In the world of comic book movies, a common refrain is that a film is “for true fans.” It’s often deployed as a backhanded compliment, a way of stating that the movie isn’t necessarily good but its mere existence is enough for a built-in audience who are content just to see their favorite characters on the silver screen; think the middling Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or the aggressively underwhelming X-Men: Apocalypse.
But Deadpool 2, a movie definitely made for fans, made me rethink that.
Directed by former stuntman and John Wick co-director David Leitch, Deadpool 2 is sharp fun, a delirious exhibition for the bawdy, acerbic humor of Ryan Reynolds — who co-wrote this sequel in addition to starring in it — fused with blistering, inventive action sequences. There’s plenty to like here, especially for comic book readers whose knowledge of the merc with a mouth and his creators may unlock another level of humor. Fans of Domino (Zazie Beetz), a mutant with the ability to be “lucky” and a fixture in the X-Force comic books, will also be pleased with such an effortless and smile-inducing introduction to the character.
But crucially, Deadpool 2’s fan service doesn’t get in the way of it being an entertaining movie. Reynolds and co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (returning from 2016’s Deadpool) understand that the film’s irreverence is rooted in a fealty to the superhero genre. The film’s high-density array of insults, references, and jokes works because its target audience — comic book fans especially — has a love for the drama, visuals, and fantasy of superheroes. And by providing the latter in generous amounts, Deadpool 2 has the potential to make fans of us all.
Deadpool 2’s greatest strength is its restraint (no, really)
In the early 1990s, Marvel’s Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza borrowed copiously from a DC villain named Deathstroke/Slade Wilson to create Deadpool/Wade Wilson. But unlike his predecessor, Deadpool displayed a ’90s-appropriate sense of sass, irreverence, and rage against the machine.
In other words, Deadpool was an antihero with superpowers (healing, reflexes, agility, et al.). And as 2016’s Deadpool made clear, the greatest of those powers may be his complete self-awareness: The majority of jokes in Deadpool were focused on flaying the titular hero and the superhero industrial complex, whether that meant poking fun at Reynolds’s career and Fox’s run of bad superhero movies or inserting raunchy one-liners and superfluous gore into the movie’s big action sequences in order to earn its rare-for-the-genre R rating.
It’s a good shtick. Deadpool’s irreverence, especially at its own expense, made it unique among its superhero movie peers. But there were moments in the first movie where the film’s relentless I bet you’ve never seen this before attitude wasn’t backed up by the movie itself, which still played right into all the standard superhero movie beats.
So it’s gratifying — and, honestly, a little shocking — to see the sequel’s relative restraint toward its hero. Not having to constantly prove Deadpool’s edginess allows Deadpool 2 to develop a stronger story, which proves to be its greatest asset.
It might be that viewers have simply gotten used to the character, or it might be Reese, Wernick, and Reynolds editing themselves, but there’s more ease around the character of Deadpool now, less of an impulse to go for the obvious joke all the time. (Or at least when the joke presents itself, like recurring jabs at Batman v Superman and one “Black” Tom Cassidy, there’s more intelligence behind the reference.)
Instead, Deadpool 2 wraps its story around the bones of a romance, grounding the movie’s irreverence in real emotional stakes. Deadpool and the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), want to start a family, but Deadpool’s career as a mercenary gets in the way. At the risk of giving away too much, I’ll just say that Deadpool needs to complete one last mission to get that chance — saving a boy from a gruff time-jumping, metal-armed mutant named Cable (a fixture in Marvel’s comic books, played here by Josh Brolin), who has his own motivations.
Romances in superhero movies are often dull, flimsy things, but Deadpool 2’s love story provides some much-needed ballast for the film’s nonstop irreverence. It asks viewers to think about the human aspect of being super and the vulnerability that comes with it. And in delivering this romance, the film manages to feel fresh and give Deadpool some deeper meaning, by suggesting that there actually are consequences in a movie that appears not to have any.
It also provides some much-needed breathing room between the film’s electric action sequences.
Deadpool 2’s action sequences translate the limitless potential of comic book pages to the screen
Leitch, who directed 2017’s Atomic Blonde, has a proven eye for high-impact visuals. That bears out in Deadpool 2’s action sequences, which are never too cluttered or confusing, with individual stunts given the space to breathe and exist on their own. The action sequences serve a purpose beyond stoking adrenaline, frequently doubling as important character moments.
That’s especially apparent in the film’s introduction of Domino. In the comics, Domino has the power to alter the probability around her, essentially making her supernaturally lucky. But depending on who’s writing and drawing her, the comics’ depiction of this amorphous power has been inconsistent: Her luck comes off as more or less just making things happen — bullets hit, or lightning strikes, or she’s saved by the slightest of nudges. But she comes alive onscreen, as Leitch methodically unfurls her powers with a steady hand, zooming in on each little flick of movement and then peeling back for a jaw-dropping reveal.
Domino isn’t the only new mutant who just about steals the show. Julian Dennison’s Russell is the pyrokinetic child at the center of this whole drama, and Dennison (a breakout presence in Taika Waititi’s 2016 film Hunt For the Wilderpeople) imbues him with fragility, broken up by flashes of rapacious anger. Leitch’s visuals match the performance beat for beat, imbuing Russell’s explosive sequences with an unpredictable fervor suited to a mutant in the throes of adolescence.
Leitch’s action sequences don’t rely on mindless punching or grating dubstep music cues — unless he’s making a point about mindless punching and grating dubstep music cues. Rather, they’re individually tailored to the needs of specific scenes and specific characters, and are far more impactful for it. Each superpowered character, whether it’s Deadpool and his healing abilities or Cable and his time-jumping technology, gets special attention to just what makes him or her so super.
Translating the limitless potential of comic book pages — comparatively free of the restrictions, budgetary and otherwise, that can hamper action filmmaking — into something awe-inspiring onscreen is a lot easier said than done. But Leitch makes it look crisp and effortless, and that’s a large part of what makes his and his writers’ vision in Deadpool 2 better than the original.
Deadpool’s massive success was in large part due to its irreverence for its own genre, its willingness to take shots, some raunchier than others, at superhero flicks in general. However, it didn’t really offer an alternative to what it was insulting; nor was it distinctly better than its targets at the things it made fun of them for. Deadpool 2 is more ambitious. It doesn’t just dare to make fun of the genre — it does so while showing off what actually makes a good superhero film. The result is a superhero movie so tightly made and brilliantly entertaining that even Deadpool himself would have trouble finding fault with it.
Deadpool 2 opens in theaters on Friday, May 18.
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