On stunt deaths, superhero templates, and the desperation of the Deadpool franchise's disingenuous meta posturing
Deadpool 2 20th Century Fox
Director: David Leitch
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds, based on characters created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, Karan Soni, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic, Eddie Marsan and Rob Delaney
Rated R / 1 hour, 59 minutes / 2.39:1
May 18, 2018
(out of four)
Sometimes, when a movie star signs up for a particular movie, a new writer is brought on board to refashion the role to the new star's strengths, specifications, or defined screen persona, often while keeping everything else more or less intact. It's an old tradition.
Deadpool 2 is conspicuously reminiscent of that tradition. It is a completely ordinary superhero movie - ordinary dramatic arc, ordinary villain, ordinary sidekicks, all wrapped up inside a very ordinary narrative package - except the wisecracking merc landed the lead role so they had to rewrite the dialogue to make it sarcastic.
Other than that, this is a store-brand superhero movie, beat by generic beat. It feels like an existing script that was hastily repurposed to accommodate Deadpool's personality. By that, I do not mean that it's using the standard superhero template in order to subvert it - to take advantage of its generic qualities and exploit the formula. No, this movie - directed by David Leitch after the previous film's director, Tim Miller, departed - for the most part plays the superhero narrative straight. Sincere, even. Deadpool 2 doesn't really know how to satirize or subvert, so it just lets the story move along and occasionally finds places to interject with a snappy barb. It's less a meta film and more a conventional one mixed with self-serving audio commentary. The experience of watching it is like sitting through a tremendously uninteresting superhero movie next to a dude derisively talking through the entire thing as if he's the first person who's ever noticed genre conventions. That's as deep as the film's wit ever gets: self-satisfied, self-aware winks.
There is what Deadpool 2 is, and there is what Deadpool 2 thinks it is. It's certainly not the first movie to announce itself as one kind of movie while actually being another, but it may be the most obnoxious.
Last year's I, Tonya proclaims, in an opening title card, that it's based on "wildly contradictory" interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly. It proceeds to try to tell the story of Harding's life via competing statements and conflicting memories - not just from Harding and Gillooly, but also Harding's mother, her coaches, her infamous bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, even members of the media. But without even much effort to pull that idea off, the film basically abandons the attempt, settling on a single narrative with a single, straightforward sequence of events. Its attempts to play with the ambiguity created by the differing accounts boils down to occasional talking-head interjections in which one or the other will say, "No, I never did that" or "No, it didn't happen like that." The film isn't actually a product of those contradictions - it doesn't engage them in any substantive way. The idea is an affectation, a glorified way of saying "... Or did she?!"
I get it: Meta subversion is easier said than done. Or rather, easier claimed to have done than done. It's hard to constantly pull your story apart, reframe it, contradict it - to perpetually undermine your own status quo. It's hard to get that much use out of the artifice of your filmmaking devices.
In I, Tonya's case, there were other merits and other flaws, but the film as a whole wasn't necessarily reliant on the unreliable, contradictory narrative - it was mainly just a distraction that revealed its own failed ambition. For Deadpool 2, the failure is not so negligible. It has staked its entire identity on the posturing of its cheeky brand of ridicule. Except it doesn't quite seem to understand what, precisely, it's even doing. It plays by the rules while insisting that it's breaking them. Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is aware he's fictional, aware he's in a comic-book movie, aware of the artifice - yet he never actually uses that. For all that supposed awareness, he keeps himself limited entirely by the bounds of his movie's reality.
Like its predecessor, Deadpool 2 behaves as if it's going where no movie has gone before, but it doesn't even have the courage (or imagination) to violate the contrived trappings it is so ostentatiously aware of. It subverts nothing, it deconstructs nothing. This is a movie made by cowards who think they're cutting-edge rebels. The ability to answer a storytelling device with an irreverent joke (even a good one) doesn't make you the bad boy.
It's not so much the jokes or gags themselves - some of them work! - but that Leitch and writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds go out of their way to draw attention to how daring they believe each of their jokes to be. As I mentioned in my review of the original, they also seem to think this self-aware attitude is some sort of anomaly in modern pop-culture, when in fact it's been the norm since before the turn of the century. The first line spoken by the villain Cable (Josh Brolin) is, "What year is this?" Yeah, no kidding, Cable. Good question.
