Ryan Reynolds isn’t funny. There, I’ve said it. He’s an actor who has built a persona based on snark, which is easily mistaken as humor but isn’t actually the same thing. The first Deadpool film was a failure because the filmmakers didn’t understand the distinction, and let the movie hang on Reynolds’ delivery. With Deadpool 2, Reynolds and director David Leitch have now taken an approach that actually works, solidifying the screenplay and supplying copious gags that would hit regardless of who delivered them. Unfortunately, though the filmmakers have managed to defeat the dour mood that infects so many comic book films, they’re still hidebound to the boring, shopworn routines of super hero flicks.
Since the first film, Wade Wilson has settled into a rote series of assassinations and contract killings. He’s basically indestructible thanks to some unauthorized gene editing in the first film, which allows himself to heal even the worst wounds and regenerate body parts. It’s a talent (or mutation) that threatens to make the character boring due to the lack of stakes, yet Deadpool 2 cleverly sidesteps that concern by using his indestructibility to comedic effect. In the wake of a personal tragedy, Wilson suits up, leaves the gas stove running, lies on a bed of oil barrels he’s scrounged up from somewhere, and allows a toaster strudel-endowed toaster oven to set the spark that will blow him to oblivion. (Hopefully no one lived next door.) The attempted suicide isn’t successful of course, as his head is able to regenerate a body, but the trauma is enough for him to take some time off to stay with the X-Men and try to find a purpose in life.
Deadpool wears a cutoff “Trainee” t-shirt as he rejoins Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapi?i?) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). With them, he’s called to a “mutant rehabilitation home” — a place for wayward children that practices whatever the mutant equivalent of gay conversion therapy is. A young mutant who goes by Firefirst (Julian Dennison of the excellent and underseen Hunt for the Wilderpeople) has used his fiery fists to wreak havoc, so Deadpool and the others try to subdue him. Of course, Deadpool ends up making the situation worse, getting himself and the boy thrown in prison.
Enter Cable (Josh Brolin, for his second comic book film performance of the year), a soldier from the future who has come to change the past in order to prevent the future death of his wife and child. Eventually this puts him at odds with Deadpool, now backed by the X-Force, a group of not-ready-for-prime-time mercenaries. The new group includes Domino, who can subtly alter events to increase her odds of success (Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz), as well as Peter (Rob Delaney), a perfectly normal guy who just showed up for the job interview.
Deadpool 2 wisely opts to expand its cast and dilute a bit of Reynolds’ self-satisfied smirk, and the new additions are uniformly excellent. Dennison subtly vacillates between his comedic abilities and a more nihilistic desire to see the world burn, while Beetz excels at putting Reynolds in his place (a theme seems to be developing). After making his name as a stunt actor, Leitch graduated to directing John Wick and Atomic Blonde, so if there’s a single thing he can do, it’s make a competent action sequence. Beetz is the beneficiary of many of those scenes — her superpower (which Deadpool questions the existence of) allows her to work just outside the chaos for a kind of balletic performance. Nearly all of the action sequences in Deadpool 2 are an improvement on the first film; they’re more imaginatively staged, and also far more intelligible. Rather than the dizzying style of fast cutting so in vogue, Leitch takes his time and allows the camera to connect with the actors as they perform wildly complicated contortions.
Their success paradoxically increases the likelihood of future failures, in which Deadpool films become bloated affairs, a kind of alt-Avengers.
In many areas, Deadpool 2 is a solid improvement on the intriguing but half-baked original. It succeeds most when it departs furthest from the mold of superhero films, yet the credited screenwriters (Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Reynolds) allow the story to slowly but surely slip back into those well-worn patterns. The early tragedy that inspires Wilson to spend some time with the X-Men is effectively undercut by his goofy suicide attempt, but the writers lose steam and stop trying to undercut future moves toward superhero orthodoxy. The climactic battle has absolutely nothing that separates it from any of the Disney-owned superheroes. Deadpool’s overriding humor is sidelined until it barely reaches the Joss Whedon-esque levels that are contractually obligated to be included in every Avengers-adjacent film.
It’s hard to know what to make of Deadpool 2’s late failures without understanding the genesis of those decisions. Did the film’s writers lose their nerve, or merely inspiration? Did the studio decide to pull back on the chain a bit, assuming that audiences would want this superhero rehash? It’s hard to tell, but there’s a clear dividing line between the first 4/5 of the film and it’s final, very traditional sequence.
Still, a bad ending shouldn’t be enough to condemn a film. They’re notoriously hard to nail, and many great works suffer from less than stellar endings. There’s a solid comedy/action film in Deadpool 2, and the makings of future successes, thanks to the consistently excellent supporting cast — though even that raises concerns. The only way that future Deadpool films work is if Wade Wilson remains the focus, but Beetz and Brolin are too strong in this film to be indefinitely sidelined, and Hildebrand, who was excellent in the first film, could have used even more screen time here. Their success paradoxically increases the likelihood of future failures, in which Deadpool films become bloated affairs, a kind of alt-Avengers.
For now, however, Reynolds and company have improved on their Deadpool formula. There’s still room for improvement, but it’s a breath of fresh air compared to the increasingly stale superhero films recently foisted upon us.