[Ed.note: this review has been edited to reflect that Deadpool is not a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.]
The latest Marvel superhero movie, Deadpool, helpfully sets the bar during its opening minutes, when its wisecracking eponymous protagonist compares an unpleasant taste to "two hobos fucking in a shoe full of piss." It's a clear statement of intent for anyone who missed the film's popular, profanity-packed red-band trailers: This is an R-rated superhero movie, and the filmmakers are out to earn the rating as thoroughly and colorfully as possible. In the opening firefight, Deadpool takes a bullet square in the rectum: "Ugh, right up Main Street," he groans. He brands a generic mook on the forehead with a red-hot cigarette lighter, then crams it in the guy's mouth: "I never say this," he chuckles, "but don't swallow." And then he casually kills the mook's entire team, doling out snark as heads pop off bodies, or explode under gunfire. There's a potentially toxic smugness to the entire film, as Deadpool smirks and swaggers through a long, eventually wearying series of creative executions.
A trollish humor that's all about excess
But without making an overt point about it, screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (collaborators on 2009's Zombieland) have cracked the code that eluded similarly sneering hero stories like Kick-Ass and Sin City. This humor could be profoundly ugly, given how it's aimed at reducing other people's grotesque deaths to punchlines. But first-time director Tim Miller keeps the tone light — in his hands, Deadpool is more a snickering, naughty nut than an authentic sociopath. And Reese and Wernick create the best possible context: a world where all the significant players are equally flippant, and equally thick-skinned. There's a harsh juvenile quality to Deadpool's one-liners, ported right over from comics that spawned the fourth-wall-breaking, pointedly transgressive character. It's a trollish sort of humor that's all about excess, recklessly jabbing at other people's weak spots. But Reese and Wernick blunt the impact by making sure their primary characters don't have weak spots. Being called a "shit-spackled Muppet-fart" or "that wheezing bag of dick-tits" isn't going to faze a villain who can shrug off point-blank gunfire, or a sword-thrust through the chest.
This is the second time Ryan Reynolds has played Wade Wilson, a.k.a. Deadpool; he took on the same role in the little-loved 2009 Marvel movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which gave the character a radically different origin story, power set, and physical appearance. Most notably, after his transformation from mercenary to mutant, he didn't have a mouth. The fluctuating history and personality is nothing new for the character, but there is a stark contrast between his mute glower in his other big-screen incarnation, and his nonstop chatter in this one. Like most heroes, he has a traumatic backstory. Unlike most heroes, he'd rather grouse about it — usually in an aside to the audience — than brood over it.
In this re-imagining, Wade is a Special Forces vet, dishonorably discharged for unspecified reasons. ("Being a loud, profane asshat" may have been one.) In spite of his tremendous combat skills, he settles for bargain-basement muscle-for-hire work, like threatening a stalker on behalf of a teenage victim. Then he falls for Vanessa (Firefly and Homeland star Morena Baccarin), who lacks a backstory of her own, but can at least match him quip for quip. They're happy together, until Wade's desperation for a cancer cure puts him in the sadistic hands of Ajax (Ed Skrein, Game Of Thrones' first Daario Naharis), who tortures the terminally ill in hopes of activating their latent mutant superpowers.
The process makes Wade look like a full-body burn victim, and he's ashamed to bring his new look to Vanessa. (In the words of his best friend Weasel—played by Cloverfield's T.J. Miller—he looks "like Freddy Krueger face-fucked a topographical map of Utah.") Hoping for a cure for his cure, Wade dons a costume and the Deadpool name and goes looking for Ajax. Dozens of anonymous gunmen stand in the way, but Deadpool has a new secret weapon: his freshly activated, Wolverine-esque super-healing power. The ability doesn't fix his full-body scarring, but does make him unkillable and lackadaisical about pain and grievous bodily harm — both the kind done to him, and the kind he forces on other people. This is pretty much the entire plot of the movie: Angry, unstoppable dude wants revenge, and kills everyone who gets in his way. It's Mad Max without the desert, or John Wick without the puppy. It's all of the above, plus a lot of references to masturbation and Wolverine's suspiciously smooth testicles.
