writer-director Jeff Wadlow (Never Back Down) handles the jarring shifts from vulgar banter to Peter Parkerish hand-wringing to blood-spurting carnage no better than Matthew Vaughn did. The tonal schizophrenia extends to the film’s world, which is meant to be realistic—note the references to Twitter and viral videos, as well as a focus on the medical consequences of playing hero—but often feels as cartoonishly outsize as Joel Schumacher’s Gotham. Building to a deeply underwhelming battle royale, Kick-Ass 2 stumbles every once in a while, as if by accident, into a poignant moment. There’s something oddly endearing, for instance, about the scene in which every member of the amateur Justice League runs through his or her traumatic backstory. And then there’s Moretz, whose character is suddenly afflicted with the inconvenient emergence of hormonal desire. The actress once again makes the most of her part—though not even Hit Girl could overcome the awfulness of Millar-approved mouthfuls like “I’m gonna go Saudi Arabia on your ass.”