In the first 45 minutes of Kick-Ass 2, Mindy Macready—AKA Hit-Girl—(Chloë Grace Moretz) is embroiled in a cartoonish, Mean Girls-style sleepover. The teenage Queen Bee forces Mindy to do “girly things” which includes watching a fictional music video from a fictional boy band, “Union J.” But wait, is Hit-Girl really getting hot and bothered by this? Is this a joke?
The original Kick-Ass film, and its source material in the Mark Millar comics, are seemingly all about appropriating violence, sexism, racism, and general mindlessness with the intent of taking down that mindlessness in front of the audience. The heroes Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl and their friends are here to kick the ass of ignorance, right? But, after seeing Kick-Ass 2, I’m not sure anymore—and I’m worried this whole Kick-Ass thing might not have a conscience after all.
Like the first movie, this film’s appropriation of offensive tropes mixed with the depiction of those tropes makes for a confused, and confusing, tone. And while he’s great as Col. Stars & Stripes, Jim Carrey infamously withdrew public support for Kick-Ass 2 following the Sandy Hook massacre. Should everyone else feel the same way? Or, as its defenders (including Moretz) have pointed out, maybe the film is totally meditating on all the negative consequences of violence and vigilantism, so everyone should chill out?
To put it another way: if Kick-Ass has a conscience, then it is a story that fights real violence with fake violence, because all of this violence stuff is “smarter” than you might think. When Charlie Chaplin appeared as a Hitler-like character in The Great Dictator, he was making fun of how terrible Hitler was—and a thoughtful fan of Kick-Ass 2 would likely say this is a movie that mocks our violent American tendencies by depicting those tendencies in a similarly ridiculous and sometimes frightening way. And about 45% of the time while watching Kick-Ass 2, I would agree with that hypothetical fan I just created (and her awesome Chaplin reference!)
But the rest of the time, I was just confused. To an inexperienced teenager, or a particularly thoughtless adult, Kick-Ass 2—like Kick Ass Uno—is just violence porn. It’s impossible not to invoke Tarantino here, because with all the blood-spurting and limb-hacking, we’re bound to think this is being done as an homage to something. But what is Kick-Ass 2 paying homage to, other than violence in comic books? And isn’t that weird, since it is, actually, an extremely violent comic book? Monty Python had pointless (and hilarious) blood-spurting long before Tarantino or Kick-Ass existed. So what gives? Is this art, or what?
Sadly, as much as I might have sometimes enjoyed Kick-Ass 2 on a gut level, the answer is no. This ain’t art. In a telling scene, Chris D’Amico AKA “The Mother Fucker” (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is going over names for his new super villain gang with his buddy Javier (John Leguizamo). For each new henchperson, The Mother Fucker keeps coming up with dumb monikers like “Mother Russia” for the Russian, and “Genghis Carnage” for someone from Asia. Javier tells Chris/The Mother Fucker to cool it with the racist stereotypes, to which The Mother Fucker retorts: “Not stereotypes! Archetypes!” While this line is meant to be funny, as it’s uttered by the delusional teenage bad guy of the film, it sums up exactly what’s troubling about Kick-Ass 2. The movie doesn’t seem to know the difference between those two things, but decides to just depict all of this stuff together anyway.
This holds true for sexism, as well. While this film version leaves out the totally deranged gang-rape scene from the comic book, the vigilante Night-Bitch (played by Lindy Booth, and not the same character from the comic) still gets assaulted, and nearly raped. (And it’s at least implied she might have been, anyway). Night-Bitch is not a bad character, per se, in this film, but there are all kinds of problems when you consider she’s the pseudo-love interest for Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
And when I say “pseudo,” I mean Half-Ass, because these two really only have sex when in costume, as their superhero alter egos. While I don’t have a problem with this decision in itself, Night-Bitch (her real name in the movie is Miranda) doesn’t have any actual agency in the movie whatsoever, beyond the fact that she started doing the superhero thing to avenge her sister’s murder. Too bad we don’t get to see any of that, because, mostly, Night-Bitch is relegated to the roles of kissing Kick-Ass, then getting beat-up, and later, assaulted.
Now, we live in a sexist world, and the depiction of this kind of violence, when done properly, can arguably help to combat it. But, Kick-Ass 2 makes those problems even worse by way it handles Hit-Girl and her war with the Mean Girls. At some point, Mindy comes to school all dolled up and delivers a speech in which she says “it doesn’t matter if I dress like you or not.” Well. It does. We didn’t need Hit-Girl to become Hot-Girl. Mindy isn’t less “sexy” just because she’s a tomboy. Having her dress “sexy” and show everyone up oddly makes the movie play out like a dumber version of Clueless. (Clueless, by the way, is a movie that actually does successfully appropriate negative stereotypes by turning them on their heads.)
So, here’s the weird thing about Kick-Ass 2: while managing to be pretty offensive, it’s trying really hard not to be. It really, really wants you to think all of this terrible stuff can be overcome through the belief that we can be real heroes in the real world. Honestly, that’s a nice thought, and one I can’t fault the movie for kinda trying to make. And this is where I find the film to be oddly emblematic of where America is right now in terms of dealing with social problems, particularly sexism, racism, and violence. We are really, really are ashamed of ourselves, and we really wish our country wasn’t like this. But, hey! We’re Americans and we want to be entertained! So why can’t we have a movie like Kick-Ass 2 that lets us pretend to attack our shameful shortcomings by exploiting those very same shortcomings? We all get the message, right? So it’s okay?
Well, I would like to see that movie, I think, if it were actually successful. But unfortunately when I start checking off the boxes, Kick-Ass 2 is just a little too racist, a little too violent, and way too sexist to pay off as a convincing attempt to subvert these problems. Because the real deal with effective subversion is actually adding something new into the mix. And since I like the characters of Kick-Ass, Hit-Girl, and all their buddies enough, I’m willing to believe that they might still be able to do just that.
Ryan Britt is a former staff writer and longtime contributor to Tor.com. His science fiction criticism has appeared here, as well as Clarkesworld Magazine, The Awl, The Mindhut, and is forthcoming in Omni Rebooted. He lives in New York City where he teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. His robot duplicate is on Twitter.