Glimpses of promise amid the mayhem of ‘Deadpool 2’

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 5/22/18 2:15am

A little over a year ago, I used a review for the then newly-released “Logan” as the jumping off point for a larger discussion about the proliferation of R-rated superhero films that began with the first “Deadpool” film. While neither “Logan” nor “Deadpool” was the first superhero movie to garner the R rating, they did embody a potentially game-changing triple threat: both were entries in a popular franchise produced by a major studio, both were critically acclaimed and they both cracked the list of the top 10 highest grossing R-rated films of all time.

When “Logan” was released, I argued that neither it nor “Deadpool” were genuine game-changers in our current golden age of superhero cinema. Their ratings, I contended, were instead a sign of their stylistic excess. Neither film felt substantially more “adult” than anything that had come before, but the rating and the resultant gory violence and crude humor created the illusion that they were.

Despite its imperfections, I thought “Logan” was a well-crafted and compelling film. “Deadpool,” on the other hand, rubbed me the wrong way. While I didn’t loathe the film, I had trouble understanding why people fell so easily under its cynical spell. Don’t get me wrong — it had its moments. Some of the jokes were legitimately clever, the performances were adequate and there were even a couple of surprisingly effective and dramatic scenes. But for the most part, the film felt paper-thin and gratingly smarmy. Crude scatological jokes were piled on top of gory violence piled on top of meta-humor, all to disguise a decidedly clichéd storyline. There are literally moments in the film where the character Deadpool comments on the laziness of the screenwriting, and for half a second the laughter elicited by the joke allows the audience to forget that he’s hit the nail on the head. Often the storytelling is quite lazy precisely because the writers know they can get away with it. It’s as if the emperor from “The Emperor’s New Clothes” were self-aware enough to make a quip about his own nudity but not self-aware enough to actually put on some real clothing. At the end of the day, he’s still naked.

And that’s largely the case with “Deadpool 2.” The film is more of the same crude, violent and in-joke-laden material of the original — but it also has occasional glimpses of potential. The filmmakers have clearly never heard the maxim “less is more.” “Deadpool 2” often plays out like an extended “best-of” compilation of everything fans loved about the first film. In a perfect piece of casting, Ryan Reynolds returns as Deadpool (alter ego of Wade Wilson), a former mercenary turned wisecracking superhero who knows that he’s a fictional character. After a stunning loss that I dare not spoil here, Wilson attempts to integrate with the X-Men, but his violent proclivities prove to be too much for his straight-laced teammates. On his first mission, he forms a bond with a young mutant named Russell who has the ability to summon fire with his fists. The problem is that Cable, a time-traveling, ultra-cranky cyborg, wants the boy dead so he can save his family from dying at the blazing hands of Russell in the future. To protect the boy, Wilson forms the X-Force, a team of variously impressive mutants that includes a super-lucky mercenary named Domino.

The film’s plot, and Cable in particular, shares some eerie similarities to Rian Johnson’s excellent 2012 science fiction film “Looper.” And that’s just the beginning! “Deadpool 2” contains wall-to-wall references to other films. A few are subtle, but most are not. The problem with all these in-jokes is much the same as the problem with the glut of nostalgia on display in “Ready Player One.” At first, you get to channel Captain America from “The Avengers” and shout, “I understood that reference!” But then what? All that really means is that you and the film’s creators understand some of the same media. The end result is little more than a postmodern orgy of hollow meta-humor.

Yet the film is not entirely without substance. Deadpool declares in the opening sequence that his own sequel is a “family film,” and the screenplay is none too subtle about hammering this point home. It’s certainly not a film for your toddler, or even your 10-year-old, but “Deadpool 2” is undeniably about families and how they can help us cope with past traumas. The story is at its best when it actually takes the time to explore the ramifications of the abuse that so many mutants seems to experience in this fictional universe. Thematically, this might be a first for an X-Men film, and it demonstrates the untapped potential of R-rated superhero fare. I doubt that the studio would have permitted any of its other big-budget genre films to so thoroughly explore these uncomfortable topics, but for once, the R rating of “Deadpool 2” helps the film do something meaningful.

Add onto that a few memorable supporting characters and some supremely stylish action scenes and you’ve got a film that is decidedly more tolerable than its predecessor. While newcomers Cable and Domino are criminally under-utilized, Josh Brolin and Zazie Beetz make for wonderfully exciting additions to this universe. Much of the humor is far wittier than it was the first time around, though some of the jokes, particularly those about race and ethnicity, are decidedly ill-conceived.

I can vividly remember how excited I was for the release of the first “Deadpool.” At the time, I saw immense potential in its purported combination of meta-humor and pathos. It didn’t take long for the disillusionment to set in. While “Deadpool 2” is far from the film I had always hoped for, it’s marginally closer — a shaky but promising step in the right direction.