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Non-Review Review: Deadpool 2

Like the original, Deadpool 2 is being talked about as a deconstruction or comedy. It’s not really. At least, not primarily.

Deadpool 2 is most effective as a very simple and straightforward superhero narrative with a shade more violence and a dash more awareness. There are laughs in Deadpool 2. And a few truly great jokes. There are even occasionally moments where Deadpool 2 will take a montage or a couple of scenes specifically to set up a later pay-off. However, these are the exception rather than the rule. And it’s no coincidence that this set-up leads to the biggest laugh in the film.

Not basic Cable.

More to the point, Deadpool 2 never opts for a joke over an efficient plot beat. Deadpool 2 never even distorts its plot in order to cram a few more laughs into the runtime. The gags are largely there to decorate the plot, not to direct it. They’re fun, but they aren’t especially brutal or pointed. There’s never a sense that Deadpool 2 exists as a deconstruction or critique of superhero movies, that it has anything especially insightful to say about the genre beyond accepting that modern audiences are genre-literate.

To be clear, this is not an issue with Deadpool 2. In fact, what’s most remarkable about Deadpool 2, particularly in the age of superhero bloat and franchising, is the relative efficiency with which it tells a simple story. For all the jokes about genitalia and all the pop culture references that crowd the narrative, there is more genuine emotion in Deadpool 2 than there is in Avengers: Infinity War. The characters are better defined, their arcs and motivations clearer, their agency repeatedly affirmed. There is an endearing and infectious earnestness beneath the dick jokes.

Just Joshing.

Of course, that’s not to suggest that there aren’t in-jokes aplenty and lots of obscure references. If anything, Deadpool 2 is more esoteric in its targets than the original had been. While complaining about the absurdity of the idea of “luck” as a superpower, Deadpool wonders who would come up with such a ridiculously concept (lending itself to “lazy writing”), lamenting, “He probably can’t even draw feet.” It’s a cliché in comic book criticism to point out Liefeld’s anatomical weaknesses, but it’s something to see it in a blockbuster on this scale.

Similarly, there’s no denying the weirdness of a comic book movie that turns Z-list Uncanny X-Men villain “Black Tom Cassidy” into a recurring punchline with particularly attention to the character’s long-standing comic book relationships. Deadpool 2 is very clearly the product of people who have actually read comic books, or at least disappeared into the black hole of time that is internet comic book commentary. On meeting a particularly iconic comic book character, Deadpool even casually drops issue numbers into his enthusiastic gushing.

Blind Allies.

More than that, Deadpool 2 never loses sight of itself as an X-Men sequel, not just in continuity, but in tone. For a movie that introduces the X-Men as “a dated metaphor for civil rights from the sixties”, there’s something affirming in how confidently Deadpool 2 wears its LGBTQ consciousness on its sleeve. There’s an easy with which Deadpool 2 accepts its queer subtext, from casual references to a “strap-on” to the ease with which Wade accepts Teenage Negasonic Warhead’s girlfriend.

There is a specific measure by which Deadpool 2 is effectively “the best X-Men movie” since X-Men: First Class or even X-Men II, without actually being as good as Logan. This is  most obvious with the way in which the plot finds itself unwinding around the “Essex Home for Mutant Rehabilitation”, both another in-joke and an allusion to the use of conversion therapy in the United States. (Indeed, one of the smaller sharper jabs in Deadpool 2 prefigures this reveal with Deadpool deadpanning about how the rest of the world doesn’t have religion as the United States understands it.)

Future imperfect.

It’s also clear that the production team read their share of Deadpool comics, with plot nods to works like Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, Gerry Duggan’s Deadpool. There’s even a somewhat smirking rejoinder to the oft-repeated idea that Thanos’ comic book motivation is too weird for the big screen, with Deadpool 2 offering a much more convincing take on the title character’s side of that particular warped love triangle.

Even the smaller details hint at four-colour influences. When Deadpool puts together his “forward thinking, progressive” (and also “a little derivative”) counterpoint to the X-Men, the production team are careful to include sly nods to various iterations of the comic book team X-Force. However, the sequence pays off with confirmation that the production team have at least read Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s spectacular X-Force and X-Statix run, which remains one of the best (and most overlooked) X-Men comics ever published.

Team’s up.

Similarly, even casual fans of the X-Men cinematic franchise are liable to notice various references and homages to the film franchise, with the plot often feeling like a much straightforward tribute to the X-Men than the remixed gonzo charm of Noah Hawley’s work on Legion. The choice of Cable as a supporting character obviously evokes the basic plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past, although consciously and deliberately on a smaller and more intimate scale. A snow-bound dam sequence recalls X-Men II. Deadpool himself teases similarities to the plotting of Logan.

None of these elements are strong enough in the mix to overwhelm Deadpool, never allowing the film to get lost in referencing-for-the-sake-of-referencing. To be fair, the film’s one-liners do occasionally fall into the trap of pointing to familiar pieces of pop culture as a joke of themselves, rather than as set-up to a joke. Deadpool inevitably refers to Josh Brolin as “Thanos”, or complains that part of the X-Mansion “smell like Patrick Stewart.” However, these observations are asides rather than the focus of attention.

X-over.

However, Deadpool 2 works best as a straightforward action film with a relatively linear plot and consistent character motivations. Director David Leitch is a fantastic action choreographer, with a relatively clean and uncluttered style that works well. Indeed, the best beats in Deadpool 2 seem effortless, small action sequences that demonstrate Leitch’s skill without distracting from the rest of the film; a sly long take early in the film comes to mind, with even Deadpool himself in awe of the choreographed carnage. “Woah. That guy’s on fire!

