9:00am PT by Simon Abrams, Alex de Campi
The 'Deadpool 2' Cliches That Aren't Part of the Joke
[This story contains spoilers for Deadpool 2]
The following is a spoiler-intensive conversation about Deadpool 2 — the new R-rated superhero film starring Ryan Reynolds as a sassy, fourth wall-breaking, self-healing potty-mouth mutant. It's the latest installment of a monthly series of chats between between Eisner Award nominee Alex de Campi and Heat Vision contributor Simon Abrams.
The David Leitch-directed sequel includes Deadpool newcomers Josh Brolin as Cable, a gruff military mutant from the future; Julian Dennison as Russell, the teen mutant Cable is out to kill; and Zazie Beetz as the ultralucky Domino.
There are spoilers and discussion of superhero movie fatigue ahead.
Abrams, Nimrod Devotee: Before we watched Deadpool 2, I tweeted a prediction of what the movie would be like. I hastily deleted that tweet because I wanted to maintain some semblance of professionalism. Still, it's worth noting that I didn't expect much from the film, despite kinda liking the first one:
— Zazie Beetz and Josh Brolin will walk away with the film, and Reynolds will do far better than many expect.
— The action sequences will be better than the first one, including at least one great, probably noisy set piece since the film is directed by David Leitch, one half of John Wick's co-directing duo, and the solo helmer of the under-rated soviet-era spy thriller Atomic Blonde.
— Otherwise, more of the same.
— Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh's Hindi-language dub [he voices Deadpool] should be available in all territories.
Almost none of these things happened, except two: 1) I still want to hear Singh —t he guy who chewed up every scene he's in of the controversial Bollywood period romance Padmaavat — dub for Reynolds 2) Reynolds is, in fact, terrific at what he does.
But that second point is what makes me most resentful of Deadpool 2: I was already going to grade this film on a curve — but I still didn't walk away satisfied!
Full disclosure: I used to love the look of Deadpool when I was a kid, though I never really read the X-Force comics. But when I was in first grade, I made a Deadpool-shaped papier-mache mask in art class. And when I was a teenager, I enjoyed comic book writer Frank Tieri's take on the character. And later, in college, I thought that David Lapham and Kyle Baker's more "adult"-oriented Deadpool — he breaks the fourth wall because he's probably schizophrenic — was OK.
But holy crap, I walked away from Deadpool 2 feeling angry at Reynolds — a comedic actor whose work I've enjoyed since Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place — just because he did his job too well: giving emotional resonance to a lot of lousy ideas (which he co-wrote and co-produced) that are conceived without much inspiration.
I think the word "inspiration" is key because I spent much of Deadpool 2 worrying that I was not meeting this film at its level. I kept thinking, "This is as good as this sort of material gets" — until Reynolds punched a bag of cocaine into his face and then made spirit fingers/jazz hands. Then he paused with great comedic effect after Wade "Deadpool" Wilson is shot to bits by Brolin's dour future mercenary Cable. Reynolds even had great chemistry/banter with Brolin in that one scene where Wilson hugs Cable, and then notes that they're dick to dick, which understandably leads Cable to reciprocate by poking an off-camera dagger into Wilson's nuts. In these moments, I knew exactly why I disliked Deadpool 2: Nobody was working as hard as Reynolds to sell me this rancid bill of goods, and that includes the otherwise good Brolin, Beetz, Dennison and Eddie Marsan.
At this point, I'll let you explain why the film's tedious shift toward semi-serious melodrama doesn't work (because I agree with you, and think you have a great point). And I'll do it with a wink because breaking the fourth wall, and being preciously "exhausting," as one character describes Wilson, is all part of the Deadpool 2 experience. Take it away, de Campi!
De Campi, Anarchist Aficionado: I was so excited to see this film. Do you remember? Finally we were seeing something I wanted to see! And I love Reynolds as a comedy actor. I’ve loved him since Blade: Trinity, which is up there with Bad Boys 2 and Crank in terms of Terrible Films I Adore. I want Reynolds' films to be great, because he is incredibly talented and makes things more fun whenever he shows up. But dear God in heaven, can we please have a superhero film that’s not built on the backs of dead girlfriends and daddy issues?
I’m done. I’m done with superhero films at this point. All I wanted was a big, dumb frat-boy movie with Reynolds being funny and some good fight scenes. And what I got was an X-Men movie by stealth with Emotional Resonance (tm), boring, badly paced fights, and maybe one joke in 15 landing. Oh and the girlfriend killed in the first five minutes. And sure, Zazie Beetz was in it (for about a half-hour), and she was great. But, hello, male filmmakers: Throwing in a female supporting character does not make it OK for you to make the white male hero’s character actualization based on damage to female bodies (and/or black bodies, and/or queer bodies). Stop it. You’re not being daring, you’re just being puerile and lazy. You know what’s daring? Writing an established relationship where the woman is not damselled. Yeah, it’s HARD, isn’t it? But look at 1934's The Thin Man, which is one of the greatest comedies of all time: Nick and Nora start off the film happily married, continue the film happy, and end it happily married! And their banter is what makes the film. If they did that 80 years ago, you can do this now, folks. I mean, there is the slight issue that Reynolds and Morena Baccarin have zero comedic chemistry onscreen but hey, you cast it, you deal with it.
