Marvel’s biggest antihero is Deadpool, who made his comic book debut in 1991. Unlike other costumed fighters with superpowers, this costumed fighter with superpowers traffics in dirty jokes, genuine bloodlust, and a cheeky breaking of the fourth wall. He is rebellious like a preteen boy who just discovered The Jerky Boys; he celebrates profanity for its own sake and rarely breaks from a formula. The new film Deadpool continues in that tradition. It contains everything that made the character a cult hit, and yet it doesn’t use that freedom to accomplish anything interesting or genuinely subversive.
When we first meet Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), he’s getting ready for a car chase. The chase involves exploding heads, severed limbs, and a borderline sociopathic disdain for civilian wellbeing. Director Tim Miller might have shot the sequence with verbal wit, except Miller and his screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese have a clumsy framing device. They jump between the chase and a protracted origin story, one that takes up the majority of the film’s already crisp running time. Including the flashbacks, the origin story takes well over an hour.
We learn that Deadpool started as Wade Wilson, a fast-talking mercenary who falls in love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). The relationship requires Wade to feel feelings, except when he learns he has cancer and ignores the implied partnership with his special lady. A mysterious stranger tells Wade he can cure the cancer and give him superpowers, so Wade abandons Vanessa only to discover the stranger plans to use him as a mindless super-soldier. Wade escapes, obviously, and spends the rest of the film exacting revenge on his captors.
Reynolds is a naturally charismatic actor, and the Deadpool mask does a disservice to his expressive eyes. Still, Wilson is a total motormouth, and most of Deadpool’s jokes are one-liners that ignore drama and character development. Miller and his screenwriters tilt toward intrigue when they see Wilson’s jokes as a personality flaw, but most of the time they celebrate his asides for their own sake.
Deadpool takes a kitchen-sink approach that recalls the spoof films of the Zucker brothers and Mel Brooks, so some jokes land better than others. Deadpool is funniest when Wilson upends traditional superhero masculinity. There’s a throwaway gag when his tiny hand rejuvenates, and another as he takes a dildo up the ass. The vast majority of Deadpool’s humor is adolescent to a fault. There is nothing wrong with poop jokes—indeed, poop is often the funniest bodily excretion—except Deadpool treats them as asides to material that’s already too thin.
The other significant plot departure is the love story—Wilson fights to save Vanessa, not the world—yet she’s not quite a fully formed character; more of a “friends with benefits” Cool Girl cliché. This is a teenager’s ideal of a girlfriend, which is another of this film’s superficial, easy form of subversion.
Other superheroes help out Deadpool—the X-Men heroes Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead—and the script uses them as a chance to comment on tropes of the X-Men franchise. All of these jokes are predictable, just like Stan Lee’s perfunctory appearance. A more rebellious Deadpool would comment on how its climax looks just like every other Marvel climax, but instead there’s safety to the tone that veers only from amusing to dull.
Unlike other films from Marvel, Deadpool feels like a labor of love. Reynolds, Miller, and the others clearly have an affinity for the character, and their energy creates the ironic feeling that they should have had gone further. The ubiquity of Marvel and superhero films means that they deserve to be knocked down a peg or two.
The adaptation of Watchmen did that, albeit without much humor, and perhaps the issue with Deadpool is that it’s too close the source. The transition to film should arrive with more sophistication, and Deadpool defiantly pretends it does not require any. This is a film that would rather nibble than bite.
Deadpool opens Friday in theaters everywhere.