Like those roaring-rampage-of-revenge progenitor films, Deadpool is a stylized ride. First-time director Tim Miller is the co-founder and creative director of special-effects house Blur Studios, which created the opening-credits sequence of David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the opening sequence to Thor: The Dark World. Miller and Blur further show off their visual talents here, with plenty of superpower-boosted throwdowns. Ajax has used his own process on himself, and no longer feels pain. His henchwoman Angel Dust (MMA fighter and Haywire star Gina Carano) is super-strong, fast, and seemingly impervious to damage. Deadpool winds up with his own backup: X-Men members Colossus (an unconvincingly rubbery CGI character voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and eye-rolling, bored-with-it-all new kid Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), both of whom are inhumanly tough. It's a hero-on-villain lineup clearly designed for fights where everyone can be repeatedly thrown through walls and smashed against rubble, in an orgy of SFX violence. Miller stages their fights creatively, and with a crisp, precise readability that makes every blow meaningful.
This isn't Reynolds' first superhero role — as the star of the notoriously awful 2011 flop Green Lantern, he mostly had to keep an earnest face and project lonely nobility. (Deadpool takes a passing dig at that film, as Wade begs his handlers for a superhero costume that isn't green, or animated.) Reynolds wears the red spandex and the smart-ass attitude better. His delivery is 100 percent Jim Carrey in The Mask: manic, delivered in a half-shout, and coming from a cracked, childish sort of play. Reynolds sells the character with a go-for-broke silliness that turns everyone else into background noise. As much as Deadpool is a special-effects movie, it's also a showcase for a single performer, and for the writers who fill his mouth with smart-ass commentary.
That commentary does wear thin. It's juvenile and pushing hard for shock value, and there's so much of it that the shock can't help but feel strained and redundant. But the surprisingly appealing thing about the film is how cautiously and accurately the writers police themselves for actual offense. They pass up the obvious chances at misogyny, gay-panic jokes (so easy, given the several crotch-groping gags), and racist barbs. Their star isn't the usual hate-filled, grunting lone-wolf: Before his mutation, he has an active, playful, mutually satisfying sex life, and afterward, he maintains his friendship with Weasel, and develops a weirder alliance with a old woman (Leslie Uggams) who takes his constant insults in stride and shoots back her own. Even his mercenary organization is strangely benign. For an adolescent fantasy about torture, loss, and gleeful, unrepentant murder, Deadpool is unexpectedly joyous.
Compared to most of the Marvel movies, Deadpool is a small experience, more along the lines of Ant-Man than Iron Man. The budget, ambitions, and stakes are all comparatively low. This isn't a movie about saving the world, it's about the attempt to kill one psychopathic bully. There are a few obvious hooks for a bigger and bolder sequel, but this outing is just an origin story, more focused on repeated throwdowns and obscene banter than world-shaking significance.
But there are upsides to the smaller scale. The MCU's save-the-world-from-a-magic-MacGuffin stories have been wearing thin. The smaller movies feel more personal, both for the characters and for the directors, who get to experiment with anomalous, oddball choices. (In this case, the soundtrack is a particular oddity: Juice Newton's 1981 hit "Angel Of The Morning," Wham!'s "Careless Whisper," and Salt-N-Pepa's "Shoop" all make prominent appearances.)
Deadpool's relentless pace is refreshing, and so is the sense that viewers will be able to keep up. The aggressive mayhem often comes close to Mark Millar territory, but his cinematic characters spell out their contempt for the audience, and their superciliousness makes them unpleasant company. Deadpool, meanwhile, turns the audience into the ultimate collaborators, removed from harm, and in on the joke. He lives in a no-harm, no-foul, consequence-free world where even the most awful villains smile wryly at his quips, and the authentic heroes who disapprove of his methods just wag their fingers. It's a rough world for nameless mooks, whose corpses get treated like the ultimate joke. But it's sloppy, goofy fun for everyone else.
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