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Deadpool 2 review: storytelling inventiveness smothered by sick burns and bro humour

The first Deadpool movie was something of a paradox: a breath of fresh air in the form of a fart in the audience’s face. The film and its lewd motormouth protagonist were irreverent with a capital “i”, keen to come across as outré and in-your-face. Rambunctious self-awareness was a key factor, loosening the structure of the stock-standard superhero story while simultaneously adhering to its formula.

At one point in the sequel, the protagonist (Ryan Reynolds) announces a “big CGI fight scene coming up” – preempting what turns out to be, indeed, a big CGI fight scene. It’s a classic Deadpool move: pretend observation and satire are the same thing, then expect audiences to be impressed by the acknowledgement of a limitation – rather than disappointed by the presence of one. The first film reminded us that comedy is very, very difficult, so the director and screenwriters worked very, very hard, as if the secret to making people laugh is long hours and overtime.

That work ethic is also present in the sequel, the material as laboriously contrived as a routine from Rodney Dangerfield – Deadpool, aka Wade Wilson, emerging as the zinger-armed comedian’s contemporary equivalent. The two most inventive elements in the first film were closely connected: an engaging freeze-frame opening shot, which revealed the circumstances of a car accident. This incident formed the anchoring event its nonlinear script periodically returned to.

Director David Leitch’s style in Deadpool 2 is more straitlaced, structurally and visually. His previous film was the so-so espionage action movie Atomic Blonde, which indulged in the cliché of matching what would once be considered ‘inappropriate’ music (i.e. sweet songs, soft rock, iconic dance tunes) to violent showdowns. That continues in Deadpool 2, the jukebox rolling out tracks including Tomorrow (from the musical Annie) and If I Could Turn Back Time. It’s hard to imagine any use of this technique eclipsing the opening credits sequence of Zack Snyder’s 2009 epic Watchmen, one of the greatest superhero movies.

Deadpool 2’s most interesting aspects are continually sidelined in favour of bro humour: sick burns; gross-outs; exclamations like ‘what in the ass?’.

Deadpool’s core sentiment was summarised in the key motif of Snyder’s film, and the seminal graphic novel on which it is based: an innocuous cartoon smile with a splodge of blood on it. Deadpool 2’s intro credits parody James Bond musical numbers, suggesting Mel Brooks style intertextuality – superseded by humour less devoted to iconic works than short, quippy style comedy. The plot involves Deadpool becoming a ‘trainee’ X-Men, taking sympathy on a mutant kid, Russell (Julian Dennison) who has difficulty controlling fire that comes out of his hands.

Josh Brolin, who is still in cinemas as Thanos, the villain in Avengers: Infinity War, plays the bad guy here also: a time-traveller intent on killing Russell. Brolin’s celebrity has never been greater, and his acting never so dull: all shit-eating glares and comic scowl. Casting Julian Dennison was a savvy move (with Hunt for the Wilderpeople being the audition tape) but the young actor barely gets handed more than a couple of sentences in a row at a time, never given the space to develop his performance. This is Deadpool’s show through and through.

An early moment, in which Leitch holds the shot as the hero dips in and out of the frame, while an extra runs around on fire, indicates unrealised potential for visual inventiveness. So does a tantalisingly brief comedic scene involving Domino (Zazie Beetz), which in effect argues that luck can be a superpower. Deadpool 2’s most interesting aspects are continually sidelined in favour of bro humour: sick burns; gross-outs; exclamations like ‘what in the ass?’. The franchise’s raison d’etre is to present the illusion that superhero movie fans are being treated to something different – sassy and sui generis – in between servings of boilerplate fare.

There’s some fun to be had in the mayhem, but this is posturing and window dressing. There is also something defeatist about a franchise that acknowledges stereotypes, tropes and clichés, then does little to circumvent them and nothing to counter them. Those partial to the idea of a genuinely edgy and inventive superhero movie should consult Super, director James Gunn’s wickedly kooky 2010 film starring Rainn Wilson as a low-rent, pipe wrench-wielding crank who starts belting lowlifes. It out-Deadpools Deadpool in every way: somehow both blacker and nastier, and sweeter and kinder.

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