If you believe the marketing (always a danger in this day and age), Deadpool is the antidote to the modern superhero movie. And after sixteen years of big time tentpole superhero flicks, and eight years of almost suffocating omnipresence of these films in pop culture, the time certainly feels right for a movie to come along and knock them down a few pegs from the inside. And who better to accomplish such a task than Deadpool, Marvel’s fourth wall breaking sarcastic antihero who hears voices and knows he’s a comic book superhero? And after a disastrous first attempt at the character in the equally disastrous in all aspects X-Men Origins: Wolverine, fans have been clamoring for the character to receive the treatment he deserves.
Ryan Reynolds returns (sort of) to play the titular hero, marking what might be the first time an actor played the same character in two entirely different iterations from the same studio. This is very much the Deadpool of the comics, cracking wise as often as he cracks skulls, stopping intermittently to address the camera about how crazy what he is enduring really is. This is a superhero movie starring a new character, though, which means that at its core, Deadpool is (surprise surprise) an origin story. For Deadpool was once Wade Wilson, a special ops soldier turned mercenary who frequents the establishment of Weasel (TJ Miller) looking for new opportunities to mete out his own brands of justice. It is here he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), hooker with a heart of gold and just the sort of freak to find love in the heart of a killing machine. An out of nowhere terminal cancer diagnosis finds Wilson on the brink of death, which puts him on a collision course with Ajax (Ed Skrein), who offers to cure his cancer by torturing him into activating his dormant mutant gene. The process scars him for life but also unlocks extreme regenerative powers. Out for revenge for turning his inner freak outer, Wilson dons a red costume and takes the matter into his own hands, desperate to fix his face in order to be presentable for the woman he loves.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that, beyond the fourth wall breaking awareness that this is a movie he’s inhabiting, Deadpool’s story is basically the same as every other superhero origin story that’s been seen in this sixteen year superhero renaissance. It is an approach that makes for a difficult tightrope to walk, as director Tim Miller, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are tasked with the need to make Deadpool feel fresh and different when, at its core, it’s basically the same movie that’s been made over a dozen times since the turn of the century. The film, to its credit, takes this concept head on in its opening credits, choosing to replace the standard roll of names with descriptions of their archetypes (“Hot love interest,” “comic relief” and the like). If it all ends up coming together successfully, the film gets to have its cake and eat it too, wrapping itself in the familiar and cozy confines of the standard fare while positioning itself as the cool alternative by poking fun, even if it might not be all that much of an alternative at the end of the day.
Reynolds is certainly up for the task; he has been trying to get a true Deadpool film made for a good six years, and his snarky charm feels like a good fit for the character. This is key, as the rest of the cast has little to play with, providing nothing beyond the stereotypes described of them in the credits. Morena Baccarin feels particularly underserved; there is real chemistry between her and Reynolds, but absolutely nothing to her character that separates her from being just another in a long line of traditional love interests whose identity is predicated on the man she loves. TJ Miller’s entire character seems to consist of another played out series of improvizations on the same topic (it seems that The 40-Year Old Virgin’s “You know how I know you’re gay?” scenes may have done more to harm comedy than anything else in the last twenty years), and there’s even a sweet old grandma who does inappropriate things. There is a little bit of spice in walking conscience and X-Men standby Colossus (a 10 foot tall CGI metal mutant voiced Stefan Kapcic), and his snarky teen sidekick with ill-defined powers Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), but it feels like the script is about 95% Deadpool and 4% X-Men, with the last 1% dedicated to the rest of the story, such as it is.
Shot on a modest (for a superhero movie anyway) budget by first-time director Miller (whose most well-known work prior to this film is likely the opening credit sequence of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Deadpool certainly isn’t the flashiest film, but it does its best to look like it cost more than it did. And there should be room for the R rating within the mainstream superhero world, simply for the storytelling options it can open up. But we should be equally interested in asking for more than Deadpool offers, more than its well-trodden Family Guy or The Big Bang Theory style referential and juvenile humor and a thinly sketched supporting cast. Reynolds’ energy and commitment is admirable, but the film fails to live up to its promise as the antidote for a superhero genre long in danger of wearing out its welcome. Pointing out the cliches of superhero flicks doesn’t count for much when you fall for those same cliches yourself (the ending is especially snoozeworthy, and even more cliched than many of the superhero films it purports to lampoon). In the end, Deadpool’s gambit falls short, and it cannot separate itself from the pack. The commentary or parody is toothless unless it manages to stand apart from its subject. That does not happen here. It’s just like all the others.