For two decades, Ryan Reynolds was on the brink of entering Hollywood’s big-stars club, but every attempt ended in rejection or disappointment. He began his career as a child actor in the early 1990s in the Canadian television series “Hillside,” and hasn’t stopped working since. He’s had a host of opportunities to break through, even being awarded People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” title, which is an entry ticket for screen roles in Hollywood. He hit his peak playing the lead in “Green Lantern,” based on the DC comic book of the same name, but that also became the most spectacular failure on his resume. And then came “Deadpool.”
Reynold’s efforts to enter the first rank of superhero stars focused on a marginal character named Deadpool, whom he played in the 2009 film “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” For years he pushed for an independent movie to be made about the character. His persistence paid off, but still stung by the “Green Lantern” experience, Reynolds also insisted on producing the movie. The first “Deadpool” film was released just two years ago, with few expectations, by 20th Century Fox. But the picture outdid DC’s “Suicide Squad” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” at the box office, to become one of the major surprises of 2016.
“Deadpool” was made on a very small budget for a superhero film: only $58 million, or one-seventh of the budget for this year’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” It also deliberately passed up the truly big audience – children and teens – by joyfully adopting an R rating (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). And in fact, the witty script and the charismatic star found viewers aplenty.
Box office windfall
Exaggerated and notably violent satire of a genre that was beginning to pall on viewers was exactly what adult audiences were looking for in an era in which superheroes lurk in every movie theater. The murderous mercenary raked in $800 million and two Golden Globe nominations, in the picture and actor categories.
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Immediately after the box office windfall, work began on “Deadpool 2.” Fox wanted to keep the winning team, but a clash between the big star and the director, Tim Miller, turned out to be unresolvable. Unsurprisingly, Reynolds won the day, and along the way took advantage of the opportunity to take over the franchise. If the first “Deadpool” was a movie starring Ryan Reynolds, “Deadpool 2” is a Ryan Reynolds movie.
To begin with, Reynolds got a director with a spirit similar to his own, David Leitch, who’s known for being the co-director of the 2014 action film “John Wick” and for directing “Atomic Blonde,” starring Charlize Theron. In his upgraded status, Reynolds also asked for and was given veto power over casting and production. More important, he joined the scriptwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the duo who wrote the first “Deadpool.” In contrast to Miller, Reynolds believed there should be more comedy than action, and that visual effects are secondary to a focus on battering and battered bodies. With Leitch as director, he got the perfect opportunity to translate his ideas into action.
The plot begins more or less where the first movie ended. Deadpool, aka Wade Wilson, has reached the end of his tether and is more suicidal than ever. To avoid spoilers, we’ll skip the background that brings him to this point, but suffice it to say that suicide is a true challenge for a person whose superhero status prevents him from dying. The metallic Colossus comes back to life to try once again to recruit him to the X-Men, and this time Wilson agrees. But his efforts to seriously adopt the values of Prof. Xavier, particularly the commandment not to kill, fail quickly and quite comically. He finds himself in a special prison for mutants, sharing a cell with Russell (Julian Dennison), a kid capable of shooting fire.
Russell views Wilson as a father figure, even though the latter has no interest in assuming that role. The story grows complicated with the appearance of the villain Cable (Josh Brolin), a warrior from the future who has come back in time in order to liquidate Russell. The pursuit makes Wilson reconsider his relations with the boy and even to try to found a team called X-Force as an alternative to the self-righteous group known as X-Men.
Perspiring with effort
“Deadpool 2” suffers palpably, even if not critically, from the loss of the wow effect. The element of surprise was a significant element of the first movie. It was a fully aware, provocative departure from everything we’d become used to seeing in the superhero films that have dominated Hollywood since the first “X-Men” movie in 2000. The rapacious violence, dubious morality and, above all, the satire of the genre are all there in the sequel, too, and in even larger doses, but the feeling of something fresh and original can’t be replicated. To compensate for this, “Deadpool 2,” expectedly, focuses on and expands the details that thrilled viewers in the earlier movie.
The new picture raises the bar of the comedy, as Reynolds wanted. Almost every sentence is a super-self-aware joke at the expense of comic books, Hollywood, pop culture in general and Ryan Reynolds in particular. The number of times that Deadpool breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience soars exponentially. The physical and sexual humor also ratchets up dramatically, and in inverse proportion to its sophistication. The movie certainly perspires with effort, but when the characters spout jokes a mile a minute, enough of them work on at least some of the viewers all of the time to achieve the desired effect. And when Deadpool, looking straight into the camera, laughs at the movie himself, he succeeds in neutralizing all criticism in advance.
Leitch, who has had an unusual career – from stuntman to director – once more displays his fondness for the choreography of the body at the expense of visual pyrotechnics. With a hero like Deadpool, who’s capable of absorbing everything, and with a free hand when it comes to violence, Leitch is like an action director in a candy store.
The comedy perhaps assumes greater weight than the director is accustomed to, but Leitch ensures that the violence and blood are upgraded in a way that wouldn’t shame the “Chainsaw” movies. Fans of visual effects needn’t expect to be excited by the film, because that’s not where the investment went. The action is relatively meager, but reaches its peak when it dovetails with the comedic moments. The fusion of violence and comedy is so off the wall, that Deadpool stops shocking us and becomes a kind of flesh-and-blood Bugs Bunny. One X-Force scene, a blood-drenched parody, is alone reason enough to see the movie.
Like the problem with the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, the origin of the large disparity between the two films lies in the loss of the filmmakers’ already limited freedom. “Deadpool” was made by a big Hollywood studio, but because no great expectations were held out for it, the studio left the creative team pretty much to its own devices. However, when the movie became a success story and it emerged that there’s an adult audience that craves a superhero with a dirty mouth and a murderous bent, 20th Century Fox started to intervene much more directly. The subversive hero was already a brand. Since then, Fox was acquired by Disney, and now the universes of Marvel and X-Man belong to the same corporate empire.
It’s not clear whether the universes will be merged, but in the meantime “Deadpool” remains an autonomous project on the outskirts of the “X-Men” universe, like a hidden room in a video rental store. But the host of new buddies that Deadpool adopts in the movie clearly creates a possible foundation for an R-rated mini-universe. That’s the background for the appearance of the X-Force, which is likely to be expanded in the next “Deadpool” movie. Although most of the new pals are there only to act as a punchline, there’s one top-notch acquisition in the person of the character Domino (Zazie Beetz, “Atlanta”), who claims that her super-force ability lies in her talent for manipulating luck.
Despite everything, it looks as though “Deadpool” – the character and also the movie franchise – has ascended to a new and higher level. The 2016 film suffered from the widespread problem of superheroes, whose first picture comes down to a detailed exposition of the tortuous path by which they became who they are. Now, between one joke and the next, Wilson, in the second movie, seems to be doing something with himself. He’s forced to recognize the fact that he’s stuck with humans and that he has the power to foment change. That’s not much, but it’s progress, and it adds interest. Reynolds, too, moves up a notch as a superhero. As producer and dominant writer, in addition to playing the lead role, Reynolds becomes Deadpool in the full sense of the word. From Spiderman to Batman, the suits of superheroes, like cemeteries, are filled with people who were irreplaceable. There are few cases in which star and superhero merged in the popular image into one entity, like Christopher Reeve and Superman. Reynolds and Deadpool might become something similar, and it’s understandable why.