Exult Marvel Studios all you want; it’s Twentieth Century Fox that’s the oldest pro at the Marvel Movie Game. To clarify, though, that’s maybe oldest-pro in the prostitute sense, at least some of the time. Though the studio had unlikely success in bringing X-Men to the screen back in 2000, before anyone even got a Spider-Man movie going, the Fox-licensed Marvel properties have been a mixed bag, with (most of) the X-movies repping the good stuff and the wreckage of various attempts at Daredevil and Fantastic Four movies repping the mercenary garbage.
Mercenary garbage is one way you might describe Deadpool, though it’s equally likely that the movie would jump on that classification first.
The opening credits, rolling over super-slow-mo in-media-res action sequence, take the piss out of themselves, typing all of the major actors (billing “a hot chick,” “a CGI character,” etc.) and setting further sights on the guys behind the scenes (“produced by asshats”—sounds accurate!). Included in this cheeky derision—first and foremost, in fact—is star Ryan Reynolds, who is taking something like his fifth crack at appearing in a successful comic book adaptation. He’s done so many comics movies that he’s actually played Deadpool (“the merc with the mouth” in the parlance of Stan Lee and company) before: in the tolerable opening section of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, before his wisecracking character was inexplicably turned into a mute henchman with a grab bag of mutant powers.
But X-Men: Days of Future Past ensured that just about any X-Men (or X-adjacent) character can be rewritten into the current series’ continuity, no matter how they might have been travestied in the past—providing Fox has the rights, of course. That’s the wonder of time-travel, and of comic-book strorytelling and also of Marvel Comics going bankrupt a bunch of years ago. Though the X-Men movies have often tried to stay a bit more grounded (some—not I—would say more drab) than some of their colorful counterparts, Days of Future Past established their comics bona fides by actually writing the reboot into the canon. Deadpool—not exactly an X-Men movie, but the first film set in that universe since Future Past—does its own part for Fox Marvel’s comics cred by tapping into something I’ve not yet really seen in a mainstream superhero movie: dorky-snarky comic-book humor.
There have been comics movies with humor for years, of course, including plenty of in-jokes (check all the way back to the first X-Men: “You’d prefer yellow spandex?”). What Deadpool, with its gag credits, fourth-wall-breaking, sight gags, and running commentary, captures is a specific sort of humor aimed at fourteen-year-old comics geeks. It’s not the most sophisticated humor; it’s mostly about other comic books, which is to say about itself. But at its best, it harkens back to the elasticity of older comics, less steeped in continuity and more interested in shocks, surprises, and annotations from the editor. It is not a brilliant joke to cut to metallic X-Man Colossus sitting in the X-Mansion, eating healthy breakfast cereal when he sees non-X-Man Deadpool wreaking havoc on the news. But it’s exactly the kind of undercutting move that can make less serious-minded comics so much fun (especially when juxtaposed with less silly efforts).
Deadpool, from my understanding, is the mascot for the modern version of those types of jokes and references, and his movie is, indeed, pretty fun. It’s juvenile and far more vulgar than most Marvel books, yes, but oddly good-natured in its insult humor. The movie begins in earnest with Deadpool in a taxi cab, making chatty smalltalk with the driver, before he’s dropped off to intercept a bunch of generic bad guys. Their extended shoot-out on a highway overpass technically goes on for about half the movie; Deadpool himself (Reynolds) keeps turning to the audience to fill us in on his backstory. Before he was clad in a face-concealing red bodysuit, Wade Wilson was a run-of-the-mill ex-special-forces mercenary doing intimidation favors for cash—mostly from nice-ish people who need to, say, scare off a stalker.
The movie isn’t especially clear about what happens to Wilson’s gigs when he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a prostitute—they both seem to suddenly spend most of their time together, no longer punching or fucking for money, but maybe that stuff just gets shuttled offscreen. Regardless, the relationship is sweet in its way, with the couple’s mutual love of wiseass remarks and dark jokes bonding them together, and director Tim Miller accelerates the timeline in a clever (and pretty sex-positive!) montage of holiday-related hookups. But then Wilson finds out he has a ton of cancer, which convinces him to sign up for an experimental mutation program designed to cure it—and, as it turns out, also designed to enslave him as an evil supersoldier. He escapes from the program with a heavily scarred body, Wolverine-like healing powers, and a mouthier, screwier sense of humor than ever before.
There are glimmers of pathos in this turn of events. Cancer forces Wilson to rewrite his own mythology; that he’s soon starring in his own spoof of superhero movies has hints of grim desperation behind the endless Looney Tunes mischief-making. But Miller doesn’t have much interest in the psychology of Deadpool, and those glimmers fade away, especially when the flashbacks catch up to that overpass sequence. It’s around this point the movie starts feeling less and less like a spoof, and more like a poor man’s Guardians of the Galaxy. At this, it’s not great; the action sequences are cartoony without much grace, and this CG-heavy world is no place for Gina Carano, playing a woman with superhuman strength (so: herself?) but forced to fight a bunch of CG-enhanced mutants. Even the central romantic dilemma sort of evaporates; it amounts to Deadpool not being cracked into something more psychotic and vengeful by his experiences, but feeling glum that maybe his hot chick won’t like his new, less attractive visage.
Even so: much of Deadpool is a disreputable delight. Like its hero, it’s mouthy and playful and crass, and far more charming than it should be, especially when Deadpool gets to bounce off of Colossus and his reluctant X-Men sidekick, comics bit player Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Deadpool is very much like a second-rate stand-up comedian; no matter how crudely insulting his patter gets, there’s a part of him that wants to be loved. In a weird way, this is where Ryan Reynolds, Movie Star, has been trying to go for years. He’s actually much better as a character actor; Adventureland and Mississippi Grind prove that handily. But if Reynolds is going to use his smarm for blockbusting, it might as well be in something that kids his Sexist Man Alive rep, not to mention his repeated superhero at-bats (though the Reynolds CV in-jokes may be less comprehensive; I spotted no digs at Blade: Trinity, though I’ve read elsewhere that there was one somewhere, and of course there are several at the expense of Green Lantern). Even at his best, Wade Wilson is kind of mangy, and the movie goes so far as to look a little bit like a grubby Lionsgate comedy from the mid-00s that Reynolds and/or Dane Cook might have starred in, like Waiting (I mean, not that grody, but moreso than the X-Men pictures). Low-rent and nonstop wisecracking plus a silly love story; in its goofy way, it is the ultimate Ryan Reynolds movie, and seems to recognize what a ridiculous thing that is to be.
Deadpool could have gone even spoofier; it’s a major missed opportunity that Wilson never makes a crack about the Canadian Fox Forest where so many of its comics movies set generic action sequences. As with a lot of comics-based humor, there’s an assumption that irreverence is the same as wit; as with a lot of movie-based humor, there’s an assumption that rearranged swear words are endlessly hilarious. Also, no movie can be fully forgiven for in any way glorifying Deadpool co-creator Rob Liefeld. But Deadpool isn’t asking for forgiveness, or to be taken seriously. It’s asking for a couple of hours with your inner fourteen-year-old boy.