‘Deadpool’ Review: A Faithful, But Not Particularly Funny, Superhero Movie

20th Century Fox

Most comic book movies are meant to appeal to 12-year-olds. Deadpool is the first one feel like it was actually written by one. Gleefully puerile and deeply immature, it has tons of what the MPAA calls “adult content,” but no actual content for adults. It’s a non-stop parade of dick jokes (and ball jokes), bloody violence, and breaking the fourth wall. In other words, it will be the favorite movie of 2016 of every underage boy who sneaks into it next weekend. Others need not apply.

The title character, star of a wide variety of Marvel Comics, is a fast-talking mercenary; not, as he’s quick to point out over and over, a superhero. Armed with a pair of swords, a bunch of guns, and a demented sense of humor, Deadpool’s basically what would happen if you took Jim Carrey’s character from The Mask, gave him an R rating, and taught him how to do parkour. (“S---, did I leave the stove on?” he wonders aloud right before he decapitates a guy in the middle of a multi-car freeway crash.) A generous admirer could describe him as “pure id.” A less appreciative viewer might go with “the most obnoxious movie character ever.” They would both be correct.

Before he became this whirling dervish of blades and quips, Deadpool was Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a mercenary with a soft-spot for women in need. Things are going pretty well for Wade — a solid career as a gun-for-hire, a supposedly dilapidated (but actually gorgeous) loft apartment, a hot girlfriend named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) who maybe works as a prostitute but never actually sleeps with any other men — until a sudden cancer diagnosis. Refusing to put his beloved through the torture of watching him slowly rot away, he accepts an offer from an obviously evil recruiter (Jed Rees), who promises to cure his disease and turn him into a super-soldier.

That the deal is a bad one should go without saying, but then nothing goes without saying in Deadpool thanks its talkative anti-hero. The procedure does fix Wade’s cancer but it destroys his sanity and ruins his face, changing him from a hunky assassin into a crazed psychotic with third-degree burns all over his body. One explosion-aided escape later, Wade’s off on a mission of revenge to kill the man who transformed him, a brutal mutant named Ajax (Ed Skrein) who can’t feel pain — or anything else. 

The unfeeling villain who’s impervious to basic human emotions is a nice metaphor for the entire movie, which feels absolutely nothing about Deadpool’s sadistic behavior beyond the fact that it is super-cool to kill three dudes with one bullet. A couple of X-Men occasionally show up to try to convince Deadpool to mend his ways and join their team, but he mocks their goody two-shoes morality the same way he mocks everything else. The character’s sarcasm comes straight from the source material (where he’s depicted as an anarchic agent of chaos who’s fully aware he’s a fictional character), but something about the way it’s been amped up for the big-screen with R-rated sexuality, violence, and profanity sours a lot of the cheeky fun.

It’s hard to overstate just how improbable this Deadpool movie is. He’s an all-but-unknown character outside comic-book nerd circles, and his first onscreen appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine was one of the most laughable parts of a movie that’s all laughable parts. He’s played by an actor whose last true hit came more than five years ago, and whose previous attempt at superheroism, 2011’s Green Lantern, is widely regarded as one of the worst exemplars of its genre. That Fox would take a chance on such a weird property, and would maintain its unruly spirit and amoral attitude, deserves a certain amount of respect, begrudging or otherwise.

Still, the whole affair feels half-baked, from Deadpool’s tepid wisecracks and pop-culture references, to the villains (Skrein’s doctor/scientist/ax-wielding goon is generic as they come, as is Gina Carano as his MMA-fighting sidekick), to the B-team X-Men who pop up to add a little extra mutant star power. At one point, Deadpool even makes a joke about the fact that his movie can’t afford more than two X-Men, which is cute but probably also true — and as much a punchline as an excuse. The movie repeatedly uses Deadpool’s meta yakking as a way to wave away criticism, like when he says “It’s like I made you in a computer!” to Vanessa after the umpteenth time she proves herself the perfect girlfriend. Sure, he’s trying to be funny, but it’s also a convenient way to preempt any complaints that Baccarin’s character is an absurd collection of movie girlfriend stereotypes. She’s not poorly written; she’s meant to be that way!

To his credit, Reynolds makes fun of himself along with everything else in Deadpooland there are a bunch of gags at the expense of his Green Lantern and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (including a cameo by Reynolds’ hideous action figure). But for all its bluster, Deadpool isn’t nearly as innovative as it claims. It takes plenty of shots at Wolverine, but the two movies have a ton in common. They’re both superhero origin stories about soldiers of fortune whose bad deeds hide good hearts, with female leads who exist only to satisfy their boyfriends’ carnal appetites and then soothe their wounded souls. Both titular protagonists enter into transparently Faustian bargains for power; both are mutated into uncontrollable beasts with supernatural healing and fighting abilities. Both movies end atop precarious (and obviously CGI) locations that crumble around the main hero and villain as they fight (Deadpool’s present for both, although his role varies). And both movies provide hilariously stupid and totally unnecessary explanations for their character’s codenames.

Deadpool is certainly gory and profane, but deep down it’s really no different than every other comic-book movie (and its ending is even more conventional than a lot of the stuff it spoofs). Pointing out how crappy other movies are doesn’t automatically make your movie good, and while Deadpool’s core audience will appreciate the way it flatters their knowledge of genre conventions with winking, cynical humor, too much of this stuff just plays like smug self-satisfaction. This movie is way too impressed with itself; in the end, it’s its own biggest fan.

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