In many ways, “Deadpool 2” is an improvement on its predecessor. Like the first film in the series, it’s largely a comedy, because of the torrent of snark that the protagonist (Ryan Reynolds) spouts, onscreen and in voice-over, from beginning to end—and because much of the action, even when it deals with earnest matters, is shaped to match these antic attitudes.
Last time Marvel's Deadpool landed on cinema screens, the anti-hero blew away expectations with twisted humor and giddy ultra-violence. And the film really had to lean on those qualities (and Ryan Reynolds' out-of-the-park performance), as the production felt trapped beneath budgetary issues and flimsy connections to the greater X-Men universe.
The drama of “Deadpool 2” is more sharply focussed than in the earlier film. The first “Deadpool” set out the protagonist’s grim origin story: suffering from terminal cancer, he was subjected to an experiment that left him with regenerative powers and superheroic abilities, but also disfigured him. That movie’s director, Tim Miller, brought a sense of whimsical style to it, albeit one that remained tethered to a bro-moralistic underpinning that undercut the ribald humor. In “Deadpool 2,” that element of sentiment is darkened from the start with loss, grief, regret, and guilt, a sort of black hole of despair that drives the action with a simple and directly propulsive energy; but the elements of the plot itself undermine and trivialize the gravity of its theme.
Early in the film, Deadpool, clad in his skin-tight and face-obscuring suit, his crossed swords bound to his shoulder blades, dispatches evildoers around the world and returns home to his fiancée, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), who declares her desire to have a child with him. But some of the criminals he’s been pursuing burst in on their home; Deadpool fends them all off—except for one, whose gun, aimed at Deadpool, is jolted by a cream-cheese spreader that Deadpool flings, and kills Vanessa instead of him. In his guilt and grief, Deadpool commits suicide, gorily exploding himself—but Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) the Eastern European-accented metal man, helps Deadpool to pull himself back together and brings him in as one of the X-Men (albeit as a mere trainee, as he’s so often reminded).
The center of the action is a young mutant named Russell Collins (played by Julian Dennison, the actor who shone in “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”), a.k.a. Firefist, who lives in a sort of orphanage-cum-reëducation camp for mutant children and is abused there by the headmaster (Eddie Marsan) and his staff. But Firefist is the nemesis of another mutant named Cable—played by Josh Brolin, the villain of “Avengers: Infinity War,” whose very presence here presages crossovers (Deadpool even jokingly calls him Thanos). The half-bionic Cable has travelled back from the future in order to kill Firefist, because, some time in the future, Firefist will have killed Cable’s family. Meanwhile, Deadpool wants both to save Firefist and to prevent him from becoming a killer; to do so, Deadpool assembles his own motley crew, whom he dubs the X-Force, and he quickly, arrogantly, incompetently gets them all killed, except for Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is her good luck.
The 2016 film's surprise success has clearly opened doors for the sequel to dig its Wolverine-mocking claws into all things Marvel. Deadpool 2 delivers that on paper, with major X-Force characters (particularly Cable) anchoring this as a full-blooded, big-M Marvel film. That hasn't dampened the fact that this is a Deadpool-caliber sequel, with gross gags, juvenile jokes, and cutting sarcasm for days.
Over the past several years, mid- and post-credits scenes have become a superhero movie tradition. Sometimes they contain huge reveals that hint at future movies in a franchise (see: Thanos intercepting Thor’s Asgardian spaceship at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, which sets up the starting point of Infinity War, or the first Deadpool movie, which ended with Deadpool, in Ferris Bueller mode, cheekily teasing Cable’s appearance in this new sequel). Other times, they serve as little winks to fans, or callbacks to the company’s history (see: Howard the Duck dropping by at the end of the first Guardians of the Galaxy, or Justice League’s race between Superman and the Flash).
