I promised myself I wouldn’t pay to see anymore superhero movies, but on a rainy afternoon, when I needed to be out of the house, I found myself at the proudly R-rated and obnoxiously self-aware Deadpool, directed by Tim Miller, based on the Marvel comic book. Don’t be fooled by the adults-only marketing campaign, by the ultra-violence and gleeful vulgarity, or by the protagonist’s insistence that he’s no “hero”: the movie — about the titular mutant vigilante in red spandex slicing, shooting and quipping his way through criminals, human and mutant alike — is virtually the same as every superhero origin movie ever made. It has the arduous transformation, the revenge-driven storyline, the non-super sidekick and the inchoate romance, to name a few conventions. Deadpool, essentially, is Spider-Man with decapitations, F-bombs and fully nude strippers; and instead of Spidey’s sincerity and high-stakes, we get exhausting levels of sarcastic snark and ironic get pumped musical montages in slow-motion. The opening credit sequence suggests that the film knows its derivative place in the meager annals of the genre, but despite what Hollywood thinks, knowing you’re trite doesn’t necessarily exempt you from being so.
Furthermore, as an extension of the X-Men franchise, the project’s sole cynical purpose is to introduce a character who can henceforth appear in other X-Men movies, as well as his own. Despite half-hearted efforts to establish a new kind of R-rated superhero, Deadpool is just like all the others, awaiting his sequels and franchise cameos, another masked vigilante in line for a paycheck.
Though told out of order, starting in the middle, Deadpool, when readily unscrambled, is rather straightforward, and predicated on a faulty premise, too. Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is small-time muscle in New York, who plies his trade from a bar full of likeminded mercenaries, run by his droll dweeb friend (T.J. Miller). While having a drink after a job, he meets a prostitute named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, pretty but dull). They fall in love and even come to share a spacious redbrick loft (about as unlikely on their black market salaries as it is that any hood or hooker, in history, ever looked like Reynolds and Baccarin, but I digress). Happiness wanes when Wade gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. For the part, Reynolds basically resurrects Van Wilder, and still manages to act mostly through his mischievous, arrogant eyebrows, despite being hidden behind a mask. In the scene where Wade learns about his disease, however, we see a glimpse of the good actor in there somewhere, the one we saw in Buried and Definitely, Maybe.
In desperation, Wade signs up for experimental treatment. Though the doctor (Ed Skrein, handsome but dull), an anesthetized super villain known as Ajax, cures him, he leaves Wade hideously mutated, with the power to heal instantaneously. The treatment involves a whole recipe book of sadistic torture methods, but Wade’s real grievance, upon escape, is that now Vanessa won’t be attracted to him. Instead of going home to find out, he lets her think he’s dead, and spends two whole years hunting down Ajax who, he believes, has the power to restore his pretty face. When I realized how stupid the plot was, I was reminded of poor Roger Ebert — not because he would’ve hated it (that I can’t say), but because he too had life-saving surgery, to remove cancer, and was left permanently disfigured. But he didn’t try to murder his doctor! Ultimately, the payoff is as dumb as the setup, with Wade the same at the end as he was at the beginning, and the whole thing feeling fairly pointless; he goes to a lot of trouble for basically no reason.
Because Deadpool exists in the same universe as the X-Men, we meet Collosus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), a sensitive Russian giant made of shiny silver, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), the verbose alias for a surly teenager with the power of atomic energy. They show up to recruit reluctant Wade for the noble X-Men, and I’m guessing he’ll fall in line in some capacity down the road.
It’s inevitable, however, that Deadpool will be compared to a different superhero series: Kick-Ass. Both are profane, insanely violent and completely self-aware. People offended by Kick-Ass (and there are many) will certainly prefer Deadpool; but I don’t. For such an ostensibly dirty movie, it feels incredibly sanitized. In Kick-Ass, there were foolhardy teenagers being shanked with switch-blades and pre-teen girls cussing while massacring hordes of henchmen. That’s what made Kick-Ass bold, that the absurdity of super heroism was in the movie’s shattered bones, its self-awareness the DNA in the story of a normal teenager trying his luck at daring do-goodery and about getting killed for it. Deadpool, on the other hand, is safer, less exciting, and not so much satirical as lamely meta, with Wade breaking the fourth wall to brag about how cool it is that he’s, ya know, breaking the fourth wall. It’s only audacious in talk, not in action. If Deadpool leaves one feeling comfortable, that’s because it’s peddling the same cozy escapism that The Avengers series does. It’s too derivative to be a good superhero movie (as if those even exist, at least since Burton’s Batman Returns or Raimi’s Spider-Man 2), and too kosher to be good pulp. It doesn’t so much push the boundaries as retrace the chalk. It’s a bowie knife with soft edges, a Dessert Eagle that fires plush bullets.