There is a joke in Deadpool 2 that’s been given away in the trailers but still slays in the finished film. By the time it is spoken, Josh Brolin’s Cable, a super soldier from the future who appears to be half-Rambo and half-T-800, has given Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson a thorough beating. In the bowels of a super-prison, Cable’s traveled back in time to our present in order to kill a 14-year-old boy named Russell (Hunt for Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison). Russell has dreams of being the first plus-sized superhero, but according to Cable, he grows up to be a mass-killer who must be stopped, and the time traveler will happily rip Wade’s head off to prevent this grim destiny.
Needless to say it should be overbearingly bleak, but that tension turns into hysteria on a dime when Reynolds cracks, “So dark. Are you sure you’re not from the DC Universe?” It’s a pitch perfect punchline, showcasing again Deadpool’s ability to break the fourth-wall and wink at an audience. An audience who, unlike all other goody two-shoes in capes and cowls, Deadpool knows is watching. In fact, he has a lot of fun at DC (or rather Warner Brothers’ DC Extended Universe) and Marvel Studios’ expense throughout the picture in many one-liners too amusing to give away. And yet, the sarcasm dripping from Deadpool’s self-aware snark belies why Deadpool 2 is such a subversive good time: It is an implicit rejoinder to the false dichotomy of our current superhero cinema landscape; a defiant raised eyebrow toward the idea there’s some binary choice between “Marvel or DC.” Light and dark.
Like everything else about Deadpool 2, this approach has callow cynicism written on its sleeve. Even more flippant and morally detached from sentiment than the first film, it plays faster and looser with narrative expectation, as well as what is considered good form in superhero cinema. As such, it is yet another reminder as to why the Disney-Fox deal is a bad idea for filmmakers and film lovers alike. Because even in the narrow prism of superhero tentpoles, Deadpool 2 refreshingly shouts, with four-letter words aplenty, that there is more to cinema than one-size-fits-all blockbuster boilerplate.
Essentially much of the humor in Deadpool 2 is derived from the general accepted wisdom that superhero movies tend to be one of a few things. Lighthearted, faux-earnest, and almost whimsical Marvel Studios romps that all look and play in similar fashion, or the “grim and gritty” aesthetic that Warner Bros. really only embraced for three and a half films (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, and a half-aborted Justice League). In actuality, Warner Bros. has moved away from that approach and has had some success too. But this perception that superhero movies have to be an “either/or” approach is a source of endless humor in Deadpool 2, because it breaks away from not only those limiting parameters, but those that theoretically should be associated with its own franchise following the first Deadpool and the larger “X-Men Movie Universe” at 20th Century Fox.
Deadpool 2 is visibly and tonally a different animal from the first film. Whereas most superhero sequels hew closer to an established style, which increasingly becomes a blur within a shared universe’s often numbing similarities, Deadpool 2 is visually far more stylish and funereal than the first film. And yet, it’s never dour either. Rather than embracing the bitterly sour “darkness” that is part and parcel for a character like Cable, who came out of the “grimdark” era of 1990s comic books, the film creates a wholly unique sensibility that is informed by its new director David Leitch. By taking over the directorial reins from Tim Miller, a noticeable shift in tone is omnipresent in Leitch’s aesthetic.
The story goes in generally darker directions, without being unto itself any less funny or sardonic. In fact, I’d wager Deadpool 2 is more smugly self-aware and fourth-wall breaking than the first movie. But Leitch’s noirish sensibilities of cold, sterile shadows and high-contrast lighting, as seen in the first John Wick and Atomic Blonde, make Deadpool 2 a different beast from really all other superhero movies. This means rather than existing as an episode in a shared serial, it sinks or swims on its own merits. And it swims quite well, if with an admittedly slighter emotional investment than the first picture.
In this context, it is also closer to the excess of 1990s comic books. It introduces a proto-version of the “X-Force” (a harder edged, mercenary off-shoot of the X-Men) while spending some quality time at Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. In its own way, it’s more evocative of how the X-Men are depicted in comics than any X-film before it, and yet it leaves just enough breadcrumbs to clearly be set in the same universe as X-Men: Days of Future Past and Logan. Deadpool 2 doesn’t sweat about making its homages some setup for a sequel, or part of a smooth continuity, but uses the “shared universe” angle as a resource for its own singular perch in superhero cinema: sophisticated lowbrow gags that are cognizant of an audience watching.
Admittedly, if you did not care for the first Deadpool, there might not be more here to win you over. But that is because Reynolds keeps his peculiar personal stamp on it. And that is why it’d be such a shame if the Disney-Fox deal kills it.
Deadpool 2, like its predecessor, is something increasingly novel among superhero blockbusters: original and derived of its creators’ personalities. You can see both Reynolds and Leitch’s fingerprints all over it, even while it finds a way to honor X-Men comic book lore perhaps more than any Fox film before it. In that sense, it also shows another way alien to Disney’s franchise factory at Marvel Studios. Kevin Feige is a brilliant man who has successfully built something unparalleled in moviemaking, but within his system it is hard for a film with as much personality as Deadpool 2 to be created. For every James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy or Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther… there is most of the remaining Marvel Studios output.
While the house Feige and Disney built is worthy of praise (to the tune of billions of dollars), it is not the only way to make a superhero movie. In fact, it is quite limiting to imagine a future where all Marvel superheroes look like that. It’s this kind of hegemonic conformity that Deadpool—and by extension Ryan Reynolds—so loathes and enjoys poking in the eye in. And that foulmouthed, class clown approach will never be fully welcomed at Marvel Studios. Whatever Feige and Disney CEO Bob Iger ultimately decide if/when the Disney-Fox deal goes through, there will be some conforming where something as crude and mocking, as Deadpool 2 would be unwelcome and minimized.
Deadpool 2 nor its predecessor would exist without Disney and Marvel Studios creating a market where audiences were ready to try any superhero craze. But Deadpool, Logan, and now Deadpool 2’s continued, and distinctly different flavors are innovating in a different way. It is highly probable Deadpool’s R-rated success paved the way for another ‘90s icon like Deadpool and Cable coming to the big screen with this year’s Venom at Sony. Similarly, Deadpool’s ingenuity helped give Fox the confidence to let Logan be its own, nihilistic monster.
Apparently, this approach that favors filmmakers’ differences, instead of an instigating a larger sameness, is also dripping over to Warner Bros., who insists they’re looking to make more director-based comic book movies. Considering they’ve since signed up Ava DuVernay and Steven Spielberg to DC-adjacent movies, they appear to be standing by that claim.
Competition brings out the best in the marketplace. That can apply to smaller prestige labels like Fox Searchlight, who unlike Disney’s nearly defunct Touchstone Pictures is going strong, producing two of last year’s Oscar darlings, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And it applies to superhero movies too. Deadpool 2 is a delicious sophomore effort filled with sophomore humor—a well-read and clever sophomore who’ll find a broad audience, including among comic fans, that will benefit from something unlike the three other Disney superhero movies released this year.
Further Reynolds has hinted he’d love to do something even more outside the box with Deadpool 3, indicating he’d be curious to see if they could make the character work as a low budget indie styled “Sundance” movie. That sounds far more intriguing than seeing the Merc with a Mouth teaming up with Spider-Man in Avengers 5.
It’d be a shame to lose all this potential ingenuity so Wade would do what he so clearly fights against in Deadpool 2: join a team that toes the company line.