Deadpool wastes no time at all establishing its crooked, reality-bending sense of humor. The film opens on a tableau of mayhem, like a three-dimensional version of the splash panel that might swallow pages two and three of any given Marvel issue. As the camera volleys from one frozen-in-time detail of grisly violence to the next, a series of mock credits flash across the screen, advertising that the movie stars “A Hot Chick” and “A Gratuitous Cameo” (you know by who) and that it’s been directed by “An Overpaid Tool.” This will not be the last time that Deadpool acknowledges its own existence: When not firing bullets and quips at everyone in range, masked assassin Wade Wilson will often turn to the camera, directly addressing the legions of fans in the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is just the start. This is a superhero movie that features, in its own superhero’s words, “a fourth-wall break inside a fourth-wall break.”
That meta quality comes straight from the source material, the various monthly series, miniseries, and team books Deadpool has appeared in since the early ’90s. Part Deathstroke ripoff, part Spider-Man spoof, the character spilled from the pen of Marvel defector Rob Liefeld, who never met a psychotic, derivative, and anatomically impossible antihero he couldn’t invent on the spot. Both a clear byproduct of the hyper-macho, parodically “extreme” ’90s comic culture and a knowing satire of the same, Deadpool built a following by making like a murderous Bugs Bunny, his self-aware asides a direct elbow into the ribs of the reader. Popular demand made a headlining hero out of the one-time villain, but only during peak superhero saturation could one expect him to star in his own feature film. (Deadpool’s explanation: He fellated Wolverine.)
That’s Ryan Reynolds under the mask and prosthetic scar tissue, harnessing the full power of his breathless sarcasm. After a slow and steady transformation into a genuinely talented actor (see: Mississippi Grind, if you haven’t), a gig like this might seem like a backslide into the smug shtick of his sitcom years were it not for the fact that Reynolds was born for the role: If a surprising number of the film’s fast-flying jokes actually land, it’s because the star knows just how to deliver them. He’s played the part before, in the very first of the X-Men solo spinoffs, 2009’s all-around-regrettable X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Naturally, that folly gets cheekily referenced here, as do Green Lantern and the Blade series; there are more allusions than plot points in this movie, with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick packing in nods not just to Reynolds’ history of aborted crime-fighting series, but also to the Spin Doctors, Adventure Time, Bernadette Peters, Taken, Alien 3, and Jared from Subway.
Deadpool’s R-rated irreverence knows few bounds. When a pre-disfigured Wade first encounters his love interest—a prostitute with a heart of gold and the mouth of a sailor, played by Firefly’s Morena Baccarin—their meet-cute involves gags about childhood sexual trauma. Later, a torture montage is set to the jolly strains of “Mr. Sandman,” which has to be the most ironic use of that song since the last time the Halloween franchise dusted it off. The problem with the film isn’t that it’s an orgy of glib cartoon carnage. The problem is that all of that is a disguise: Just as Deadpool himself wears a mask to hide his hideous features, Deadpool conceals a highly conventional origin story under a lot of winking self-awareness.
Beginning in media res, with the deadly jokester on his way to exact some sweet revenge on the mad scientist (new Transporter Ed Skrein) who fucked up his face, the film keeps flashing back to his creation myth—the by-the-numbers tale of how a secretly good-hearted mercenary agreed to play lab rat to cure his terminal cancer, only to find that a Freddy Krueger mug is the price for painfully acquired healing powers. On the page, Deadpool is usually written as a madman cipher in tights, all blades, guns, and gags. His movie doesn’t just fill out the character’s backstory, but adds an incongruous tragic dimension, with Wade spying on his true love from the shadows like Spawn or The Thing or Darkman. And Reynolds, for all the fun he has in costume, can’t resist making Wade more… upstanding. The actor normalizes him into the superhero he keeps claiming he isn’t.
Deadpool also attempts the tricky business of existing outside of the X-Men movie universe—of commenting on it, even—while simultaneously operating within it. The film’s direct line to that series hub is metal-skinned Russian mutant Colossus, who the movies have largely wasted so far. Depicted as a clunky CGI golem, and partnered with a popular one-panel bit player named Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), Colossus appears for no other apparent reason than to open the door for a future X-Men crossover, should this film prove a big-enough hit to warrant that. Deadpool can reference the actors who play the two Professor Xaviers (big laugh) and joke that the film couldn’t afford the full team (even bigger laugh), while still waiting in the wings to be brought into the franchise proper. Like bartender sidekick T.J. Miller noting that a certain decision “might further the plot,” it’s lampshading taken to its post-modern limits.
By the time the film reaches its big-battle climax—divested of world-saving stakes for once, at least—no number of lopped-off limbs, four-letter words, or in-joke sops to the faithful can oppress the stench of formula. Deadpool wants it both ways: The character is at once a sociopathic, narrative-bending imp and potential team material, in the same way that his starring vehicle thumbs its nose at the same hero’s arc to which it’s basically adhering. The eccentric touches—a Wham! musical cue, a dash of screwball body horror—are just accents on a stealth franchise extension. At a certain point, you have to do more than just recognize and point out the mold. You have to actually shatter it.