Although crammed with superpowers and comic book movie references, Deadpool 2 is much closer to those old-school eighties action movies than it is to something like Black Panther. This is perhaps most obvious in how Leitch chooses to visualise Domino’s luck-driven superpowers, despite Wade’s protestations that it “certainly isn’t very cinematic.” Leitch seems to imagine Domino’s manipulation of luck amounting to the ability to invoke action movie physics in her favour.

Just jump right in.

The plot and arcs in Deadpool 2 over very few surprises, instead providing a framework for a confident and clean execution. The stakes are relatively small, especially for what is framed as a time-travel story. Wade makes a passing reference to Cable as “John Connor”, but the film consciously avoids abstract stakes. Cable is not trying to save half the universe, but instead embarking on a very personal mission. Similarly, Wade’s motivations are not to change the world or affect profound change to the social consciousness, but to save a single life.

This is refreshing, both in the context of a big blockbuster sequel and superhero movies. In the era of shared universes and sequel escalation, it seems like the minimum qualification for claiming the title of “superhero” is to save a small city, possibly destroying most of it in the process. What was most refreshing about Christopher Nolan’s superlative superhero sequel The Dark Knight was that it consciously deescalated the scales of the original film to have the Caped Crusader locked in a philosophical battle. If anything, Deadpool 2 deescalates the scales even further than that.

A little on the nose?

There is something both pragmatic and endearing about this. If anything Infinity War demonstrated the limitations of scale within superhero movies, demonstrating that carnage on the scale depicted in these films can be numbing. It is to the credit of Deadpool 2 that it never actually loses sight of the more intimate stakes. Even a secondary character like Domino gets her own relatively neat arc that pays off in a manner that makes sense. (For all that Domino’s power relies on her lack of agency, she has more than the nominal protagonists of Infinity War.)

In fact, the emotional beats in Deadpool 2 are almost achingly sincere, which they need to be for the story to work. Indeed, the humour in Deadpool 2 seems to exist largely to offset this earnestness, to keep the film balanced and to prevent it from tipping over into seeming too obvious or too melodramatic. The humour punctures its sincerity just enough, deflating the movie’s cornier elements without ever hiding its heart.

Burn with me.

There is something surprisingly genuine lurking beneath this demented R-rated Looney Tunes persona. Deadpool 2 maintains a delicate equilibrium. This is perhaps most obvious in the film’s central plot, which focuses on a young mutant named Russell, played by Julian Dennison and aspiring to the code name “Fire Fist.” When Wade asks why Russell would be tempted by supervillainy, he wryly responds, “You don’t see many plus-size superheroes.”

However, the sarcasm exists to help puncture the film’s more earnest meditations on trauma, anger and cycles of violence. Deadpool 2 is quite explicit about where Russell’s anger comes from, and about what is necessary to help him heel from the wounds that have been inflicted. On paper, this arc is almost cheesy, a collection of stock character motivations and set-ups. However, Deadpool 2 finds a surprising humanity in these very earnest ideas by distracting from them with guarded humour and self-awareness.

Domino effect.

This allows the emotional beats to effectively sneak past the defenses of audiences that have become cynical about such straightforward arcs and ideas. The delicate tightrope that Deadpool 2 walks is perhaps best demonstrated by the decision to play Pat Benatar’s We Belong over the closing credits. It is a ridiculous choice, a gnarly eighties power ballad about eternal and undying love. However, there’s a sense that Deadpool 2 is playing what appears to be irony entirely straight. This requires considerable skill, and Deadpool 2 pulls it off with an impressive dexterity.

As such it’s not a surprise that the flaws with Deadpool 2 largely come from too slavish a devotion to the tropes of narratives like this. Deadpool 2 is incredibly conventional for a movie about a superhero who another describes as “dressed as a sex toy.” Its biggest beats are all carefully choreographed and signposted throughout the run, with many of its storytelling decisions feeling a little obvious. In order to tell its relatively simple story, Deadpool 2 indulges in a number of clichés that a true deconstruction would at least acknowledge or even criticise.

On lock down.

This is most apparent in a story beat that plays before the opening credits, which hinges on a plot development that the movie practically trumpets ahead of time. However, Deadpool 2 plays that beat (and others like it) achingly straight. There is an unearned sense of congratulation in the way that the movie treats the easiest possible storytelling choice, the opening credits teasing, “What the f%$k?” To be fair, there are moments in which the film seems to walk back this laziness, albeit only in the most half-hearted manner.

To pick a spoiler-free example, in that it is something that applies almost universally to all superhero stories, the climax of the film suffers slightly from some tonal issues in which Deadpool decides to save Russell by refusing to allow the teen to take a life. However, in that effort to prevent an execution, Deadpool inevitably stacks up a considerable amount of collateral damage. There is an opportunity for a wry commentary on the conventions of the superhero genre, and its indifference to the lives of working class goons. However, Deadpool 2 opts not to do this.

Cyborg to be bad.

Approaching that confrontation from another angle, there’s also an opportunity to present that sequence from an unrelentingly cynical angle, one perhaps closer to how Deadpool 2 positions itself and how critics perceive it; that it doesn’t matter how many people Deadpool kills so long as he preserves Russell’s innocence in the process. This would certainly be a bleak subversion of the film’s earnest moral arc. However, Deadpool 2 does not commit to that idea either. Instead, Deadpool 2 plays the familiar superhero trope of the expendable henchman entirely straight.

Still, this is indicative of a relatively minor problem. It is perhaps a consequence of the endearing efficiency to Deadpool 2, an unavoidable side effect of the movie’s commitment to serving up a clean and well-constructed action movie, playing these conventions straight rather than trying to be a swerve on them. In Deadpool 2, there is a suggestion that sometimes more of less can somehow be more of itself. Or something.

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