Kick-Ass 2

Skip itA fame-hungry hothead boulders up to our hero Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and asks “how ‘bout a million hits on YouTube?” He starts swinging his fists while a companion films the altercation on a smartphone, hoping to capture something that collects more hits than Old Spice or the Star Wars Kid.

When our villain, self-assigned the no-frills moniker “Motherfucker” (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) robs a convenience store and discovers there aren’t any surveillance cameras recording him, his first response is to say “how is this supposed to go viral?”

Motherfucker joins Twitter (“he’s got like a thousand followers already”) and rises to fame. “I want to kill Kick Ass with my bare hands,” he says, all muahahahahaha, to himself. Then adds: “I’ve gotta tweet about this.”

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When a ragtag group of heroes, outnumbered and outmaneuvered, need support, where do they go to spread the word? Their Facebook page.

Hollywood’s first social media superhero movie, Kick-Ass 2, has something to say about vacuous celebrity and online exhibitionism. It’s a great shame nobody — least of all director Jeff Wadlow — seems to know what that was or whether he ought to have bothered.

Wadlow’s sequel to 2010’s snazzy post-mod comic book pic is based in a world where vigilantism is synonymous with mental illness. It is similarly provocative, but the smug self-awareness of the original has lost its shockingly irreverent edge, displaced by a moral vacuousness that borders on the nihilistic.

Wadlow reiterates the point that his characters exist in a world without any real “good” guys, no pure souls to jump into phone booths and catch falling babies. In the process he nuances a place where seeking justice plays second fiddle to administering revenge, and the resulting movie is a grim concoction of half-thoughts and mixed messages.

Some people, as Michael Caine put it in The Dark Knight Rises, want to watch the world burn. Others just want to know that people are watching. After the unexpected death-by-solarium of his mother, Motherfucker decides to wreak carnage across the city and hit out against a group of flaky urban watchdogs headed by born again former thug Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey). If he doesn’t have an audience, none of it is worth it. The plan is all about getting seen and getting clicks.

“My super power is that I’m rich as shit,” says Motherfucker, belonging to a world in which any idiot can be a superhero or a villain — and plenty are. Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz) is the closest we get to the real deal, but, following the death of her father in the previous installment (a memorable Nic Cage: one part Batman, one part Napolean Dynamite) and under the watchful eye of her guardian, she’s grounded from crime fighting. Motherfucker grows more powerful and Kick-Ass remains incompetent, putting pressure on Mindy to ditch her attempts at being a normal kid.

At a push you could call this a parody of the YouTube generation, a cynical look at mawkish self-promoters and flash in the pan fame. There was certainly great scope to play with. The under-rated 2011 Australian film Wasted on the Young, for example, ended by crowd-sourcing the fate of its hero and villain.

[pullquote position=”right”]Kick-Ass 2‘s characters inhabit a world corrupted by the underlining rationale that it must not be located too far from our own[/pullquote]. Money, guns, gadgets and a series of awful reality checks do away with old school comic book mysticism. Innocents get killed and heroes get diced and slain, without the pretense that they are being disposed for dramatic or even visceral reasons, or that their deaths help define a horrible setting. Despairingly, that central “real world with a twist” logic is cheated: a character called Mother Russia, who looks like a female equivalent of Zangief from Street Fighter 2, is something right out of a cartoon.

With the exception of a couple of snappy chase scenes (a teen hero racing home to jump into bed and pretend she’s sick is a nice fusing of puberty blues and superhero shenanigans) the action scenes are flatly directed despite heavy going-over in the editing room.

Most baffling is Wadlow’s under-use of Jim Carrey. It’s as if Wadlow couldn’t recognize the bleeding obvious: that Carrey was a great get and a tremendous asset. Carrey disowned the project, babbling something about Sandy Hook and violence in movies, before re-dedicating his spare time to making origami animals and stretching his face in the mirror. Assuming he actually watched it — and with wacky ol’ Jim, one can never be certain — Carrey was probably rebelling not against the movie’s violence per se but the unsettling context, or lack thereof, around it.

The greyness of Kick-Ass 2’s universe leads to an uncomfortable hollowness, a feeling the good guys can never really win because they were never really good to begin with. This renders their victories — and, conversely, the defeats suffered by their antagonists — more or less meaningless. And so, when the movie isn’t delivering thrill of the moment pleasures, we find ourselves with less than nothing: zero to hold onto and plenty to despise.

Kick-Ass 2’s Australian theatrical release date: August 22, 2013.