By Todd McCarthy
For the multitudes who feared that, after Fantastic Four, Fox might simply be rummaging too far down into Marvel’s basement in search of a few more scraps of lucre, the joke’s on them. It takes a little while to get in gear — or perhaps just to adjust to what’s going on here — but once it does, Deadpool drops trou to reveal itself as a really raunchy, very dirty and pretty funny goof on the entire superhero ethos, as well as the first Marvel film to irreverently trash the brand. Just what anyone suffering from genre burn-out might appreciate at this point, as well as a big in-joke treat for all but the most reverent fanboys, this looks to be hitting the market at just the right time — with Christmas releases now in the rear-view mirror — to rake in some sweet returns.
Given the surprising amount of nudity, raw sex jokes and nonstop underlined and boldfaced racy dialogue, it’s amusing to picture the countless pubescent boys who will be plotting how to get into this extremely R-rated romp; they no doubt have their ways. Not only does Ryan Reynolds give it his all, shall we say, but the conversations here mostly resemble the sort of thing you’d expect to hear around last call at a Bakersfield biker bar. Or, more to the point, what you’d get if you mashed up the dialogue from the two previous scripts written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, Zombieland and G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
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Last seen decapitated and heading down the chimney of a nuclear plant at the end of X-Men: Origins in 2009, Wade Wilson/Deadpool has always seemed like a tough cookie to crack in terms of centering a mass audience film around him. A brash and brazen mercenary, he’s an anti-hero with a film noir character’s taste for the louche and low-down, as well as a character who, in narrative terms, stands out due to his predilection for breaking the fourth wall. Whether he could make the grade as the leading man of a franchise of his own was always a question, which partly accounts for the prolonged wait-and-see on Marvel’s part.
Other reasons for hesitation lay in the character not being a superhero like all the others and, if the film were to be done right, the necessity of an R rating — a place Marvel has never gone before. How to reconcile the brand’s image and fan base with such material? The answer probably lies in the fact that Marvel is so successful now, and so far down the line with their various franchises, that shaking things up and breaking out of the box was seen as permissible and maybe even a good thing. Or perhaps executives aware early on of what was happening with Fantastic Four said, “Opposite direction! Now!”
At first, with some strained/cheeky opening credits (“a moody teen,” “a gratuitous cameo”) followed by an emotionally investment-free highway action sequence notable for its splatter gore content, things don’t look promising — just wise-assy and needlessly violent. Who is this guy in red-and-black spandex with white fabric where eyes should be, who fights with two katanas, spins in the air in slo-mo and has wounds that heal at once? Shoot this guy full of holes and he’ll be back at you within seconds. “I may be super but I’m no hero,” he cracks. Why should we care?
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Flash back two years and things seem no better, save, perhaps, for the dude’s face, which now plainly belongs to Reynolds. A grown man who hangs at a skateboard park, Wade Wilson is a former Special Forces whose watering hole is a dive called Sister Margaret’s Home for Wayward Girls, where the guys are all former soldiers of fortune who never hit the jackpot and the gals look like Hooters rejects. Wade and a bitter hooker named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) hit it off and get it on in a kinky montage that’s more out-there than what most Hollywood-made R-rated stuff ever serves up.
It’s right around here, and immediately afterward, when Wade is diagnosed as having late-stage cancer, that, ironically, the film really starts to click. When a doctor mentions the possibility of going to Chechnya for special treatment, Wade responds, “Isn’t that where you go to get cancer?,” and you finally begin to sense that there might be something to this verbal speed freak character after all.
The positioning of the flashback seems simple but serves the film extremely well, especially with the arrival of Ajax (Ed Skrein, deeply evil), a doctor and head of something called the WeaponX workshop, who takes Wade on as a reclamation project and turns him into a fighting machine who can never die. Ajax’s sadism during the painful transformation process knows no bounds and, at the end of the ordeal, he takes particular pleasure in introducing Wade to his new face, which resembles ground round (Vanessa’s measured reaction to beholding it is, “It’s a face…I’d be happy to sit on.”).
Now a freak behind his mask and form-fitting outfit, Wade/Deadpool has it out for Ajax, but their ultimate face-off, previewed in the opening scene, must wait until after Deadpool teams up with two unlikely cohorts: the metallic giant Colossus, who does what he can to protect him, and a rebellious teen who can’t possibly live up to her name, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). For his part, Ajax has his own one-woman hit squad in Angel Dust (mixed martial arts champ and Haywire star Gina Carano).
The final showdown is very small potatoes by Marvel standards and, of course, predictable, but compensates with humor, which is what floats the entire project. The script has the feel of something gone over again and again and yet again to double the number of jokes each time. The machine gun approach doesn’t always hit, but it does enough so that, in the end, the number of laughs is pretty high.
Beyond even what Robert Downey Jr. has done in the Iron Man series, Reynolds lets fly here in a manic, sly, self-conscious way that leaves you not quite knowing what hit you; the irreverence slides quickly into lewd comic territory, the inside jokes about Marvel in particular and pop culture in general come fast and furious, the fourth-wall breakage is disarming and the actor’s occasional fey, high-pitched voicings add yet another strange element. As in the presence of motor-mouthed comedians, you either sit there stone-faced or eventually capitulate to the cascade of weirdness and the fertility of wayward minds unleashed.
A longtime commercials and visual effects executive and creative director, Tim Miller hasn’t so much directed his first feature as liberated much of what has been bubbling under the surface of superhero films for a long time; it answers a lot of the questions you were afraid to ask.
For the record, Deadpool features one of Stan Lee’s best Marvel cameos — it’s actually funny.