In the age of non-stop superhero marketing campaigns, potential audiences tend to divide into competing camps even before a movie’s release. Are you a Marvel guy or a DC gal? What brand of corporate synergy defines you? This goes double for Deadpool, thanks to the strenuous, single-minded campaign to position him as “the Snarky Superhero™.” He seems to personify a certain brand of anachronistic LOLcat cleverness, and were I not paid to see movies, I probably would’ve fallen into the camp that dismissed this one. This is not to start with a defense. It’s simply to try to speak directly to my peers in that group. I can only say this: I was pleasantly surprised.
Is Deadpool 2 obnoxious? Is it needlessly self-aware? Is it drunk on its own fairly tame naughtiness? Is it so stuffed full of unrelated pop culture references that it sort of feels like a meme shirt come to life? The answer to all those questions is a resounding yes, but it’s also, weirdly, refreshing. Despite its constant provocations and general neediness, it also has something its main competitors at Marvel* lack: a sense of play. The stakes of the story suddenly aren’t so huge, and it’s not until you’re watching it that you realize how exhausting those ever-escalating stakes have been.
The rules of superhero movies are so codified these days that it doesn’t take much for one to be a departure, which always seemed to be Deadpool‘s reason for being. But this sequel surpasses the original on just about every level.
The Merc with a Mouth is back, and would you believe this? He’s talking directly into the camera again! Wild! I still don’t quite understand the world of Deadpool, where he’s apparently aware of the other superhero movies, and talks about them, and is aware that he is himself in a superhero movie, but still commits to doing regular movie stuff like fighting his enemies and mooning over lost loves and worrying about his friends dying. In Deadpool’s world, is Deadpool a documentary? In any case, he starts breaking the fourth wall so early that you eventually just go with it. I said this about A Ghost Story and I can’t believe I’m saying it about Deadpool 2, but good art teaches you how to experience it. Deadpool 2 (with Atomic Blonde director David Leitch taking over directing duties from Tim Miller) establishes this over-referencey, fourth-wall breaking, one-too-many jokes tone early and consistently enough that you start to let it wash over you, appreciating the good jokes and disregarding the bad, casually filter-feeding for nuggets of entertainment like Beavis and Butthead.
I didn’t love or hate the first Deadpool (it was fine), which seemed to polarize people, but it reminded me of a later season Family Guy. Both had a pattern of three solid jokes that made me laugh followed by one joke so bad that it made me ashamed to have laughed at the previous three, all contained in an atmosphere of generally trying too hard. In contrast to the first Deadpool, from which I remember the lame Rosie O’Donnell joke more than anything actually funny, the sequel’s whiffs are less memorable than its hits. Leitch and his writing team (Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and, believe it or not, Ryan Reynolds) also deserve credit for more than just doing fewer things wrong. In addition to the capably-handled tone and mostly solid joke writing, they also cast Hunt For The Wilderpeople‘s Julian Dennison in a key role. Sure, he’s basically playing a mutant Ricky Baker, complete with Tupac jokes, but Ricky Baker (a character from a movie that only ever opened on 200 screens) is a pretty deep cut for mass-market superhero movie. If you’re going to steal, steal well.
Deadpool 2 competently maintains a tone of kinetic whimsy — its biggest strength. Leitch, who similarly made plot almost irrelevant in the gorgeously brutal Atomic Blonde, seems to be enjoying the hell out of himself with the R-rated gore once again here. Deadpool 2‘s action moves and flows, and you’re happy to just watch, to be carried along by the eye candy without particularly worrying about who the bad guy is or what he wants. The bad guy, for the second time in just a few weeks, is Josh Brolin, playing “Cable,” a robot man from the future. In a movie that pathologically crams in every superhero reference, the fact that there’s only one Thanos joke (which feels like it was added in post) is a jarring oversight. In any case, Deadpool 2 feels like it’s riffing. It feels like the filmmakers are having fun. When was the last time you saw a superhero movie that didn’t feel like every plot point was a lynchpin in some multi-year release strategy?
Deadpool 2 never strains under the narrative weight of its parent corporation’s 5-year plan, and it isn’t really until that weight is lifted off you that you realize what a burden it was. It may not be as naughty as it thinks it is, or subversive in any real sense, but it does jettison many unwelcome now-standard attributes of superhero films that became convention almost without us even noticing. For one thing, it’s just called “Deadpool 2.” Not “Deadpool: The Deadly Horde,” or “Deadpool: Winter Days Of Future Infinities,” just Deadpool 2. For another, it clocks in at slightly less than two hours, by my count. And when it does post-credit scenes (which are just jokes, not teases of future properties), it puts them just after the principal credits, so that you don’t have to wait to read the names of every accounting assistant on the Iceland unit with a bursting bladder just to know that a Black Widow spinoff is coming in three years.
Small victories? Sure. But Deadpool 2 revels in the small victories, in simply feeling like it was written by dorks and not an algorithm. For a target audience of 13-year-olds, and not… well, everyone in the world. It has its faults, but they feel like human faults, rather than the faults of late capitalism. It’s the perfect counter-programming for Infinity War.
*Yes, Deadpool is a Marvel character, but the Deadpool movies are distributed by Fox, in association with Marvel. Is it weird that I assume everyone already knows this? In the 20-teens everyone is a fantasy studio exec.