No one expects family friendly feel-good entertainment from "Kick-Ass 2" -- the title alone takes care of that -- but the edgy superhero sequel has reignited a debate over "how far is too far" when it comes to screen violence.
The follow-up to 2010's cult favorite "Kick-Ass" continues the adventures of two self-made superheroes: nerdy high school student Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who dons a skintight suit, dubs himself Kick-Ass, and bumbles his way through crime-fighting, and incoming freshman Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz), a.k.a. Hit-Girl, the pint-sized offspring of a vengeful cop who trained his daughter to be a brutally efficient and utterly remorseless killing machine.
"Kick-Ass 2" picks up in a world where Dave and Mindy's defeat of a drug kingpin has inspired a slew of imitators including born-again Christian vigilante Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), but also turned the kingpin's son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) into a diabolical supervillain with a profane nickname. It's all intended as satire. Although the original was a modest box office success back in 2010, its audience continued to expand through cable, DVD and online buzz, and the sequel landed a splashy summer release date.
Then Carrey, the movie's highest profile star, made headlines back in June when he announced via Twitter that he wouldn't participate in any promotion for "Kick-Ass 2," citing concerns over its content in the wake of real-life tragedies. "I did Kickass a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence," Carrey tweeted. "My apologies to others (involved) with the film. I am not ashamed of it but recent events have caused a change in my heart."
It's not unusual for stars to admit misgivings about a film after it's been released -- think George Clooney mocking "Batman and Robin" or Halle Berry apologizing for "Catwoman" while accepting a Razzie award for worst actress -- but Carrey's comments, which painted the film as somehow irresponsible or callous long before opening day, are nearly unprecedented.
They also may have exaggerated expectations for exactly how far over the line "Kick-Ass 2" goes. Now that the film has screened for journalists and is opening to the public, those familiar with the comic book source material are pointing out how it could've been worse. The sequel still includes plenty of graphic violence and an abundance of profanity (much of it from the mouth of now 16-year-old Moretz, whose controversially casual use of the "C-word" in the first film is suddenly ho-hum in the second), but nothing that will surprise fans of the first. And the most extreme details of the "Kick-Ass 2" comic by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. -- including a gang rape, dog decapitation and the casual execution of children -- did not make it to the screen.
Brett White, a columnist for Comic Book Resources and co-host of the podcast "Matt & Brett Love Comics," told NBC News he's not surprised the movie had to tone it down.
"All that stuff is too much to handle in any film," White said. "Especially the way the story treats it. If you do a story with those elements in it, you actually have to take the responsibility to make them matter. Unless ['Kick-Ass 2' writer-director] Jeff Wadlow was up for handling the real ramifications of child murder or rape, then I don't think you should put those in your movie."
But if Kick-Ass creator Millar, who is also a producer on the film, had his way, that's exactly what audiences would have seen.
"Every horrible scene in the book will be in the film ... Everybody is saying 'you can't have a gang rape scene with supervillains' and 'you can't have the dog's head cut off,' but every single one of those scenes will go in it," Millar told U.K. website Digital Spy last year.
Instead, the "Kick-Ass 2" movie softens what was featured in the comic with a nod to those in the know. (Spoilers ahead.) No children are murdered. Mintz-Plasse's villain specifically tells his minions not to kill the Colonel's dog, noting that he's "not that evil." And when he attacks and threatens to rape Kick-Ass' love interest (Lindy Booth, playing another superhero wannabe with a crude name), he suddenly finds himself "not in the mood." A tasteless joke, perhaps, but one that spares both the character and the audience a horrifying violation.
"There's things that Mark and John have to do in a comic book to get a response from the audience that I don't necessarily have to do in a movie because they're dealing with approximations of people," Wadlow told Digital Spy more recently. "They're drawings, so there's automatically a separation. I've got real live people in front of my cameras. So to create that emotional response, I didn't always need to go as far."
"[Those acts are] just a little too much for this kind of world," Mintz-Plasse added in the same interview. "Because this still is a comic book world, and the violence is -- even though it's bloody -- it is over the top and cartoony in a way. If you put a rape scene or killing an animal in there it kind of just brings the tone down. It's a little too dark."
The challenge for "Kick-Ass" is to walk a fine line between maintaining its reputation as a rebellious, boundary-pushing series without compromising its overall value as a potentially ongoing franchise with audience appeal. The filmmakers want to keep the comic-book fan base without turning off a broader segment of moviegoers.
Still, the choices they've made could inspire backlash from comic book fans upset that the adaptation strays too far from the source. As White reminds, that's par for the course with fanboys.
"I don't think those fans are gonna be upset like, 'I totally want to see a gang rape on the big screen!'" White told NBC News. "It's that same gene all comic book readers, including myself at times, have where it's like, 'No, Spider-Man has mechanical web-shooters! Why does he have to have organic ones?' Any type of deviation is gonna make them mad. Hopefully the movie will have just enough blood to keep them satisfied."
First published August 17 2013, 5:34 AM