Truthfully, the notion that a Deadpool movie exists at all still feels like a minor miracle. It’s been 7 years since the Marvel’s fourth-wall shattering anti-hero and patron saint of the internet* made his infamously off-model film debut in the underwhelming X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and at the time, getting the character on screen in proper form –much less a solo film– felt like a geek pipe dream. Fast-forward to 2016 and Deadpool is, both for better and for worse, the most accurate adaptation one could want. Violent, joke dense, and surprisingly heartfelt, Deadpool is the superhero movie I could never have imagined suffering through X-Men Origins years ago.
The plot: Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a merc with a mouth and terminal cancer. In an attempt to buy more time with his fiancee Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), Wade volunteers for a shady laboratory’s project that claims it can cure his cancer by unlocking latent mutant abilities. The procedure conducted by the literally and figuratively unfeeling Ajax/Francis (Ed Skrein), gives Wade the ability to heal from any wound, but also leaves him horribly disfigured. Donning a costume and moniker Deadpool, and aided (or at least not completely hindered) by his friend Weasel (TJ Miller) and X-Men Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), Wade embarks on a quest to track down Francis, heal his scarred body, and reunite with Vanessa.
To paraphrase Deadpool’s occasional teammate and fellow Canadian Wolverine, Deadpool is the best at what he does, and what he does is either very funny or very annoying. In the hands of skilled creators, Deadpool and his violent and fourth-wall-breaking antics are hilarious and take the stuffing out of a genre that’s liable to get self-serious if left unchecked. In the hands of lesser creators he devolves into irritating quirks and endless, endless chimichanga jokes. Luckily, Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and particularly Ryan Reynolds, keep Deadpool mostly on the right side of the hilarious/ irritating dichotomy.
With Reese and Wernick, Deadpool manages jokes, plot, and character if not perfectly, then at least commendably well. Framed within a non-linear structure, the first half of the movie in particular does a bang-up job of introducing the character and the world he inhabits. The opening salvo beginning with some “unique” opening credits, Deadpool shooting the breeze with a put-upon cab driver (Karan Soni) and ending with one of the most memorable action setpieces in recent comic book movies, makes an immediate case for the character on the silver screen. The gags are frequent, pretty solid, and per the character, pretty crude. Expect dick jokes. Expect pop culture reference. Expect jokes about Green Lantern and Origins. Does referring to testicles as “smooth criminals” make you laugh? If so, I’ve got some good news.
Reese and Wernick smartly keep the stakes (and budget) low by focusing on the Wade’s love/ revenge quest, setting a clear goal in a film that could easily fall apart under the weight of its gags. The plot itself, however, begins to lose steam as it progresses. Stretches of the origin story play out as standard, samey comic movie origin stuff instead of parody of the same, and by the time Wade and Francis have their final showdown, the movies’ greatest cuts are behind it. The structure allows the film to explore Deadpool as something more than a scarred quip machine, and Reynold takes it from there.
Carrying the movie through its weaker moments and making it stand out during its best is Reynolds’ portrayal. Reynolds (and fans) buoyed the film more in its early stages, and it’s clear why Reynolds invested his time: this was the hero he was meant to play. Frequently (and accurately) touted as a character actor in a leading man’s body, Reynolds– miscast as the square-jawed Hal Jordan of Green Lantern– is able to shine as the grimier Deadpool. Even written as it is, Deadpool still could have been a headache with the wrong lead. Reynolds keeps up with the quip-a-minute pace, but actually plays a character to boot. That Deadpool is every bit as capital W wacky and fourth-wall-breaking before his mutation as after perhaps doesn’t make the most sense, but Reynolds digs deep to bring some previously-unseen pathos once Wade stops having the good fortune to look like Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds could have kept his performance surface-level and it still could have been an enjoyable film, but what he brings to the role are the foundation upon which a franchise and an honest case for the character are built.
The problem is that Deadpool’s outsized personality leaves little room for the characters around him. I’m not exactly looking for an intricate ensemble cast here**, but the heroes, villains, and bystanders of Deadpool‘s world are a bit starved for attention in comparison. TJ Miller’s Weasel bartender and confidant to Deadpool, gets some of the movie’s best jokes, but his apperance throughout the film feels sporadic. The same can be said of Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. NTW has some fun working within the Sarcastic Teenage Girl stereotype, and while the adorably lame and moralistic Colossus might not be the one comics fans know and love, he makes sense as a reflection of Deadpool’s idea of heroism**.Yet both feel sidelined in the movie in which they are ostensibly co-stars. Ditto of Deadpool’s blind IKEA connoisseur roommate Blind Al (Leslie Uggam) and Soni’s cab driver, both of whom have good jokes and better potential before being discarded before the final act. Worse still with Wade’s objects of affection/ vengeance. I am still not entirely sure what Francis’ plan actually is. Marvel movies aren’t particularly known for memorable villains, but at least we got what Ant-Man‘s Yellowjacket was up to. Similarly Vanessa’s characterization get a little scant once you get past “sexy” and “can make Empire Strikes Back references”. What seems like a good foundation for a romance when you’re me at 16 doesn’t work as well on the big screen. Baccarin, no stranger to the comic adaptation world, feels underserved by the role.
Deadpool will likely be polarizing, with people on either side loving and hating it for the space the character –and the movie– occupy in the world of comics. While I’ll admit my own mileage with the character varies, Deadpool won me over faster than expected. Vulgar and violent as it is, Deadpool is a labor of love. There’s craft and affection and a desire to make something that feels different that’s missing from 20th Century Fox’s increasingly vanilla X-Men franchise and manages to at once feel risky and stick to what fans know. Deadpool isn’t reinventing the wheel with superhero movies, but were that all wheels were as funny and lovingly made as this one.
*I tend to think of Deadpool as the bacon of superheroes, and all that implies in his internet following
**I may just be Colossus starved, as my favorite X-Man’s appearance in previous X-films have felt like teases.