Movie Review: Deadpool
By Ben Gruchow
February 18, 2016

Even if the safety's on, I wouldn't point that there.

I suppose this is what I’ve been waiting for. After a solid several years or so of complaining that comic-book movies and superhero movies have turned into bloated, ultra-reverent commercials for each other with only the barest vestiges paid toward a consequential and self-contained narrative, I now have a film I can point to that’s trim (108 minutes!), gleefully R-rated, vulgar and violent, and irreverent (about the only way this movie could be less reverent to the formal qualities of cinematic storytelling is if the characters all addressed each other by their real-world names, like the characters in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare).

Ryan Reynolds plays the title character in Deadpool, real name Wade Wilson, and he knows he plays the title character; Wade knows about the existence of Ryan Reynolds in the real world. His anti-hero occupies a world in tandem with the X-Men; when he’s about to be taken into custody to meet with Professor X, he asks for clarification: “Stewart or McAvoy?” Wilson is a mercenary diagnosed with cancer, told about a secretive government project that can cure him. What he finds instead is a secretive government project that promises to tease any latent mutant capabilities out of him, via a series of painful experiments. Deadpool imagines a truly horrific origin story: Wade Wilson ends up with full-body scarring thanks to his mutation, set on fire in an explosion, impaled on a length of metal pipe and left to die.

The tradeoff is that the mutation also makes him nigh-invincible: able to heal and regrow from grievous injury, immune to any form of cancer, and likely immortal. This raises the interesting question of why he stays horribly scarred; since the crux of his mutation is cellular healing ability on a level fast enough to outmaneuver cancer cells, as well as sophisticated enough to distinguish between flesh wounds and total limb loss, and account for those massive differences in composition and material, why aren’t they able to repair some fairly superficial skin damage?

This is perhaps because looking like Ryan Reynolds would negate the need for a full head mask, and would serve as one handicap too many in addition to the ability to regrow bones and muscle, possessing superhuman strength and agility, et cetera. I digress. Deadpool finds himself a costume (after a few false starts), and takes to the streets in order to track down and extract justice from the people who experimented on him, and various acts of violence and profanity take place on the way.

There are really only two action set pieces in the film, one on a freeway (you’ve seen it in most of the promotional material), and the other at the movie’s climax; the movie contains a few other skirmishes, but there’s a reason the trailers and promotional ads have been so fixated on that freeway sequence. Both sequences are well-staged and executed, although they also contain the biggest betrayal of the movie’s moderate $60 million budget (the isolated instances of digital effects are surprisingly bad - low-resolution, weightless, and indistinct against altogether more solid physical stunt work).

The best scenes take place in one-on-one conversation; upon his transformation into Deadpool, Wade acquires two sidekicks: Weasel (T.J. Miller) and Al (Leslie Uggams). Weasel is the owner of the bar that Wade frequents, and Al is Wade’s blind, elderly roommate; Uggams plays this character with a sharp kind of patient resignation, and her two scenes with Wilson are the funniest in the film. And then there is Baccarin as Vanessa, who starts out as Wade’s (and Reynolds’) equal in scenes of escalating one-upmanship and chemistry before she’s assigned the character traits and habits of the one-dimensional love interest and made the subject of a rescue plot.

See, that’s the thing I tap-danced around in my opening paragraph: for all that Deadpool flips the script on being family-friendly and four-quadrant audience safe, it doesn’t even really nudge the script on the whole narrative part. The movie is funny, yes, with most of the humor well-timed and executed. And in scenes where Wade discovers that he has cancer throughout most of his major organ systems, Reynolds evokes dramatic capabilities that are recognizable to those of us that have seen Buried. He has a magnetic screen presence given the right material, and he’s a great fit for this character.

And that is by a huge margin Deadpool’s reason for being: the asides, the profanity, and the overall geniality of Reynolds’ performance elevate what is probably the most anemic, tossed-off Marvel storyline to date. The bad guy is named Ajax (played by Ed Skrein with roughly the same amount of charisma he displayed in last fall’s Transporter Refueled), but I’ll be damned if I can tell you much about where he’s from, where he’s going, or why he does what he does. I suppose you can go ahead and fill in some of the blanks, based on genre convention, but all that does is tell you that Ajax is gunning for some kind of evil super-soldier regime.

Supporting characters are given even less of a purpose: Gina Carano plays Angel Dust, Ajax’s henchman; what she’s really doing, though, is playing the Gina Carano character. It feels like she’s been wearing the same slight narrow-eyed smirk since the sixth Fast & Furious film. Deadpool recruits some stray X-Men to assist him; at least one of these has something resembling an identity, but it’s one entirely on loan from the X-Men films.

And the story serviced by these characters is of a template; it sketches in the broadest possible motivations and resolutions. Anything more introspective or revelatory is beyond the scope of the film; given that Deadpool seems to exist outside the film itself (he has a throwaway line about the X-Men that reinforces this while providing a laugh), I was sort of waiting for the movie to go even more meta, and for the character to begin affecting events in the way that Greek plays employed deus ex machina. But no; the fourth-wall breaking by Deadpool is there when it’s needed and absent when it’s not or when it gets in the way of resolving a paint-by-numbers plot.

I mean this as observation, not necessarily as criticism; the structure here feels intentionally shallow and straightforward. In a way, it reminds me of the first X-Men, which introduced all of its characters with just enough screen time remaining for a moderate and almost low-stakes final battle. That film, if you’ll remember, led to a first sequel that delved significantly further into character psychology, with a better conflict and villain. I don’t know if I can see Deadpool following the same path; by movie’s end here, it doesn’t seem that there’s much in the way of new territory to cover. The movie is at least lively and fun while it lasts, which is more than the past few Marvel efforts earned; if the worst we can say about it is that it’s a lightweight thing that begins evaporating from our heads almost as soon as it’s over, we still have a good amount left over in the plus column.