Film Review: Deadpool

Marvel’s zany “Merc with a Mouth” headlines a self-aware comic-book movie that’s daffy fun and painfully forced in equal measure.
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If you’re the filmmakers tasked with turning a comic-book hero whose primary shtick is that he actively defies all traditional definitions of a comic-book hero, how do you obscure the fact that you’re telling yet another traditional comic-book origin story? Easy: Make it meta. That’s the mission statement behind Deadpool, an anarchic live-action cartoon based on Marvel’s current reigning antihero that takes place exclusively between giant sets of air quotes. From the opening credits—which substitute cast and crew names with snarky descriptors like “Some Douchebag’s Film”—director Tim Miller and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick want to make the audience think that nothing is sacred and all conventions are up for grabs. Characters breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience? Check. Inside jokes and cheeky references to other Marvel movies? Check. Over-the-top, in-your-face bloodshed that Frank Miller would envy? Big ol’ check.

So, yes, Deadpool announces itself with plenty of attitude and swagger. But beneath the self-aware bluster lies a movie that’s disappointingly ordinary, both in terms of its narrative (roughly half of which is an extended flashback outlining Deadpool’s not-especially-interesting origin in protracted detail) and characterizations. In comic-book form, Deadpool and his alter ego Wade Wilson (played onscreen by Ryan Reynolds) are endlessly adaptable, possessing a backstory, personality and even sexuality that’s in a constant state of flux. The movie version awards him a more standard set of characteristics, including a mission of vengeance, moments of self-doubt, and a stridently heteronormative romance with a super-hot babe. So even as Deadpool cheerfully attacks certain comic-book movie conventions, there are some limits the filmmakers simply can’t or won’t push beyond.

But that’s the tradeoff when you’re telling the story of an outsider from inside a studio that has a lucrative franchise to manage. Deadpool is a spinoff of Fox’s X-Men series, and uses that connection both as a source of humor and brand expansion. Reynolds actually made his debut as Deadpool in the 2009 prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a shockingly bad movie that’s regularly (and justifiably) ridiculed here. But that earlier version of the character bears little resemblance to his new incarnation. In this revised origin, Wilson is a ne’er-do-well hoodlum for hire, whose terminal cancer diagnosis leads him to volunteer for a top-secret medical experiment overseen by psychotic pseudo-scientist Francis (Ed Skrein).

His “treatment” turns out to be a painful course of artificial mutation, which leaves him with Wolverine-type regenerative abilities and a pug-ugly face. The latter side effect is especially bothersome, because Wade hopes to reunite with his lady love, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Side note: In the comics, Vanessa has mutant powers of her own, operating under the nom-de-hero of Domino and later Copycat. That makes it all the more disappointing that Baccarin is relegated to playing the token buxom love interest who gets to crack wise but only occasionally throw a punch. Deadpool does have some back-up in his quest to find Francis and restore his good looks: X-Man Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and X-Man-in-training Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who encourage Wade to return the favor by joining the team for a future adventure and/or movie.

Making his live-action debut after a lengthy career as an animator, Miller would probably be the first to tell you that story isn’t his primary concern. His directorial eye is trained almost exclusively on bending and shaping the movie’s form like Silly Putty. The title sequence, for example, opens on a freeze-frame image that his camera glides around, revealing fresh sight gags with each new angle. Characters also plunge from heights that would make Wile E. Coyote gulp, only to make a flawless superhero landing. And then there are all the exploding heads and severed limbs, which spray dark red hemoglobin about the frame in stylized slow motion. Meanwhile, writers Reese and Wernick seek to join in the meta-fun with copious swearing and goofy asides like Deadpool asking “McAvoy or Stewart?” when Colossus says he’s bringing him to see Professor Xavier. This is all material that plays to Reynolds' strengths as well; with a few exceptions (including last year's under-seen Mississippi Grind), the actor has generally struggled whenever he's had to tone down his smirk and start being soulful. At heart, Deadpool is essentially the superhero version of his signature frat-boy persona, Van Wilder, a role he excelled in, even if the movie stunk.

When you’re tossing gags at the wall, some are obviously going to stick more successfully than others. And there are several jokes in Deadpool that are genuinely inspired, including a cameo by an X-Men: Origins Deadpool action figure that wordlessly underlines how wrong-headed that interpretation of the character was. But with little else in its arsenal besides meta-comedy to distract from the ultra-familiar origin story tropes, the movie eventually hits a wall that the title character can’t leap over. Early on, Deadpool teases audiences that it’s going to lead a comedy-laced comic-book movie revolution, but it ends up joining the superhero establishment.

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