Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: an ordinary man becomes reluctantly imbued with superpowers, but in the process becomes horribly disfigured. Betrayed and damaged, he seeks vengeance on the person who maimed him, is forced to reconcile who he has become, and then saves his girl from the clutches of the villain. In broad strokes, that’s the story of “Deadpool.” It’s a film that desperately wants to upend the tropes of the comic book movie, but perhaps more shocking than anything that comes out of the mouth of its often obnoxious titular hero, is how blandly the picture sticks to the origin story playbook.
To be fair, the structure of the film is mildly clever, at least in the ways that it tries to disguise its familiarity. Things kick off with an action sequence that our narrator and frequently fourth-wall-breaking Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) uses to anchor multiple flashbacks from and get the audience up to speed with his story (in another parallel with your average superhero movie, there is a lot of exposition). The short version: before he donned the red suit, Deadpool was Wade Wilson, a mercenary for hire who took on any dirty job, big or small. But then, his life is upended by two major events: first, he meets and eventually falls in love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), who matches his smart-ass attitude and sexual appetite toe-to-toe; then he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer in every major organ you think of, and given a short time to live.
While Vanessa searches for a Hail Mary cure, Wade mostly gives up, but seeing the pain the love of his life is going through, he decides to secretly undergo a wildly experimental treatment proffered by a shadowy henchman (Jed Rees) working for the even more nefarious Ajax (Ed Skrein). As one would expect from a clandestine operation, the intentions aren’t quite as noble as stated, and Wade winds up a guinea pig for mutant experimentation. The relentlessly wise-cracking Wade quickly makes an enemy out of Ajax, who in turn pushes the tortuous procedures to the extreme, leaving Wade super-powered, but gruesomely deformed, or looking like, as his best bud Weasel (T.J. Miller) describes, “an avocado that had sex with an older avocado.” Unable to face Vanessa looking like a monster, Wade goes on a mission to find Ajax, force him to bring back his Ryan Reynolds good looks, and then kill him. And this propels the linear, flashback-free, second half of the picture, in which Deadpool continues to provide running commentary and snarky asides in a strained attempt to distance himself from the very ordinary superhero movie he’s actually in.
The ambition of director Tim Miller, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Zombieland”) is through script and character, to offer a self-aware and sarcastic send-up of superheroes. Unfortunately, they want it both ways; mocking super hero films and their forced interconnected tie-ins, but embracing all these cliches and formulas regardless. Worse, despite an exhaustingly energetic effort to turn every moment into a three-joke scene, the screenplay often mistakes juvenile attempts at button-pushing provocation for humor. For every smart one-liner that manages to land, many more miss, and it’s often the ones that are wrapped with the most off-color humor. It would be giving those jokes too much credit to say they’re offensive, but while they’re not as noxious as the material Matthew Vaughn aired in the similarly-spirited “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” there is a palpable distaste that lingers through many of the scenes.
This sensation also follows into the film’s regrettable and at times ugly attitude towards women. Often on the receiving end or subject of crude jokes, they are not given much to do and wind up as one-dimensional character signposts (Gina Carano’s Angel Dust has about one or two more lines than Dave Bautista in “Spectre” and her biggest moment centers around her boobs; Wade cements his love for Vanessa through a montage of sex and that’s about as much depth to her character that’s provided). However, things reach a tipping point with an egregious strip club sequence, that as the camera leers at the naked women on stage, is further punctuated with an ill-advised, gross fanboy cameo. It’s an immature, bro-y sequence, that 20th Century Fox and Marvel might have questioned, given an age of heightened sensitivity to depictions of women in film, but the adolescent type of titillation is very on-brand for the R-rated franchise.
Meanwhile, the relationship between “Deadpool” and 20th Century Fox’s "X-Men" series strains between indifference and transparent desperation. Though Miller throws some jabs at the more earnest X-series, it’s not for nothing that Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters serves as the home base for Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who make it their mission to try and guide Deadpool away from his penchant for being nasty, to making nobler choices. Colossus in particular delivers some heartfelt (and hamfisted) pleas to Deadpool to consider a more righteous path. Its comic juxtaposition they’re aiming for, the sincere undercut by the flippant, but his forced speeches still feel like they’re from a different movie and a way to incorporate studio “make a connected universe” feedback. While the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse” sets the timeline for that crew in the 1980s, you can practically hear the gears of Fox executives whirring, trying to figure out how to include some Deadpool sass alongside their flagship mutant title down the line. And if that happens, they can at least feel assured that Reynolds is the big bright spot of this picture, and delivers in the lead role.
Given a second crack at playing Deadpool after the misfired "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," and another chance at a superhero role following the flop of “Green Lantern,” the actor relishes the opportunity to get it right. His Merc With A Mouth lives up to the name, even if the material he’s given often doesn’t. Reynolds’ charm goes a long, long way in keeping “Deadpool” light on its feet, moving along quickly, and delivering some genuine laughs. Yes, “Deadpool” can be entertaining in fits and starts, and after a rocky opening third, manages to find a more solid handling of its irreverent tone in the back-end of the picture. For its many faults, those occasions where it works and the intention and execution line up perfectly, you can see sparks of the truly off-brand film Miller and co. aspired to make.
However, the conventional framework continually prevents “Deadpool” from ever really flying gloriously off the rails. Even the film’s climactic action sequence features a relentlessly dull showdown between Deadpool and Ajax that’s boxed into a feat of CGI-drenched mega-destruction that would make Zack Snyder proud. For all of Miller’s faux middle finger wagging at the comic book establishment, “Deadpool” sometimes functions like a reel or resumé to graduate to the same big leagues he half-pretends he wants no part of. Indeed, instead of reinventing the wheel, “Deadpool” only reinforces the genre expectations of the superhero movie, hoping that a string of profanities, some winks to the camera, and the occasional flash of nudity will distract from what is ultimately, a very by-the-book story. [C]