One of the most adroit marketing campaigns in memory has made Deadpool, which ought to have been the burnt-down, mashed-out butt-end of the superhero movie joint, a huge hit. Deadpool could well count as the exemplary movie of the age, a movie that is essentially a tide-pool of internet memes and Twitter quips assembled wrapped around a core narrative. That narrative is exceptionally simple, but this is technically one annex of the X-Men franchise: garrulous professional standover man and former special forces burnout Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) falls in love with hooker Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), but when he learns he has cancer, volunteers for an experimental treatment after a man claiming to be a government agent offers him the hope of a cure that could make him a superhero at the same time. But the treatment actually proves to be run by nefarious sleazebag Ajax (Ed Skrein, best known as the Fabio-esque assassin from Game of Thrones), who uses vicious torture techniques to stimulate mutant genes in volunteers, and then enslaves the results. Wade develops incredible healing powers like Wolverine’s but also is permanently disfigured, and although he survives a desperate attempt to escape Ajax’s clutches, he can’t bear facing Vanessa again. So, he reinvents himself as a masked and suited daredevil, calling himself Deadpool after a betting pool run by his barkeep pal Weasel (T.J. Miller), in which lowlifes wager on the fates of other lowlifes. He tracks down Ajax’s associates until he can corner and kill his enemy.
That’s about it for plot in Deadpool, although a breakneck flashback structure keeps this partly concealed. But say what you will about it, this is not your usual superhero movie. Deadpool talks to the camera, makes fun of scenes he’s in, and throws himself around like Wile E. Coyote crossbred with Jackie Chan. Stylistically the film borrows heavily from both Matthew Vaughan’s black-comedy action films exemplified by Kick Ass and James Gunn’s Super, and from the free-form approach of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (all 2010), which debuting director Tim Miller worked on as a special effects honcho. Miller and his screenwriters toss non sequitir gags galore at the screen whilst offering up swathes of gleefully gauche action and sex scenes. Brutality is delivered with exaggerated, cartoonish relish reminiscent of the increasingly outlandish threats on a Wu-Tang diss track, up to and including Deadpool egging on his taxi driver pal Dopinder (Karan Soni) to ice his romantic rival, who finishes up a captive in Dopinder’s trunk. The chaotic humour pretends to be waggishly random but actually suggests someone’s been carefully combing the internet for reference points: Deadpool has a habit of masturbating whilst fondling a My Little Pony figure, there’s jokes about assembling Ikea stuff, and the sexy sax solo of Wham!’s “Careless Whisper” caps the film.
The opening credits, instead of actually naming the stars and crew, substitutes, “A Hot Chick” and “A British Villain,” whilst it’s directed by “An Overpaid Tool,” which suggests that finally Honest Trailers have produced a full feature off-spring; still, this truth-in-advertising opening is probably the film’s most enjoyable flourish. Meanwhile Deadpool has occasional run-ins with two proper X-Men, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic), who’s equipped here with a line in cheesy Slavic-accented PSA admonitions, and “moody teen” Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who’s essentially Hit Girl without the samurai swords. Some of this stuff had me actually thinking back nostalgically to Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) as a model of narrative control. Deadpool intriguingly couches its hero’s impudent humour as a form of hysterical bravado, his chosen method of retaining a thread of humanity in the face of his suffering. It’s an idea worth chasing but which the film spoils because of a lack of discipline, as it insists on operating on a level reminiscent not so much of the catch-as-catch-can insanity of Looney Tunes or Hellzapoppin’ as Family Guy’s random pseudo-satiric goosing.
There is a movie somewhere underneath all the lampooning and borrowed rude-crude paraphernalia. At one point Wade sits by a window in his apartment, looking over his lover in bed with the city night behind him, scored to pulsing synthesiser music. After a second I realised with a shock this moment wasn’t actually mocking an ‘80s genre flick but entirely earnest in recreating the flavour of one. A serious note repeatedly strikes under the surface flippancy of Wade and Vanessa’s relationship. Similarly, the sequences depicting Wade’s entry into Ajax’s hospice, actually just a glorified inquisition chamber, and his suffering at his hands achieve a genuinely dark, unsettling mood, particularly in the disparity between Ajax’s humourless, literally unfeeling sadism and Wade’s fending quips. But for a film that congratulates itself on being a gritty action film amidst a sea of CGI kiddie pablum, the problem with Deadpool is that it’s not actually a gritty action film, in spite of the tits, cuss-words, and exploding heads. It is, rather, a commentary on the possibility of such things in a comic book movie, a pretend adult film for perma-adolescents. Nor does it pay off with the perverse emotional jolt Kick Ass did in its blend of impulses.
That the film works at all can largely be put down to the zest of Reynolds, the self-mocking asides not concealing the actor's ebullience nor his determination to grasp this chance to finally locate his superstar mojo with both hands, and the fact that the flow of jokes is so constant some have to stick. The funniest elements are actually episodes of smart-ass repartee relatively contoured into the proper story, like the brutal quips flying between Wade and his aged blind flatmate “Blind Al” (Leslie Uggams, whose career stretches back to Two Weeks In Another Town, 1962), and when Wade and Vanessa swap metastasizing hard-luck stories (“I was molested.” “I was molested by my uncle.” “I was molested by both my uncles – they took turns.”) by way of flirtation. Later Wade murmurs with awe after a Star Wars-based conversation, “It’s like I made you in a computer!”, a gag that would hit heavier if Vanessa hadn’t been, well, made in a computer to be the perfect trashy-cool girlfriend character. The finale makes a joke of Deadpool going into battle commando but the film itself is going commando by this point, resolving in a very ordinary, essentially straight-laced climax as Deadpool hacks and chops and Cyclops and Negasonic go a couple of rounds with Ajax’s underling Angel Dust (Gina Carano, wasted). The difficulty in critiquing a movie like Deadpool is precisely that it poses as an act of criticism itself, poking fun at its own clichés in a way that noticeably excuses it from actually being original or employing its clichés with true flare, something all too apparent by these closing moments. There was a simpler, better film here, struggling to escape the vortex of “awesome.”