By 2016, when the first film was released, superheroes were already funny, but Deadpool 2 imagines an alternate timeline where the genre is still in desperate need of levity. Unfortunately, that humor comes in the form of profane, self-referential epithets typically traded between 15-year-olds while playing video games online, which means if you’ve actually used bad language in a public setting or are older than 15, the mileage may vary on Wade Wilson’s particular brand of irreverence. Featuring a plot that unfolds half like a riff on Terminator 2 and half on the kind of after-school special Wilson would mercilessly lampoon, Deadpool 2 utilizes the character’s popularity as a MacGuffin for more rapid-fire jokes, but errs too far on the side of that clownishness to stick the landing once director David Leitch pivots to a payoff that’s (slightly) more serious.
Ryan Reynolds returns as Wilson, the wise-cracking assassin who two years later is contemplating kids with longtime girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and dispatching bad guys a dozen or two at a time. After a brutal attack leaves him despondent and suicidal, he unexpectedly lands in the lap of Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who attempt to enlist him as an X-Man (“trainee”) in the hopes that he’ll bounce back. Their efforts meet with predictably disastrous results: answering a call for help when a teenager named Russell (Julian Dennison, Hunt For the Wilderpeople) starts setting his orphanage on fire, Deadpool gets himself and the kid thrown in a maximum security prison where their powers, including Wilson’s healing factor, will not work. Wilson is content to finally let himself die, but ends up in even bigger trouble when Cable (Josh Brolin), a soldier from the future, shows up with intentions to kill Russell, and he finds himself tasked with rescuing the kid.
As suggested above, exactly how much you’ll enjoy Deadpool 2 has a lot to do with how much you dug its predecessor, an okay movie that shattered the fourth wall and rifled through pop culture references in a way that, irrespective of its otherwise puerile humor, undercut a moment in the life cycle of superhero movies with gleeful specificity. That, of course, was the character’s purpose on the page as well, but there’s something about film that turns effigies into institutions, and Deadpool is now part of the pop culture firmament he was originally designed to tear down. In which case, his barrage of f-bombs and references to mothers named Martha feel a little too familiar, and just far enough behind the curve of what is being discussed in the cultural conversation that they don’t land with the same merciless cruelty that made the previous film, well, if not better, then somehow more incisive.
Instead of an anti-hero razing the genre to the ground from the inside, Wilson seems like a guy particularly well-versed in what’s trending on Twitter who’s cultivated a series of five-minutes-ago references for deployment while basically doing an R-rated version of what every other hero does. Calling Brolin “Thanos” is a funny little barb, but when Domino asks if it’s derivative for Wilson to call his super-group X-Force, it’s hard to know if she just means of the X-Men, especially since the crossed-arm gesture he’s making feels more like it’s ripped off from Black Panther’s Wakandan salute – a reference somebody on the film surely could have, and should have acknowledged.
As one half of the duo responsible for John Wick, David Leitch has a great sense for creating muscular, straightforward action, but the movie’s own cinematic literacy steals thunder from what should at the very least have been an escalating series of well-choreographed set pieces. The fact that the plot is, effectively, window dressing for joke runs and life lessons doesn’t help alleviate the sense that its two halves are or maybe cannot successfully be sealed with blood; even at his most dreamlike or sincere, Leitch has too much work to overcome with a character who takes nothing seriously, and he fails to navigate that razor’s edge to balance – or amplify – both extremes. The end result is a whole lot of punching that reminds you of other movies where people punched more memorably. (There’s also the matter of the weird prison set, which may not be the exact same one as in Schwarzenegger and Stallone’s Escape Plan, but either too many people on the production team saw that film, or not enough.)
Mind you, if it seems like I’m being too hard on Deadpool 2, I don’t mean to be. It’s not a bad film. It’s just not an especially good one. Certainly what the superhero genre needs right now is less reverence for its mythologies, and its narrative formulas; even if its atmosphere of death feels decidedly impermanent in the long term, Avengers: Infinity War proved that people are ready for a shift away from predictability and eager to be shocked, even if temporarily. But ultimately, the real problem with Deadpool 2 is that it thinks it’s still breaking all of the rules, when it’s really just making fun while following them to the letter.