Deadpool was one of those surprise hits that, in retrospect, wasn’t much of a surprise. You can credit the film’s success to plenty of things – Ryan Reynolds’ intense commitment to an all-out, unconventional marketing campaign, the backstory behind it, fans of the ‘Merc with a Mouth’ – but while they’re all factors, I’d argue that Deadpool killed at the box office because it was clever counter-programming that wasn’t actually counter to anything. Its sequel is much the same, offering half-hearted jabs at superhero team-up movies along with some half-decent gags, but it ends up coming across half-baked.
Deadpool feinted at being a superhero parody, full of fourth-wall-breaking ‘sly winks’ (that were anything but sly), but it was realistically just a slightly left-of-centre superhero origin movie. Sure, Doctor Strange’s Benedict Cumberbatch might not be making quips about Patrick Stewart or his previous roles in his movie, but otherwise Deadpool had roughly the same balance of crowd-pleasing humour, formulaic dramatics and action. Deadpool lightly skewered the superhero genre while repeatedly reassuring fans of the genre that these films were as important as they thought they were.
Compare Deadpool to its anti-superhero predecessors from a few years earlier and you’ll see what I mean. Films like Hancock, Kick-Ass and Super all made an attempt – with varying degrees of seriousness and success – to interrogate the underlying psychology of superheroes and why we love ‘em. None of those films really worked because they all arrived just prior to the explosion of the sub-genre (with The Dark Knight and Iron Man’s release in ’08); superhero movies were successful at the time, sure, but they weren’t the world-beating phenomenon they would go on to become. (Worth noting that the directors of those three films have all gone on to tremendous success; it just wasn’t their time yet.)
Deadpool offered more of the same, but cloaked it in a sheen of sarcasm. As a film, it didn’t entirely work – its adherence to origin story formula its largest failing – but Ryan Reynolds’ charisma and a couple great gags here and there ensured it was entertaining enough. With the legitimacy denoted by Deadpool’s status as an Actual-Marvel-Superhero™, it offered something to comic book fans and those looking for a fun time at the movies (and maybe not interested in films about Apocalypses and Infinity Wars).
By all rights, Deadpool 2 should have been a vast improvement. The success of the first film demonstrates to the studio that fans are interested in R-rated, irreverent superhero-themed comedies (provided they’re generously laden with dick jokes), so here was a great opportunity to double down on what worked about Deadpool without feeling obligated to hew so closely to familiar formula. Sadly, the opposite has happened – Deadpool 2 is without question a big step down from its predecessor.
Why? There are glimmers of hope here. There’s the casting of the likes of Atlanta’s Zazie Beets as superhero sidekick Domino, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison. There’s some attempt to work Deadpool’s comedy in the film outside of machine-gunning jokes throughout each scene, as in an ill-fated X-Force parachute landing that recalls MacGruber’s “getting the team together” gag. But the disappointment of Deadpool 2 can be narrowed down to two decisions. The first: to try and execute actual emotional arcs. The second: to hire a director with a background in action rather than comedy.
Let’s start with the emotional arcs. Deadpool 2 begins with a tragedy that’s genuinely affecting because it builds upon characterisation established in the first film (even if the execution is a little rushed). But it’s not long before it’s weaving these pre-existing characters into a mess of a narrative involving time-traveller Cable (Josh Brolin, shitting the bed and wasting all the superhero good will he earned as Thanos), fire-slinger Russell (Dennison, also disappointing), the aforementioned X-Force and assorted hangers-on (including, unfortunately, TJ Miller). When the plot’s not throwing out easy references to recent superhero movies, it draws heavily from Looper, a comparison that does it no favours.
No-one’s going to Deadpool 2 for the plot, but the screenwriters don’t seem to realise that. On more than one occasion, Deadpool quips about “lazy writing.” But it’s invariably directed at the kind of convenient plotting endemic in these films – like Cable’s time-travelling device only having two charges – rather than the screenwriters’ inability to establish any kind of emotional baseline. Deadpool spends the majority of the film trying to defend Russell despite having established zero chemistry between the two characters. Cable mercilessly murders (seemingly) innocent people for the first half of the film then joins our heroes because it’s convenient. This is forgivable if the plot wasn’t given so much emphasis, but Deadpool 2 expects that you’re legitimately engaged in this storyline rather than just waiting for the next cool thing to happen. Mistake.
I can ignore all this if the film is funny. And to Deadpool 2’s credit, there are some good laughs here! There are some clever one-liners, Rob Delaney earns some laughs in his brief appearance, and the mid-credits scene is properly hilarious. But way too many jokes just don’t land. In part, I think that’s because the show is so intent on lining up references to superhero films rather than expanding its pop culture repertoire. It’s as though it wants to assure its core audience that, no, this is the only type of culture that actually matters. That’s not the only reason the jokes don’t work, though.
Which brings me to the film’s second big mistake – the choice to appoint David Leitch (of Atomic Blonde and John Wick fame). To his credit, Leitch mostly nails the action stuff: an early montage of Deadpool massacring an assorted smorgasbord of organised killers around the world is tight and entertaining, and he makes the most of Domino’s unconventional but memorable superpowers. The problem is that he – or perhaps the three editors credited on the film – smother the comic timing and staging.
Take the scene where Deadpool and his mates exchange banter with Cable as the time-travelling super-soldier comes on over to the side of good (or nearabouts). A Basic Instinct joke – a legitimately funny one! – is smothered by the need for TJ Miller to inexplicably interject “Basic Instinct.” to underline the joke to younger fans. The general shooting of the scene is off, too, cutting between characters too often rather than pulling back and allowing for a natural rhythm to be established; Leitch could’ve watched a few sitcoms beforehand for notes.
This mishandling is particularly apparent when we come to what should have been the film’s funniest scene, as Deadpool’s erstwhile comrades come to a sticky end attempting to free Russell from prison. This is precisely my kind of comedy, but while I found it funny it was nowhere as hilarious as it should have been. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why – I’m no comedy producer – but it’s one of those jokes that’s more funny in theory than in practice.
That’s Deadpool 2 in a nutshell. You can see how it should be really entertaining, even despite it’s awkwardly-constructed plot, but it just doesn’t hit the mark. I imagine fans will overlook its failings and buy tickets a half-dozen times; good on ‘em. I’m just going to cross my fingers and hope the inevitable Deadpool 3 hires a director with some comedy experience.