Deadpool 2 (2018)
Whilst the first Deadpool (2016) wasn’t very good, it had a certain level of smart-alec volatility to it, enabled mostly through Ryan Reynolds’ gifts as a Gatling gun-like wisecrack delivery system. It managed to seem at least superficially surprising and oddball, even if it lacked the eccentric integrity of Kick-Ass (2010), one of its obvious models, or the audacity of an authentically delirious descent into post-genre anarchy like Casino Royale (1967) or Modesty Blaise (1966). Deadpool took the chance of transferring the comic book character, with his jive-ass meta sensibility, into a big-budget lark that made fun of the insanely popular superhero genre whilst also playing it through with most imperatives intact. Returning for a second helping was always going to be a dicey proposition, following on the heels other disastrous sequels to envelope-pushing hits like Kick-Ass 2 (2013) and Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017). Hiring John Wick (2014) and Atomic Blonde (2017) director David Leitch to take on the script, which Reynolds this time co-wrote with the first film's scribes Rhett Rhees and Paul Wernick, seemed to promise a move in a tougher direction, and away from a template that was essentially a sticky-taped collage of dorm room quips, pilfered YouTube video tricks, and barely-revised comic book movie cliches. Deadpool 2 takes a cue from John Wick and makes a dead wife a spur to an antihero’s roaring rampage of revenge, as our titular protagonist, real name Wade Wilson, is on the verge of trying to start a family with his partner in acerbic humour and louche behaviour, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), but she is killed when some of his enemies from his day job as a top assassin barge into their apartment and start shooting.
After suffering through a bout of suicidal grief, during which he makes repeated attempts to kill himself but finds his amazing regenerative powers foil all efforts, Wade is dragged to the X-Mansion by Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) for some spiky repartee with Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), and to be charmed by her pink-haired girlfriend Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna), who strikes Wade as the human equivalent of the My Little Pony characters that are his closet fetish. Colossus talks Wade into locating his inner goody-two-shoes and become a (trainee) X-Man to serve alongside himself and Negasonic. The trio are called to intervene at a violent situation unfolding at a home for young mutant orphans: inmate Russell (Julian Dennison), who wants to be called Firefist for his pyrokinetic skills, is on a rampage after being torture and indoctrinated by the home’s sadistic zealot Headmaster (Eddie Marsan). Hearing Russell’s story, Wade immediately starts gunning down the Headmaster’s underlings, earning him expulsion from the X-Men, and he and Russell are both sent to the Icebox, a maximum-security facility for mutant prisoners, where everyone’s held in check by superpower-repressing neck-braces.
An enigmatic, part-cyborg time traveller named Cable (Josh Brolin) arrives and sets the prison in chaos in his attempts to kill Russell, as Cable is desperate to prevent Russell’s evolution into a marauding killer who took the life of his wife and daughter. Wade fights off Cable whilst repudiating responsibility for Russell, which drives the distraught young man to seek the fellowship of the prison’s strongest, deadliest inhabitant, the Juggernaut. Through his repeated near-death experiences in which he keeps catching a glimpse of Vanessa lingering in patiently waiting limbo, Wade decides his new task in life is to help other misfits, and becomes determined to save Russell from Cable, putting together a team he imaginatively dubs the X-Force. Most of his new force dies in a gruesome fashion when Wade pushes them to parachute in high winds, leaving only Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is luck – a gift Wade is initially sceptical over but soon has repeated proof of its value.
Woven into the essentially straight-faced central plot is of course a lot of facetiously knowing humour. Wade notes that the essence of the Star Wars films is that everyone becomes their father and then shags their sister, calls Cable John Connor, and quips he seems so dark he might have strayed in from the DC universe. Wade’s shtick has been given a very 2018 makeover in his scattershot deployment of online culture-war buzzwords like “appropriation” in putting down (white) prison heavy Black Tom Cassady (Jack Kesy) and then accusing Cable of racism after he kills him in battle. An elaborate gag is built around Wade’s observation that a supernal franchise figure like himself can only earn appearances from B-list fellows in that franchise, whilst the more familiar cast of X-Men shut the door on the annoying interloper. The film throws so many of these sorts of gags at the screen I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get the odd laugh out of them.