The core of “Deadpool 2” is time travel—revisiting the past in order to change the future. Cable’s family members aren’t the only people who, in the movie, are saved by a do-over of time; many of the movie’s heroes, when they meet grim fates, are retroactively rescued by turning back the hands of time. (The movie actually featured Deadpool in a killing-baby-Hitler scene, which was left on the cutting-room floor.) The film is a comedy of sorts, but its key plot points involve the reversibility of death. It’s only the near-anonymous human villains purged from the earth by Deadpool and his friends who, once gone, are gone for good; the movie offers the absurd illusion that evildoers can, through the shining deeds of superheroes, be eliminated definitively, whereas those heroes, cutting loose with heaven-shaking violence for a virtuous cause, are never really sacrificing themselves because the hands of time can run backward to effect their return. (It’s noteworthy that “Avengers: Infinity War,” in which many heroes also die, also involves, as a crucial plot point, the reversibility of time.) It’s hard to imagine a more persuasive dramatic argument to tease the self-proclaimed arbiters of their own just cause into admiration for violent solutions—and to lift the burden of guilt and the sense of responsibility—than the notion that heroes never really die. (“Wonder Woman,” by contrast, dramatized the burden of violence with a bracing frankness.)
Marvel has already set the bar high for the societal implications of its myth-making, most notably with “Black Panther,” and “Deadpool 2” makes no efforts in that direction—in fact, it does its best to efface its traces with the wider world. The movie is seemingly shot with such bright lights that no shadows can fall outside the frame, recorded so closely that its sound never echoes. Yet the hermeticism of “Deadpool 2” proves remarkably symbolic nonetheless: its anti-historical, anti-psychological, anti-societal notion of solely personal responsibility and solely personal freedom is far more than an oversight—it’s an ideology.
For all the wise-ass reflexivity of “Deadpool 2,” for all the self-referential it’s-only-a-movie jokes, the film’s makers (its director, David Leitch, and its trio of screenwriters, which includes Reynolds) appear utterly unaware of its self-positioning. The cast of actors in “Deadpool 2” is diverse and the cast of characters is multicultural, but the film itself is, rather, noncultural: its diversity is entirely for show. Its action is devoid of context and ahistorical, its characters lacking any identity but the visual one. Domino and Blind Al (played by Leslie Uggams) are black women, Negasonic Teenage Warhead is a lesbian, Yukio is Japanese and a lesbian, Dopinder is from India, and, though Russell’s ethnicity is unspecified, Dennison is Maori—and, the movie suggests, they’re all here and it’s all good. It’s as if the entire movie were a joke: a white guy, two black women, a Japanese woman, a white lesbian, a South Asian man, and a metal man go to a bar, and the white guy, who co-wrote the script, does most of the talking.
However, in the mid-credits scene, the device is repaired by Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and her girlfriend Yukio (Shioli Kutsuna). But instead of giving it to Cable so he can get back to his own timeline, Deadpool uses the device for his own purposes.
He jumps back in time and kills the villains who killed Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) at the beginning of the movie, thereby saving her. He also uses it to jump back and save Peter (Rob Delaney), briefly of X-Force fame. He then goes back and kills the “Deadpool” who appears in X-Men Origins: Wolverine — also played by Reynolds, in an appearance that’s largely ignored as a misbegotten hiccup in Deadpool’s onscreen origin story. Then, just to clear up any timeline confusion once and for all, he jumps back to kill Ryan Reynolds as he reads a screenplay for Warner Bros.’ Green Lantern.
Some of that talking reflects back on the movie itself and its place in the world, as when he says that Russell is “young enough to carry this franchise ten years into the future” and prepares for a climactic showdown by declaring, “Another C.G.I. fight coming up.” But this reflexivity is as much for show as the movie’s casting: the real behind-the-scenes movie remains rigorously out of the question. Most of the movies in the genre feel like the tip of a corporate iceberg, the shiny front of an office building where what really matters is what goes on behind it.
It bears repeating: no genre comes to the world accursed, and the superhero movie is no less a fertile ground for cinematic imagination than the political thriller, the romantic comedy, the Western, the melodrama, the crime drama, the musical, the war movie. (I’m impatiently awaiting “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” directed by Peyton Reed, one of the most inventive directors of comedy currently working.) What’s ultimately most deadening about “Deadpool 2,” like many entries in the genre, is the burden of the money that’s riding on it, and the weight of fan service on which that money is believed to depend. The action of “Deadpool 2” is, above all, in the executive suite; every detail in “Deadpool 2” feels like a laboratory-and-boardroom simulacrum of the creative process. For all the impulsive flamboyance of Deadpool’s patter, the liberating power of personal virtue, and the disinhibiting promise of second chances, “Deadpool 2” feels narrowly impersonal and oppressively unfree.