More than half a century ago, in the scorchingly bleak Friz Freleng short “Show Biz Bugs,” that frustrated show-fowl Daffy Duck finally finds a way to win over an indifferent audience. Standing center stage, he gulps down gasoline, nitroglycerin, Uranium 238, and then — after a vigorous bout of shaking — a lit match. He explodes, and the crowd does, too — but they do so in the good way. They roar their approval.
Problem is, the duck’s ghost-angel notes, “You can only do it once.”
The endlessly yammering superhero Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) stages for himself a similar suicide in the opening moments of the second movie to bear his name. The setup is elaborate, involving explosive barrels, a slow-mo match toss and an ironic Air Supply music ballad. But Deadpool’s mutant power makes him essentially unkillable: In the first film, he shatters his hands punching the X-Man Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and grows new ones by the next fight. That means that Deadpool killing himself has none of the rawness or terror of Daffy Duck doing the same. Unlike Daffy, he can pull the trick again, as often as he wants, and audiences know this. Or they should: For Deadpool 2 to approach coherence, you must have seen Deadpool, Logan, a couple of X-Men, and maintain a working knowledge of the corporate and contractual absurdities that make Deadpool’s Marvel Universe distinct from the X-Men’s and both distinct from the Avengers’. If you’ve ever feared, watching the superhero movies, that there might be a test later, I have to warn you: This is it.
Several minutes later, we see Deadpool jaunt across the world, slaughtering interchangeable villains in many countries, each shot of this montage an elaborate, frenetic long take that finds the hero stabbing and shooting, slicing off heads and arms and eventually just cold chainsawing some mooks. He notes, in narration, that everyone watching must be thinking that we’re glad that we didn’t bring the kids to this movie. The line lands with a thud — it’s a preening joke, an "ain’t I a stinker?" joke, and its premise is based on a misapprehension. Deadpool, or at least the filmmakers, actually think someone might find all the carnage and balls jokes shocking. It’s not even as harrowing as Looney Tunes. When the kids do see it, they’ll roar undisturbed.
Look, you probably know already whether you’re going to see Deadpool 2. If you are, the question is simply how much you should invest in it. Full-price opening night? Weeknight Moviepass? Streaming in three months? At a cousin’s house this Thanksgiving, as the kiddos reenact the kills? Here’s what you need to know: This is less Deadpool 2 than Deadpool Squared, a studio and its star (Reynolds is credited as co-writer) committing to hyper-violent self-referential comic-book buffoonery. They’ve crafted both an extravagant franchise blockbuster and its own Mad Magazine parody. Almost everything you either loved or gritted at in the original is here expanded, refined, sometimes even invigorated. Its giddier in its mayhem, more gratuitous in its splatter, more confident in its mixing comedy and superhero pathos. The fights are more elaborate but somehow less engaging, with much of the chump-killing too fast to follow, despite David Leitch, the co-director of John Wick, serving as director. The jokes, though, are better, the relationships more interesting, the surprises more surprising.
It’s so meta that Lego Deadpool would be redundant. Reviewing the first Deadpool, I carped that the star, an exuberant Reynolds puttied over with fake burn scars, is his series’ own RiffTrax, pattering right over the plot’s contrivances. This time Deadpool is even Deadpooler, cracking on his own box-office receipts, the deaths in Logan, the dopiest twist in Batman v Superman, the fact that Josh Brolin, who plays the derivative time-traveling killer Cable, also played Thanos in Infinity War. The conversation about Deadpool 2 is baked right into the movie, with Reynolds cracking every joke that Marvelphiles might normally tweet themselves. Again, Deadpool even acknowledges his own film’s deficiencies. “That’s just lazy writing!” Deadpool exclaims after learning of one arbitrary complication. That’s true, but it’s also a cheap way of asking us to let the production off the hook. I can understand why fans might laugh, but I’m obliged to ask: Wouldn’t less lazy writing without a self-exonerating joke prove more satisfying?
The difference between Deadpool’s parody of itself and what Mel Brooks or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker might have done is that, for all its (often funny!) irreverence, Deadpool never dares assail the one thing its creators and fans truly hold sacred: the high seriousness of superhero movies. That opening suicide attempt is inspired, in a flashback we see just a few minutes later, by the corniest dude-hero motivator this side of seeing his partner gunned down by a drug kingpin. (I’m not going to spell it out, exactly, because you people take this spoiler stuff way too seriously.) That’s followed by a James Bond-parodying title sequence with jokes that are based on the assumption that we can’t believe what we’ve just seen — but we’ve seen it dozens of times before, in dozens of movies. The jolt is not that it happens but that a movie that carries itself like the smartest, most cutting critic of pop-culture cliche asks us to invest in the oldest and cheapest.
Leitch’s film is entirely earnest in its emotions, even saddling the hero with a troubled teen to mentor. Sometimes the most hilarious thing in the movie is its baffling morality. Packing superweapons and rock-hard abs, Cable has journeyed to our present from his future to murder the young mutant (Julian Dennison) who will one day kill Cable’s family. (Deadpool shrugs at this premise’s staleness by offering a Terminator joke.) Our hero, of course, can’t abide the death of a teenager, so he strikes a deal with Cable: If 'Pool can prevent the kid from taking his first life, Cable will back off.
After some inspired nonsense (surprise cameos; a strong team-building sequence; an ace comic set piece involving a Fast & Furious-style heist plan; a dada bit of healing-factor body horror/humor), Cable and Deadpool find the kid and, to prevent his own first kill, slaughter dude after dude themselves. They’re joined in this by winning newbie Domino (Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz, who deserves much more screen time). Here’s death to prevent death, death as punchline and dance sequence, death without consequence even as the script insists nothing could matter more. It’s telling that the hero who never shuts up doesn’t dare joke about the contradiction; rather than face its own moral incoherence, Deadpool 2 blinks.