But Deadpool 2 proves less an act of wilfully unruly cinema than just a plain old-fashioned mess. Leitch, whose previous po-faced, faux-stylish efforts hardly recommended him as a maker of self-aware action-comedies, handles proceedings with a desultory lack of sprightliness and no eye for surreal humour. The opening title sequence sports the same sarcastically descriptive credits as the first movie, but this time over a send-up of the James Bond films’ titles, which is almost certainly the tiredest spoof target in the universe. Joke after joke fails to raise much more than a vague, patient smile. The Deadpool imprimatur has a contradiction at its heart, posing as a deflation of familiar moralistic refrains and storytelling and aesthetic clichés, and yet which is visually and conceptually entirely of a unit with what it’s nominally lampooning. Part of what made Wade and Vanessa’s romance in the first film reasonably fun was its sarcastic, almost indifferent attitude to normal movie romantic beats as the two characters duelled with hyperbolic accounts of personal trauma and terrible disfigurement was conquered with a few stiff drinks. Here Vanessa is quickly served up as the regulation fridge-stuffing lost love. Deadpool 2 kicks off with Wade’s promise that we’re actually watching a family movie in spite of the gore and atrocities, as his ragtag mob of pals coalesce into a mutually dependent team. But the first film’s crew of supporting characters, like Leslie Uggam’s Blind Al and Karan Soni’s Dopinder, return for one-note stands, and even Hildebrand’s Negasonic barely has anything to do.
A couple of decades since attempts like Last Action Hero (1993), the Deadpool films have finally put over meta-humour and generic self-satire on a blockbuster audience with striking ease, but in a way that avoids any consideration of the entertainment complex itself, or the attitudes of the audience watching it. The cartoonish violence mocks the cleanliness of family-friendly action films, in a way that congratulates the grown-up – read: men in their late teens and early twenties – viewers but doesn’t at all question what the point of it all is. The sequence where everything goes wrong for Wade’s budding X-Force intends to be a black comedy coup, but instead merely underlines the dismayingly frat boy-ish spirit underpinning the pseudo-satire. Likewise Wade’s romantic overtures to Colossus, which play with omnivorous sexuality not with any, actual anarchic intent but on the level of a bunch of teen boys trying to see who’ll cave in to gay panic first by playing camp.
I was wrong when I described the first Deadpool as a collection of internet memes, or, at least, I see more clearly from the sequel what Deadpool actually is a character; moreover he’s also a phenomenon we’re likely to see more of as industrial entertainment struggles to keep pace with our new reality and maintain a lead over the pursuing pack online. Deadpool is the internet, its personification and dramatization. This is obvious in his knee-jerk responses, his vast gallery of eclectic snark and hot-shit references on tap, his attempts to promote inclusive positivity alongside his random gun-down-what-you-don’t-like mentality, his simultaneous ability to be sentimental and sarcastic, nostalgic and derisive. His virtual immortality enables him to live in what seems like a state of fearless openness, but actual subsists in a state of constant neurotic distress. The best episodes in Deadpool 2 are those where the motor-mouthed hero collides literally and linguistically with Brolin’s terse, rock-jawed, old-school genre movie hard-ass: these scenes are brief and generally interspersed with physical violence, but they highlight a tension here that might have been fruitful in a better-organised film, as a coherent commentary on the gap between many types of viewers, between generations or tastes in genre filmmaking.
This is even touched on just faintly as Deadpool’s most urgent question about the future, “Is dubstep still a thing?”, is answered eventually by Cable’s grouchy retort, “Dubstep’s for pussies.” Deadpool 2 comes close to being the second superhero film in a couple of months Brolin has completely owned by dint of playing his part absolutely dead straight, although Beetz also makes a strong impression by suggestion a bad Blaxploitation momma employed in an unusual setting, armed with a breezy attitude because she knows everything runs her way. Sadly, the film never discovers a witty or cinematically well-composed way of illustrating her unique talent, and the script provides, much as it provides everything here, some personal stakes and dramatic value for her far too late and far too casually. Likewise Dennison’s comedic chops, so well displayed in The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), don’t get much space to breathe in his role, and the finale tries to make a joke about endless death scenes for heroic characters reaching the end of their franchise cycle, except that, well, it commits its own crime. How is it that a film that posits itself as so rude, so roguish, so insolent, finishes up so utterly and inescapably square?