In February 2016, Deadpool swaggered into a release weekend where movies with few expectations went to make modest returns or die on arrival.
The comic-book movie had a director/star combination who’d fought tooth and nail for four years to get the production funded. It had been greenlit by the barest of margins after test footage of its central fight scene was leaked online to a hugely positive fan reaction. It had no superheroes or villains in it that anyone had ever heard of outside of the comics world, but it had it where it counts: Genuine enthusiasm, clever writing and nothing to lose.
Today, in 2018, Deadpool 2 slots nicely into mid-May, the traditional territory of the summer blockbuster season, the safest of sequel bets. And yet, it’s still a movie that acts like it’s the underdog of the genre, despite the original installment having made $783 million.
In his opening monologue, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) gripes that his Deadpool 2 thunder was stolen by Logan, and jokingly spoils the end of his own movie. (Aside: If you haven’t taken the time to see it, you should see Logan, not just because it’s it’s very good but because Deadpool 2 spoils its ending.) It’s all a clever non-linear framing device just like in Deadpool, but truncated, providing a shortcut to a cheap blast of character motivation that has been criticized for its overuse in superhero stories since 1999 (the context at the link being a slight spoiler, phobics).
Deadpool 2 really wants to build on a solid emotional core about grief and family and finding a place to belong. Unfortunately, it also wants to deliver on the promises of a typical action movie sequel: more characters, more fights, more gore, and more and bigger explosions. That leaves little space to lay any emotional foundation.
Which is still pretty important, even for a goofy comedy! Deadpool spent a significant portion of its story setting up Wade and his true love Vanessa (Morena Bacarrin, returning for Deadpool 2 in a criminally reduced role) as a couple with chemistry, giving weight to Wade’s cancer diagnosis and his life before becoming ... whatever the heck he is now. That seamless character building, spiced up with meta jokes and slapstick, grounded his hatred of his villain, Ajax, and the pain of his self-imposed separation from Vanessa, giving the audience something to care about beyond the jokes.
Deadpool 2’s story rests on Wade’s relationship with Russel (Julian Dennison), an abused mutant teen with fire powers who isn’t given much time to connect with our foul-mouthed hero. Cable, with his hyper-gritty personality and byzantine backstory (hugely simplified and altered for this film), usually functions as the ultimate straight man to Deadpool’s fourth-wall-breaking hijinks. Here, though, Cable and Deadpool are linked not by being opposites but by having the same kind of man-pain in common. It’s a little vanilla for both out-there characters.
The plot of Deadpool 2 flows like a hose with several dams: Moving swimmingly along until its story has to be unkinked and diverted in another direction by a near-death vision or TJ Miller explaining the next step out loud to Wade. Broadly, and without giving anything away, the story is about how Cable wants to kill Russel, and Wade wants to save him. But on the way we visit a supermax mutant prison, have a massive moving-convoy-based action setpiece and then hurry everything into a big blow-out, team up finale just like in the last movie.
All these pieces are interesting in their own right but the connective tissue between them is about as subtle and smooth as the strained tendon in the neck of a Rob Liefeld character. Wade’s voiceover monologuing is fun when it supplements what’s on the screen, not when it’s forced to do the lion’s share of emotional exposition.
This all sounds very damning, so I will say that if you loved Deadpool, you’ll probably find Deadpool 2 to be a worthy follow-up. The jokes still land, delivered raunchily and positively. Zazie Beetz’s Domino is the best addition to the cast, stealing every fight scene she’s in. Put her in X-Force, Fox, or better yet, give her a movie: The cinematic potential of her luck-based powers form the best action moments of Deadpool 2, and her chemistry with the rest of the cast is immediate.
Deadpool 2 isn’t a complete bust, but it’s missing a chunk of what made me look back so fondly on Deadpool. The movie’s problem feels very akin to how I felt about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: The first film felt fresh and disruptive in an increasingly predictable genre — producing more of the same cannot not recreate that feeling. Sometimes it can’t even replicate the things it did well the first time — Negasonic Teenage Warhead, a breakout fan favorite from the previous film, gets about as much screentime as Dopinder, Wade’s getaway driver.
As a particularly salient example of Deadpool 2 feeling like it’s fallen behind its own trend, at one point the movie references Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was already a year old when Deadpool came out. It’s just one of many jokes the movie makes at the expense of other superhero franchises, and it’s a good joke! But it’s also joke I heard six months ago, in Thor: Ragnarok, a movie within Age of Ultron’s own franchise.
Deadpool 2 wants to be the thumb in the eye of the rest of the superhero blockbuster scene — but it’s, again, the sequel to the highest grossing X-Men movie ever made. It is one of those hyper-bankable superhero blockbusters. And it suffers most when trying to stretch its underdog swagger over the bones of a nascent X-Force franchise.