Comic book fans had to do a double-take when they entered the Marvel section of their favourite store in July 1997. Was that the first ever Spider-Man story being stocked on shelves, with its iconic cover of him flying through the air with a web in one hand and a panicked civilian in the other? No, it was some other sinewy superhero in red, and it wasn’t a web-sling but a cord snapping in half. “This sucker is 64 pages with only two ads…” read the balloon coming out of the imposter’s muffled mouth, “…guess that’s why they cheaped out on the rope!” The smartarse saying this was Deadpool, a gnarly mix of court jester and violent edgelord, and this was the clear arrival of his raison d’être: tweaking heavy-hitters like Peter Parker and Logan on the nose and razing the fourth wall with the same chirrupy snark that echoed throughout fraternity dorm rooms. Flash forward nineteen years and the newfangled Marvel cinematic empire — or more specifically its 20th Century Fox outhouse, which is home to the imperishable X-Men and very perishable Fantastic Four — has caught up with the “merc with a mouth” in its march to adapt the whole canon into perpetuity. Now we have Ryan Reynolds making the winks and nudges, and despite his previous stab at the role in the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine — because of it, even, given the cracks made at the expense of that version of the character on and off screen — he’s being hoisted on shoulders as a redeemer of past sins and chosen saviour from modern shared-universe shenanigans. This is a smokescreen disguising a movie that is woefully at odds with itself.
As expected, the dialogue (credited to Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) is filled with bald-faced commentary on superhero films, spoke from behind a red-and-black visage aimed squarely at the audience. As Deadpool wreaks bloody havoc on city overpasses as dull and stingy-looking as the test footage that was leaked a couple of years ago, he cracks wise about team-up sequels, studio meddling and other trappings logged by many a geek-blogger before him. This is amusing for about ten minutes, and while it persists beyond that point, the plot is self-aware enough to know that it has to change gears and provide some explanation for the carnage, or at least avoid descending into a Superhero Movie-style procession of limp gags. So it does, in a flashback that shows his ex-military alter-ego Wade Wilson soliciting a cure for terminal cancer from Francis, a bulky sociopath that Ed Skrien plays with nonchalance bordering on somnambulism. The chosen cure is torture, which leaves him with mottled flesh, no hair and regenerative superpowers, and his initial anguish with not being a pretty enough beau for his life partner Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is humorous until, over the course of supremely clunky jumps between the two time periods, it becomes clear that yes, that’s the thing he’s seeking revenge for back on the Vancouver highways. It’s an utterly feeble motivation, like Darkman with the horror tones drained out, and Reynolds looked uglier in Just Friends, for Chrissakes.
“But it’s just a parody,” the classic defense goes… “and it’s not meant to be taken seriously.” And yet director Tim Miller, whose background is in VFX houses and animated segments from the likes of Thor: The Dark World, adheres to stock-standard, CG-assisted thrills from the word go. The opening credits are essentially a flown-over tableau like the closing titles of the Avengers series. The climax is a pair of one-on-one punch-ups set on a helicarrier. Speed-ramping and dimly-lit interiors abound. Stan Lee has his worst cameo yet. These carry gags some might tout as subversion, but it amounts to a cheap bait-and-switch that counts on you laughing solely because you get the reference; the Spider-Man knock-off cover, writ large. Without the populist narrative know-how that justifies meta-commentary (see: anything by Phil Lord and Chris Miller), being bluntly honest about a copycat aesthetic is effectively cauterizing a wound with sarsaparilla. The real bounty to be claimed by blockbuster riffers is that overly familiar, bombastic kind of conflict: megalomaniacs seeking power, lives in peril, and coarse waves of violence that are only enlivened by a protagonist with a compelling moral code. All that the criminally safe Deadpool really does is not bother with the last part of the equation.
It pretends to, sometimes. Wade has a brief conversation with a fellow torture victim (Hugh Scott) that’s intended to act as another reason to hate Francis, and the appearance of another much-maligned X-Man via Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) is intended as a sunny counterpoint, but these dramatic impetuses are drowned out by the movie’s contravening mission to make light of itself. Also, the first jump to Wade’s pre-hairtrigger days has him defending teenage girls from would-be creeps, and his relationship with Vanessa is littered with the brand of ‘so-effed-up’ repartee you’d find in a Cards Against Humanity booster pack. This is meant to suggest a pro-equality, sex-positive angle to both the movie and its crimson antihero, which is rich considering that it still cleaves to a narrative model that reduce the film’s three other female characters to Colossus’ disaffected sidekick (Brianna Hildebrand), a busty sub-villain (Gina Carano)1 and a cantankerous landlady (Leslie Uggams), all of whom have nothing to do but stand around and either react passively to Deadpool’s jibes or throw a punch. The only actor who navigates the movie’s self-immolation is TJ Miller, who not only reacts with believable dejection to the plot but dispenses self-reflexive zingers with a casualness that Reynolds can only dream of.
Other than TJ Miller’s performance, the only feat I can give Deadpool credit for is choosing to cater to Reddit lurkers only by echoing their most basic observations on the superhero genre, and not by that and a cavalcade of internet meme allusions. It does opt instead for a series of DOA song choices and pop culture references from the ’80s, but I’ll take Family Guy as a marginally better inspiration than an Ain’t It Cool comment thread. That’s literally it. Even the Junkie XL score, which starts out with some unique electronic beats, slips into the usual brass-and-strings affair; effectively a metaphor for the whole enterprise. And if you do enjoy it, fine. I can’t tell you that you didn’t chuckle at each inexplicable Voltron name-drop, or the inevitable, eye-rolling post-credits stinger. Vladimir Nabokov once said that satire is a lesson and parody is a game. Even when choosing the latter, if it falls to Deadpool to roll the dice, we’re the ones who’ll continue to lose.