Openly trolling the ambitions of other modern comic-book movies, the sequel to Deadpool, the surprise hit that cast Ryan Reynolds as the self-destructive and puerile Bugs Bunny figure of the present superhero blockbuster landscape, mostly outdoes its predecessor in terms of style and satirical intent: Now that he’s gotten his origin story out of the way, its fourth-wall-breaking not-quite-hero is on a mission to get himself some progressive social commentary and a tragic death scene, just like his more family-friendly Marvel brethren. But though bringing in a bona fide action-cheese aesthete like David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, John Wick) to direct counts as a minor coup, Deadpool 2’s attempts to fight superhero fatigue with self-awareness and meta shock value can become exhausting. Indulgent and uneven, but in spots gruesomely funny, the new film badly lacks the basic momentum of the original’s formulaic plot.
A splashy, energetic opening stretch that plays like the Frank Tashlin-esque ideal of what a Deadpool movie could be reintroduces the title character, a Freddy Krueger-skinned military-industrial experiment who can regenerate gory wounds and lost limbs, as he gloats about the box office returns of his first outing while decapitating and disemboweling gangsters in neon-lit locales around the world. (Leitch, who’s not one for restraint, caps it off with a James Bond-spoofing credits sequence.) But really, he’s at a low point of suicidal despair, though explaining the reason behind it would probably tick off the spoiler-phobic. And since Deadpool remains effectively immortal, the manic mutant is left with the only options that suit his newfound celebrity: inhaling flour bags of cocaine and throwing himself into charity work on behalf those do-gooders of mutantkind, the X-Men.
In Deadpool 2, the left-wing politics of Marvel’s popular team of “dated metaphors for racism in the ’60s” are as superficially exaggerated as the violence, complete with a huge portrait of Karl Marx that hangs in the grand staircase of their stately home, the X-Mansion. But continuities and contracts prevent our yammering super-assassin from sharing the screen with the more famous characters of Fox’s X-Men series—or the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for that matter. Instead, he’s left to crack wise at the expense of the metallic strongman Colossus (Stefan Kapicic), the moody Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), and the time traveler Cable (Josh Brolin, who, as Deadpool 2 inevitably points out, also plays Thanos in the MCU), another character co-created by the semi-notorious Rob Liefeld.
Boasting a spiffy cybernetic arm, a cherry-red Terminator eye, and a space-marine (or neo-Nazi) haircut, Cable has come back from the future to kill Russell (Hunt For The Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison), an overweight teenage mutant who can shoot fireballs from his fingertips and will one day become a dangerous supervillain. (His motivation? A lack of “plus-sized superheroes” means his only role models are bad guys.) Leitch directs Cable’s scenes as a pastiche of vintage James Cameron—just one of Deadpool 2’s messy layers of subplot and homage. Another is the Ice Box, a grungy high-tech prison straight out of Face/Off. There, superhuman mutants are outfitted with collars that dampen their powers. Deadpool, of course, hopes it’ll be enough for the cancer that’s kept in check by his regenerative abilities to finally give him that tear-jerking deathbed scene.
And then there’s the film’s take on another Liefeld creation, the X-Force team. It’s reimagined here as a grisly, disastrous attempt by Deadpool—in his scatterbrained newfound liberalism—to create a more “forward-thinking, gender-neutral” alternative to the X-Men, made up of Domino (Zazie Beetz), who uses her powers of luck to waltz through shootouts; a gaggle of expendably minor Marvel characters of varying ridiculousness; and Peter (Rob Delaney), a mustachioed every-dad in chinos who has no superpowers whatsoever. Throw in a subplot about a self-loathing mutant “reform” cult that’s clearly a stand-in for conversion therapy, a bunch of digs at the edginess of the recent DC blockbusters, and a rewrite of the less popular moments in the X-Men film franchise, and what you have is a movie trying to have and eat as much cake as possible.
Its obvious models (referenced several times) are the sci-fi films and thrillers of Paul Verhoeven, filled with blood, guts, gratuitous nudity, and caustic satire. But Deadpool 2 is too winking and too spotty to pull off a Verhoeven-esque tightrope act. Leitch, who has a long résumé as a stunt coordinator and second unit director, takes to the brawls with giddy panache, treating his protagonist’s regenerating body like a bendy toy. The violence here is more grotesque than in the first film and the humor is sometimes flippantly dark, sucking characters into chippers and helicopter blades in the name of the solid gag, all while the universe mocks our protagonist’s death wish. Nonetheless, full-on effects spectacle seems to elude Leitch’s kinetic talents, resulting in a few lackluster digital slugfests between weightlessly tumbling animated characters. That Deadpool 2 comes close to calling itself off on the shortcomings of these sequences doesn’t mitigate their tedium.
Yet, underneath the gory irreverence and Reynolds’ nasal, motormouthed mix of jackassery and camp is a film that’s racing to outsmart its targets; it pokes fun of the progressive subtexts of other comic-book movies, but off-handedly features the only openly gay characters in the genre, and mocks the fatally heavy objectives of A-list blockbusters while facing its protagonist with a potentially tough moral choice that involves killing a child. Somewhere lost among the hacked limbs and the pop-culture references is an actual story about an over-the-top character straining to be taken seriously and losing sight of whatever it is that he can do for other people. However, that’s not to suggest that Deadpool 2 isn’t ultimately more interested in the zingers. Every cultural moment needs a smart-ass, and sometimes, you take what you can get.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details we can’t reveal in this review, visit Deadpool 2’s Spoiler Space.