Kick-Ass and its sequel are a meta-stories pure and simple. It’s the story of how real life superheroes could exist, but within the framework of a classic comic book story. On the one hand there’s the action and drama that comes with the territory, but there’s a winking humor as it trudges through the genre cliches. Whereas the first was seen as a breath of fresh air in the (still) oversaturated comic-film department, the second definitely has its moments of humor and genuine story prowess but falls prey to uneven tonal shifts and an overstuffed plot.

What Kick-Ass 2 does well is to keep the humor of the first. It still exists within the “real world,” a term that comes back and back again out of the mouths of various characters in an intelligent if underwritten (or maybe overwritten) aspect to the story. But, as already mentioned, the film struggles to hit its stride and every time it seemingly does, it takes a hard shift in a different and jarring direction. It creates real and unexpected stakes, but towards the end the twists begin to pile up on themselves and they lose their momentum. And yet, there’s an underlying intelligence and commentary — not just on comic book films but action films in general — that carries through and illustrates what those films should be doing better. It’s just unfortunate that Kick-Ass 2 doesn’t take its own advice.

The protagonists are still the same, only David Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a.k.a. Kick-Ass, has had to abandon his secret identity and become a normal kid once again. Mindy Macready (Chloë Grace Moretz), on the other hand, can’t escape her alter ego as Hit-Girl, despite her new guardian Sgt. Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut) refusing to allow her to continue her life of fighting crime. It’s not long before Macready is able to bring Lizewski back into the fold and begins training him on a daily basis. The twist comes, of course, when Macready’s secret life is found out and she decides to attempt a normal life as a 15-year-old-girl just as Lizewski is ready to become Kick-Ass again.

The frustrating part of Macready’s story is that it really is an interesting turn for a somewhat deluded (at least in some people’s eyes) teenage girl to attempt a “normal” life, one that involves drooling over boys and cheerleading. And to writer/director Jeff Wadlow’s credit, there’s the obvious humor that comes along with the territory but real humanity too. It’s just that he has a tough time having the two coexist. Macready is subject to the “real world” and finds that it’s actually not any simpler than being Hit-Girl. The “real world,” therefore, becoming a subjective place which each character uses to their advantage — a clever turn but not fleshed out into an overarching theme and somewhat forgotten by the end.

As Macready is learning about Justin Bieber, Lizewski decides he doesn’t want to be on his own and joins “Justice Forever,” a group of superheroes wanting to be The Avengers, but are really just a couple of people looking to do good. Led by Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey) Kick-Ass seems — conveniently — to be the last nail in the coffin before they take themselves seriously and to the streets. Other members include the hilariously upbeat Doctor Gravity (Donald Faison), softcore Night Bitch (Lindy Booth), and coincidentally, Lizewski’s best friend as Battle Guy (Clark Duke). It’s a fun turn as the cast fills out and Carrey truly transforms into his character (but doesn’t he always?). It’s not a substantial role but Carrey is definitely a bright spot within the film.

If just the basic description is overwhelming, it’s only because the the film is too dense. Still unmentioned is newly self-proclaimed super villain The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who has ditched Red Mist and found purpose as the bad guy. Another insubstantial but fun supporting role is John Leguizamo as Chris D’Amico’s “real world” guardian, or as D’Amico quips, his Alfred (not a compliment). Put simply, D’Amico blames Kick-Ass for his father’s death and wants revenge, building out an army of his own.

What’s so frustrating about Kick-Ass 2 is that there are seeds of brilliance but they’re lost within multiple story lines and characters that just never click. Individual sequences can be fruitful but strung together they just don’t add up. It’s commentary on the genre is still sharp and it’s not afraid of sacrifices for story and character development, an aspect many films — comic or not — are unwilling to do. But with so many twists and turns by the end, the stakes it had built up begin to lose impact. It’s not a totally lost cause but it’s definitely a disappointment.

Rating: 3 out of 5