The film keeps pointing out the artifice of the form without ever doing anything about it, or using it to affect the story in any way. Instead it finds mechanisms within the reality of the narrative. Just like any other movie would. This movie plays by the rules and then points the rules out, and this is its best stab at anarchy. And it doesn't just not break them - it full-on embraces the rules. Clings to them. Imagine a rebellious, wisecracking kid from your sixth-grade class who believes he's being insubordinate by, like ... turning in all of his homework on time. Sure, he might make a joke about how he turned in his homework on time, but he still did what he was supposed to do, and he got a B-plus, and he made honor roll, and his parents were very proud of him. That kid grew up and got a tattoo, which he also believed was a rebellious gesture.
Michael Haneke's divisive Funny Games famously kills one of its two sadistic home intruders, then has the other one grab the remote, rewind the scene, and prevent the shooting. The conclusion of Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang includes a moment in which various characters killed or seemingly killed during the course of the movie miraculously show up alive and well; then the movie throws in a few others, like Abraham Lincoln and Elvis Presley, because what the hell, this is a movie and we can make anyone alive that we want. By contrast: In Deadpool 2, Deadpool blows himself up and then a superhero uses a superpower to put him back together. Later on a time machine is used to fix the plot. Typical devices used by the very superhero movies Deadpool 2 thinks it's smarter than. (In retrospect, Shane Black himself seems like he would've been the perfect guy to make these movies into what they think they already are.)
The straightfaced approach to most of the comic-book aspects is the most baffling thing about this. It feels like a standard superhero movie that has taken on a comedic personality rather than a comedy that happens to have taken the form of a superhero movie. Comedy filmmakers have been pushing the meta envelope far past where this franchise is willing to go for so long, Deadpool 2 looks quaint by comparison, no matter how many penis gags, prison-rape jokes or outrageously violent deaths it tries to offer. One wishes the filmmakers were taking fewer cues from big-budget action movies and more cues from, say, Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck. Or Joe Dante's Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Or Mel Brooks, Monty Python, Woody Allen, Abrahams and the Zuckers ... hell, even Quentin Dupieux, Edgar Wright or The Emperor's New Groove. Instead they swallowed the Marvel playbook whole, but gave the script a flimsy faux-edgy once-over.
There's nothing wrong with simply doing a bawdy, self-aware indulgence of superhero movies. Nothing wrong with parody or just plain irreverence within an established template. But the Deadpool franchise seems stuck between treating the whole genre with scorn, and expecting us to take its own story seriously. (That one of this sequel's running subplots is a will-they-or-won't-they between Deadpool and the X-Men is sadly fitting. Maybe this movie really wanted to be a generic comic-book flick all along, but just couldn't help itself from disingenuously acting out.)
Here's how badly Deadpool 2 miscalculates its own tone, attitude, and expectations: In the opening scenes of the film, the love of Wade's life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), is murdered. Somber music and tears of anguish ensue. Inexplicably, the movie is not kidding about either the somber music or the tears. Once it's clear she's really dead, the opening credits begin, with title cards exclaiming things like, "OMG, WTF, did that just happen???!" or "What did we just do???!" or "Ain't I a stinker??"
No, wait. That last one was Bugs Bunny. Still - imagine if Bugs Bunny suddenly urged us to be emotionally devastated by his ongoing struggles against Elmer Fudd and you get the idea.
The Deadpools have explicitly trained us not to take any of this seriously. Specifically instructed us to think of this all as a big joke. Which I'm fine with. But then don't pretend I'm supposed to be SHOCKED! by the hero's significant other getting killed, as if you've just done something daring and unprecedented. Shit, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, of all movies, killed the significant other. So did The Dark Knight. So did X-Men: The Last Stand. So did X-Men Origins: Wolverine. So did Wonder Woman. And it's not just that the movie kills her, but follows it up by drawing attention to what a supposedly shocking thing it just did. What exactly does Deadpool 2 think it has accomplished here? (You really want to troll your audience, keep the sadness coming. Go full Kaufman. Make it a bitter, melancholy, depressing chamber drama with no comic relief in sight.)
But no, those preening opening credits are the Deadpool franchise at its most crystal clear: It really wants to be told how naughty it is. And at the same time, deep down, it wants to be about an earnest superhero who suffers a tragedy and learns a lesson in the end. This is the kind of movie that thinks it's punk rock when it's just bubblegum pop in disguise. It's the Blink-182 of movies.
The manner in which Deadpool slowly regenerates severed body parts gave us the best joke in the first movie, and true to form it gives us the best joke in this one, too. Maybe for the next sequel he can grow a pair.