“Deadpool 2” is a surprise. While not as fresh as the original (how could it be?), it shifts nicely between gallows humor, action, and, quite unexpectedly, pathos. It’s that rare creation that somehow has its cake and eats it too.
After the events of the first film, Wade Wilson, the eponymous Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds, returning), a mercenary turned scarred mutant, finds himself in a good place. Reunited with the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), he enjoys his work (killing bad guys, often gruesomely) and loves his home life. Vanessa and Pool consider having a child. I guess watching a couple happily raising a kid wouldn’t make for an exciting movie, so the writers (Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Ryan Reynolds) send him on a different, more violent, adventure that begins with Deadpool developing paternal feelings for a troubled, orphaned mutant, Russell (Julian Dennison, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”), whose explosive powers are matched by his temper. Those feelings set the plot in motion when a cyborg from the future, Cable (Josh Brolin), travels back in time to kill the child, for reasons unclear at the outset. Deadpool, grudgingly at first, steps in to save him.
When the director of the original “Deadpool,” Tim Miller, chose (or was asked) not to return for the sequel, I became a bit concerned. He and Reynolds’ sensibilities, both comedy and action-wise, were integral to that film’s success. When David Leitch was announced as his replacement, my concerns weren’t exactly assuaged. Sure, Leitch, having co-directed (though uncredited) “John Wick” and last years “Atomic Blonde,” certainly has the action chops to tackle this project, but how was he with comedy? Fortunately, I brought some salt to put on those words before eating them. As the movie began, instead of an intense action sequence like the one that kicked off the original, we’re treated instead to a jokey montage of action, with an emphasis on humor, not excitement. I was thrown for a curve. The guy who I thought would deliver the action goods, was doubling down on the humor instead.
The actions is, well, fine… good, even. There’s a particularly exciting car chase that’s the centerpiece of the film (heavily featured in all of the ads) that makes good on the film’s larger budget. But the action isn’t quite as crisp and intense as the (admittedly fewer) sequences in the first film – or anything we saw in “John Wick,” for that matter. They feel a little more generic, a little more typical of today’s superhero films (fast cuts, not enough time to take everything in) albeit with a lot more gore.
What may also impede the film a little is that it doesn’t have a clear main villain. The finale has two villains. One is overpowered, to the point that Deadpool doesn’t have a chance fighting him or her, while the other is underpowered and more of an afterthought. Neither, though, has a plan, a plot, or much of anything that they are actively doing that Deadpool has to go up against.
Certainly, neither is a character, and that, sadly, extends to Cable as well. All we know about him is his motivation, and that’s only revealed at the end of the second act. I called him a cyborg earlier, but even that’s a guess, based more on hazy kid memories from days gone by and from his appearance (a glowing eye, half of his body made of metal and wires), rather than anything the movie reveals narratively. Who he is, what he is all jettisoned by the script. Between Cable and the villains having little to no characterizations, some of the movie feels a little empty, or, dare I say it, half-assed?
And when you consider how, only a few weeks ago, Brolin’s wonderful, intense performance as the villainous Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” completely stole that movie from dozens of iconic, franchise carrying characters and actors, it’s a shame seeing his talents wasted a little in an underwritten role. Thanos is a fully-realized character. Cable is just a smirk. But, at least, it’s an appealing smirk, since it belongs to Brolin, who Brolins the shit out of the thin part, bringing his usual gruff appeal to the film.
The movie moves at a quick pace and is consistently funny and entertaining. But something odd happened about 30 minutes into it. I began to fall asleep. I never gave in completely, mind you, but I did have a hard time keeping my eyes open for a good 15 minutes or so. I didn’t think much of it at first. Between sleep apnea and anxiety meds, I figured the drowsiness was just par for the course. But then, after the movie ended, my friend told me he too began falling asleep and at the exact same time my attention began to wane.
I wondered why. As I said, the movie’s constantly entertaining with jokes on top of jokes, and with most of them actually, you know, funny. If the first film’s humor was at a ten, here it’s notched up at “This is Spinal Tap”s proverbial eleven. And maybe that’s the problem. The first half hour presents an honest to goodness dramatic incident and Deadpool has to deal with the fallout from that event. But there’s not much going on otherwise. There’s no clear indication that the movie is going anywhere or that it even wants to go anywhere. There’s no real villain or a plot to speak of, just a situation. And it fills that void with a ton of humor. And, yes, I laughed, a lot. But there’s a natural laugh plateau that you eventually reach and when you do, and when there’s nothing else to become invested in, it’s hard to care after a while.
It’s a “Duck Soup” versus “A Night at the Opera” thing. Both are famous Marx Brothers comedies, with the former a barrage of non-stop jokes, while the latter breaks up its jokes with dull straight-man characters and a banal romantic subplot. But “Night” was more successful at the box office than “Duck Soup.” And it’s probably because it gave those jokes some downtime to breathe. Jokes all the time becomes exhausting and you need something to break them up. “Deadpool 2” does realize this, but only after the first act when it finally introduces two major characters that propel the plot forward and give the film momentum. And as that momentum picked up, so did my attention and my enjoyment of the film.
“Deadpool 2” mocks itself… and everything, really. But there is, although sometimes deeply hidden, a humanity underneath it all. I was tempted to call the movie nihilistic or nihilistic-lite at first, but then it surprised me with an injection of actual pathos, actual emotions. It’s more than a little jarring at first, and I was skeptical. Could they pull this off? The movie, as mentioned earlier, opens with a dramatic event, one that is played seriously, going so far as to score it with morose, klimpering piano music to drive the point home. It seemed antithetical to what we know as a “Deadpool” movie. But it follows that up with an amusing sequence that does something amazing: it mocks what’s come before, but, somehow, does so without undercutting it. That’s not an easy thing to do, and the film does a good job throughout of finding a balance between unexpected pathos and unrelenting humor and violence. And that elevates the film, making it something a little more complete, more than a pointless exercise in nihilism-chic.
If you enjoyed the original “Deadpool,” I’d imagine you’ll like this sequel as well. Even though the sheen of newness has dulled, it’s as sharp, vulgar, and funny as ever. Any film that can be dramatic, take the piss out of itself for it, and still make you care about it, deserves praise. And if the movie manages to have its cake and eat it too, then, in the words of a historical figure who died a violent death, like many of the characters in this movie do: “Let them eat cake.”
Note: The movie has two post-credit sequences that you absolutely do not want to miss.