As the director of “Never Back Down” and “Cry_Wolf,” Jeff Wadlow cultivated a refined proficiency with genre conventions, which he twisted just enough to make them his own. In his new film “Kick-Ass 2,” he takes over a successful film series from Matthew Vaughn, whose skillful balance of wish-fulfillment escapism and hardscrabble realism made that film such a potent fanboy cocktail, and whose lead Wadlow not only follows but develops further. In the second film, Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) struggle to deal with the balance between their secret and public identities, even as former partner Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) wallows in vengeance, eventually transforming himself into the one thing every superhero needs: a supervillain. Wadlow examines these character’s identity crises in a movie that manages to ask a few questions about what it means to be a hero while still providing plenty of bone-crunching action.
Comic Book Resources sat down with Wadlow at Comic-Con International’s Kick-Ass Experience, where the filmmaker talked about the skillset he brought to the sequel. In addition to talking about the character development he applied to these iconic figures, he offered his thoughts about Jim Carrey’s decision to decline participation in promoting the movie, and reflected on what he thinks the film does, and says, as it moves into theaters.
What about your past experience were you eager to apply to “Kick-Ass 2” — or what about them do you think helped you get the job?
Jeff Wadlow: I went through a phase of my career when you came and visited me on the set of “Never Back Down” — formerly known as “Get Some” — where I was really positioning myself more as like a shooter, kind of following that Michael Bay, David Slade trajectory. I’d stopped writing. I’m really proud of “Never Back Down,” but that wasn’t really working out for me, that career path. So I started writing, and I realized that my true calling is as a storyteller, which means writing and directing. And so what I brought to “Kick-Ass” that got Matthew [Vaughn] excited was that I was going to own it, and I was going to tell a story that I was excited about — and I was going to see it through, my idea, to completion.
The first film has a unique arc in that the title character’s story is resolved first and then he joins Hit Girl and Big Daddy in resolving theirs. What did you feel like a follow-up needed to include to further develop his story?
My big idea for the sequel was, if the first film is about alter egos, Kick-Ass and Hit Girl and Red Mist and Big Daddy, I say I want the sequel to be about figuring out Dave Lizewski, Mindy Macready, Chris D’Amico — like, who do these people really want to be in life? You can only take a vacation from yourself for so long, and at a certain point you’ve got to say, “This is the person I want to be.” It’s a universal question that we can all relate to, and it’s something that I think creating these superhero alter egos had allowed these characters to delay asking that question. But at some point it was going to come up again, and they would have to decide. That was what I wanted to do with each of the three of them — answer that question.
The first film subverts origin stories by having Kick-Ass’ gain his “powers” because he tries to be a hero without them. Does this film look at the characters’ humanity, or is the follow-up more super-heroic in terms of their abilities and the action?
I’m much more interested in the humanity, and the humanity allowing them to be heroic, if that makes sense. Even in the first film, they introduce that idea of the damaged nerve endings, but they get away from it pretty quickly, so it’s not something I was super excited about exploring. Because even though it’s a cool idea in a comic book, it ultimately just feels sort of like a low-rent Wolverine idea — whereas I’m just interested in the real kid who wants to be a superhero, the humanity of that. Or the little girl who is made to be a superhero, and might just want to be a little girl — might just want to be like a normal, pre-teen, teenage girl. That was what got me excited about it. And ultimately, by exploring their humanity, they have to make heroic choices.
What sort of commentary is this film making, even if it’s buried under the spectacle and the action?
I think the timing is awesome, that we’re making a movie that sort of takes the piss out of superhero teams right after we have this massive superhero team movie, the defining superhero team movie. It’s just a testament to Mark’s foresight, because he wrote the comic a couple of years ago. I finished the script before “The Avengers” came out. So we didn’t really know this was happening, but it’s just sort of a zeitgeist-y thing there. I think for the most part, it was really just about the characters. I mean, I think the cast is so fantastic — they are the characters — and you just want to spend time with them, and you want to see them grow and change. That’s what I wanted to do with the movie.
Chloe Moretz steals so much of the first film, and that character is so dynamic. How much of this film is an ensemble piece, and how much does it focus on her or individual characters?
It is more of an ensemble movie than the first one. I mean, the movie will always be Kick-Ass’ movie, and I think it has less to do with screen time, and more to do with the fact that he’s us — he’s our surrogate. He’s our way in. We see the world through his eyes, so it will always be his movie. But in the first film, we didn’t spend a ton of time with Mindy or Chris, it was really Dave’s story and Big Daddy’s story — and Frank’s story. They sort of dominated the first film, those three characters, and I was excited to take Mindy and Chris and put them under a microscope and examine them and see their layers. And that’s sort of the structure of the film — it’s really three different stories, Dave’s story, Mindy’s story and Chris’ story, and they’re on these separate tracks. And then in the final act of the movie, they all come crashing back together.
I like that! That’s a good way to put it. Like some people have said he’s abandoned the film, he’s denounced the movie. But he didn’t really do that. He said he was proud of the work that he did. Recusing is a great way to put it, and I’m going to steal that.
How do you feel about him taking himself out of that process? Particularly given the visibility he could give the film?
It’s interesting — some people suggested that it’s a hoax, that we planned this. Because we truly have gotten more press as a result than I think we would have gotten if he went on Leno. I mean, they were looping the trailer on CNN, which is fantastic. It’s nice to be part of a national conversation, and a conversation I think we should be having. But I was surprised by his comments, but that’s what I love about Jim Carrey movies — you never know what he’s going do or say. And guess what? In real life, you never know what he’s going to do or say. It was surprising, but ultimately I respect his political beliefs, and I’m incredibly proud of the film. And I think people should see the movie and judge for themselves.
Have you ever experienced the sort of epiphany that he did — personally or professionally?
Oh yeah. I totally respect his right to change his mind. I think great movies are about change — like all of our characters, I think in “Kick-Ass 2,” go through dramatic change, and that’s why I think they’re compelling. If they just stayed the same, they would be one-dimensional jokes and they wouldn’t be compelling at all. And so I absolutely respect a person’s right to change and their ability to change. I’ve certainly changed my mind about many things, sometimes probably too often in one day for my crew’s taste occasionally [Laughs]. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I think it’s something we should celebrate and allow to further discussion about important topics like this.
Do you feel like making a movie like this is a catalyst for conversation, or is it just wish-fulfillment or escapism?
Well, there are a couple of things going on. When I say, “It’s a discussion we should be having,” I’m talking about real-life violence in our society and I think “Kick-Ass” is an escapist piece of entertainment. I think that is a very serious conversation about real people and people who lost their lives, and that should be treated with incredible respect and taken very seriously. And “Kick-Ass 2” ain’t that! [Laughs] It’s designed to be fun, it is a fantasy, it is not real life, and I think it’s pretty obvious. And I think people will always tell stories about life and death situations — we’ve been doing since long before movies were invented, and we’ll do it long after some new form of mass communication replaces movies. I don’t really see a connection — the film is fantasy, it’s escapism, and it has nothing to do with these terrible tragedies. But I respect his right to change his mind and have his own political beliefs.
“Kick-Ass 2” opens August 16.