When Deadpool premiered in 2016, it caught audiences by surprise, even though the creative team had been working behind the scenes for years to get the movie made, and the title character had been a fixture in Marvel comic books for more than two decades. Here was a superhero movie that wasn't afraid to poke fun at the genre (and at itself), or to take full advantage of its R rating, with graphic violence, swearing and sex.
Sure, it was a bit sloppy and unfocused, and the self-aware humor really only had one note. But it was something different and fun, an antidote to the homogenized, assembly-line products in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the dark, humorless misfires coming from DC.
Oh, and it was a massive box-office hit, especially given its relatively modest budget for a superhero movie. So there's a lot riding on Deadpool 2, which reunites most (but not all) of the key creators who brought the first movie to the screen through what sometimes seemed like sheer willpower. Star Ryan Reynolds is back as the title character, a snarky, fourth wall-breaking mercenary with superpowers that make him essentially unkillable (even after blowing himself up into tiny pieces early in the movie, he just wakes up a few days later completely intact). Reynolds is also a producer and now a co-writer, along with original writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and he's clearly still Deadpool's biggest fan.
Taking over from original director Tim Miller is action wizard David Leitch, who delivered slick, stylish, often astounding set pieces in John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Leitch helps bring the action sequences up a notch in the sequel, even though nothing compares to the jaw-dropping practical stunts in his previous movies. Leitch is less adept with humor, though, and while the sequel has at least as many jokes as the first movie (and perhaps more), a lot more of them fall flat, relying even more heavily on superficial references to other superhero movies. Reynolds, who can be irritating in many other roles, was perhaps born to play Deadpool, though, and he gives life to a lot of jokes that aren't all that cleverly constructed.
The first movie used a basic superhero origin story as a framework for lots of violence and dark humor, but like most blockbuster sequels, Deadpool 2 has to raise the stakes, and consequently there's significantly more plot this time around, with a central storyline that doesn't really get going until the movie is nearly halfway over.
Before the opening credits even roll, Deadpool has taken the audience through an entire movie's worth of adventures, as he travels around the world dispatching bad guys only to have some nameless criminal attack the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Vanessa's early exit is just one way the movie sidelines the returning secondary characters, with surly young mutant Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), a breakout star of the first movie, barely getting a handful of lines.
Instead, the focus is on new supporting characters Cable (Josh Brolin) and Domino (Atlanta's Zazie Beetz), familiar faces from Deadpool's comic book adventures, as well as Russell Collins, aka Firefist (Julian Dennison), a troubled young mutant whom Deadpool (eventually, after numerous detours) decides he has to protect from time-traveling soldier Cable.
Cable has come from the future to stop Russell from turning into an eventual supervillain, and this movie's ill-fitting sentimental streak saddles Deadpool with paternal feelings toward the angry (but mostly just misunderstood) teenager. Dennison, who was hilarious in Taika Waititi's 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople, largely recycles his faux-tough, gangsta-rap-obsessed character from that movie, only with added fireball-shooting abilities.
Neither Cable nor Russell is an actual villain, so the movie lacks a central antagonist, and Deadpool's bickering with Cable is pretty flat. Brolin, who's currently in theaters as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War (which of course gets a reference here), gives Cable an appropriate amount of grit and resolve, but the character's rich (and convoluted) comic book history is poorly served by the movie's jokey tone. This is a character who could be the star of his own time-spanning epic, reduced to functioning as the delivery mechanism for dick jokes.
Beetz brings more liveliness to her portrayal of Domino, a scrappy outsider with luck-based powers, and together she and Brolin offer some hope for the planned spin-off about the mutant mercenary team X-Force. Deadpool gathers a version of that team in this movie, but like so much about this clumsily constructed sequel, it's an elaborate, drawn-out set-up for a throwaway joke.
With its bigger budget and more seasoned director, Deadpool 2 looks impressive, but there's no longer anything particularly surprising or refreshing about it. It mostly just puts a loud, explosion-filled gloss on the same few jokes. ♦