I spent roughly an hour of my time with Deadpool drooling in my seat over the potential for the sequel (and with those box office records rolling in – not to mention that I snagged the last empty seat for the next to last showing on a Sunday night – there will be a sequel). Part of that has to do with the fact that this is an origin story, and it’s pretty much impossible to do the Superhero Origin Movie at this point without leaving the audience feeling just a little bit squirmy. The other part, I suspect, is that Deadpool has spent almost eight years being Ryan Reynold’s Little Movie That Could, and that haze of “proof of concept” didn’t quite wash out of the DNA of the finished project.
For those of you coming in blind, here’s the short version: Wade Wilson is a merc for hire who is diagnosed with aggressive, inoperable cancer. He signs himself over to a super sketchy, super-secret program working to activate latent mutagens in the body and basically create X-men artificially. In Wade’s case, this means getting a super healing factor (in the comics they specifically shot him up with Wolverine’s genes, but here it seems to have been in him all along or something) that heals his cancer as soon as it can grow…making his skin look like a horrible fleshy tumor mass as well as severely affecting his brain, which among other things gives the character his famed awareness of the fourth wall. He’s taken for dead, and goes on a revenge rampage in hopes of finding the guy who caused the whole-body-tumor thing and getting fixed. If you, like me, wanted to like Kick-Ass but ultimately found it a bit too soulless and meanspirited, this is the movie for you.
The LONGER background goes like this: Deadpool is beloved. He spent the tail-end of the 2000s and the first half of the 2010s out-Wolverine-ing Wolverine as the Marvel poster boy most likely to be shoved onto a cover in the hope of selling a few more copies. It got to a point where not only did he have three ongoing series and a handful of minis, but one of those series involved a team-up of Deadpools around the multiverse. Some of these comics were good, a lot of them were awful, and it was pretty well inevitable that a comic character like Deadpool would suffer more than a fair bit of watering down from writer to writer (I count Daniel Way as the low point personally, but I’m sure everyone has their own point of nope).
Deadpool, y’see, is an incredibly difficult character to nail down. The best versions of him, crafted by the skillful pens of Gail Simone and Fabian Nicieza, are absurd and chaotic (and always, always undercut by some sense of tragedy even if only to the reader) while remaining grounded in a world that has consequences, often with more serious characters (whom we would like to survive) for Deadpool to bounce off of. You can tip that in any number of directions, from sliding too far into the fourth wall jokes and ending up with the equivalent of the cringiest of meme generators, often completely freeing the character of any longterm growth in the name of piling MORE WACKINESS onto our unfeeling, sludge-caked bodies; going full-tilt juvenile hedonism with the boobs and gore until one at last wonders if Funny Games had a point, or being Rob Liefeld. The threat of a Deadpool skipping merrily through carnage spewing exclusively pop culture references, oogling exclusively things that would make a heterosexual male audience comfortable, and showing no greater depth beyond some contrived grim-n-gritty façade haunted me far more than 2009’s Baraka-pool.
In that light? This movie WAS proof of concept. More than anything else, it had to prove that it had a handle on this storied, fascinating, often difficult character. And it succeeds. Mostly. The script is uniformly serviceable, hammering a lot of character introductions and concepts into the streamlined format of a revenge movie. It also smartly keeps a light touch on the fourth wall breaking, shying away from more experimental sequence breaking or meta-tampering that would have been interesting but also broken the immersion and stakes of the story. On the comedy front, things are somewhat less successful. On the whole “serviceable” remains the word of the day, with a 50/50 balance as to what’s actually solid writing and what’s elevated by Reynolds’ charming delivery (in particular, his decision to play genuinely sincere about a lot of flirtatious behavior with male characters shifts the tone on a whole litany of dick-based invectives). But there are a few jokes that even that charm can’t save, sour notes that bring down the whole affair and smack of laziness, as though quality crass comedy isn’t perfectly possible without stepping on easy targets (might I introduce you to the McElroys and the Podquisition crew?).
It’s not just Reynolds, either, though this movie is unquestionably his baby from beginning to end. Every actor on offer radiates charm and personality from roles that could have been left flat and uninteresting (Morena Baccarin’s turn as The Love Interest, Vanessa, is downright heroic, wringing chemistry and depth from a traditionally thankless role). Everyone here came to play, and the potential onscreen begs for a more refined story with smarter, tighter writing that doesn’t have to fall into the origin story parameters. Though credit where it’s due: there’s no denying the movie does its damnedest to give Deadpool depth beyond anger and riffing, even up to a really nice establishing scene for pre-mutation Wade that nods to one of my favorite things about the character – his protectiveness toward kids. That, and it features a cameo I couldn’t possibly spoil and barely dared to dream would make it in to begin with. It’s not that the writers didn’t clearly love this character – they just need to tighten up those comedy muscles.
In the meantime, Tim Miller’s direction suits the bombastic action on screen with a certain glossiness that betrays his background as a director of music videos, but is impressively restrained in both the bloodletting and the temptation to go heavy on Snyder-esque slow motion and other showy post production effects. The movie does its best to let its tricks highlight its star’s antics rather than having the hero serve as a Trojan horse for a self-satisfied “edgy” comic book movie.
So we come back around to that “proof of concept” thing. Here we have a pitch-perfect cast and a bundle of potential held back by the script and the need to establish a baseline for newcomers, yearning to break free and explore the boundaries of where we can go now that all that junk is out of the way. But you know what? It’s worth appreciating this while we have it, this miracle of a start from a character that barely made it to the big screen at all. Enjoy it in good health, and rejoice that we got to see this day at all.
Oh, and there’s that great quote. You know the one. The one that caused enough insufferable bro tears to salt a whole vat of tasty, victorious movie popcorn? Just, uh….stay after the credits for me, okay? I’ve got some investment in this one.