I have to admit I haven’t seen a lot of the recent superhero films. There are just too many, too often. Same with Star Wars, tbh — Han Solo is my favorite Star Wars character and I can’t even motivate myself to see that film because didn’t I just see a Star Wars film? I passed on Infinity War because it’s too long, has too many characters, and fave characters die at the end (yeah, I know, one of my most-loved films is Nashville, STFU).
But here’s the thing: The superhero films that have really resonated with female viewers have either starred women (Wonder Woman), or been completely without dead love interests or daddy issues. We all know that the reason Cap: Winter Soldier did so well with female viewers is 1) great fight scenes and 2) because the traditional role of the damselled girlfriend actually went to a male character (Bucky) who was, because male, then allowed to come back stronger and save the hero, right? That was radical and interesting in the context of these films. Similarly in Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, Pepper is damselled but she comes back stronger, a main character/superhero in her own right, and saves Tony. In Black Panther, the female co-leads all had equal or greater screen time than Chadwick Bozeman, and storylines that gave them actual agency beyond being love interests, and ladies to be imperiled to advance the plot.
The other thing I’m 100 percent done with is screenwriters mining my childhood for brownie points rather than working to create a compelling story. My enjoyment of this film shouldn’t be predicated on getting who Shatterstar is, and understanding jokes about Rob Liefeld’s inability to draw feet, yet here we are. That’s why so many of Deadpool 2’s jokes don’t land: They’re not funny. They’re just about the film cozying up to you and trying to dole out little dopamine hits of “Ooh, I understood that reference!” You can’t just set the Content Cannon to "Ready Player One” and batter the audience into submission with Alpha Flight jokes and Yu-Gi-Oh references. That’s not writing!
Deadpool was a genuine lowbrow delight. But Deadpool 2 feels like Marvel Studios got its claws into it as a potential launch pad for other things. There’s a line near the end where Baccarin's Dead Girlfriend tells Wade he can’t join her in heaven yet because “These people need you,” and I legit thought they were about to pan over to Ike Perlmutter and Kevin Feige like “Yo.” Alas, it was only a pan to Wade’s “found family” in the film. Ah, man, I can’t get over how much I wanted this film to be good, but ugh. I’m tired. The massive hype of these films, the poor writing, the dull, dull fights and then the fact that it always just ends up a bunch of white men doing stuff, with token diverse supporting characters. I’m done giving you folks money.
Abrams: I'm with ya. The line in Deadpool 2 about "bad writing," and about how "exhausting" it is to be around Deadpool — as he's conceived in these films — set me off. A friend of mine argued that the dead girlfriend subplot wasn't meant to be taken so seriously. But, c'mon, so much of the plot relied on Wilson's personal growth, no matter how adolescent/tongue in cheek the attendant one-liners may be. What's next, the plot is only incidental? Then why have one at all? If Deadpool 2 is a joke delivery system, one with a rapid-fire, Naked Gun pace of gags, then how does one excuse the fact that only one in 15 jokes land? Applauding a movie with 14 dud jokes in about three minutes is a bit like fondling a treadmill, and arguing that the burn marks on your face aren't as bad as they look.
Which leads me to your talking point about being done with superhero films. I used to sneer at film critics who wrote about feeling exhausted by these films. But it's a crisis-intensive, never-ending cycle of emotionally and humorously lightweight entertainment. And after a while, I came to realize: Just because you and I expect — or maybe just hope — for more from these films doesn't mean we have to feel bad for disliking them. People who don't write about these films understandably don't care about this kind of thing, but I have to agree with Bilge Ebiri when he argues, "For the moviegoer — or the film critic — who dutifully trudges out to these pictures all year long, the effect is a seemingly ceaseless, soul-eating series of global and cosmic calamities that mostly stopped being bracing or suspenseful or even all that interesting some time ago."
Simply copying and pasting that quote makes me feel defensive, like I'm the mean-spirited hater who's overthinking it, overanalyzing, oversimplifying, etc. Many critics are even, by this point, downright resentful of the same blockbuster-loving readers that they rely on for feedback. Because who wants to be constantly dismissed for picking on a megaproduction that was made by people with more money than God, and have little need and less concern for our criticism? Who wants to criticize films that, after a while, start to feel critic proof?
Deadpool 2 isn't as bad as the Marvel movies have gotten lately, but it bored into my head with its consistent mediocrity. And for two hours, I felt like a drunk stand-up comedian was wiggling his fingers in front of my face, and boasting about how he's not touching me, he's not touching me. This guy used to be funny, but his act sucks now, and he's feeding off of the energy of the room, who are — like the auditoriumful of moviegoers at last week's screening — totally into his new loutish shtick. So for a while, I felt like I had been taken hostage, like I had to just smile politely and then grade this childishly ineffective button-pushing act on a curve.
Then I remembered that I liked Deadpool, and thought "No, no, it's the children who are wrong," I mean, "No, no, this movie is just bad, and I need to focus on accounting for the many ways that it is bad." So here we are.
Can we talk about the lousy fight scenes? And the stuff about how, as you said, a good chunk of the jokes rely implicitly on comics fans' knowledge of super tropes, and fan-service-y Easter Eggs, like DP's momentarily grey costume, the taxi cab's Alpha Flight ad and the orphanage's M-Day posters?
De Campi: You know, when you’re a woman in a male-dominated industry, like comics, the first thing the harasser dudes say to you when you call them on their behavior is, “Can’t you take a joke?” Oh, the dead girlfriend’s a joke, what’s the matter, Alex, can’t you take a joke? Nah. And I especially don’t have to pay you money for the joke. But then it’s like the film tries to talk out of both sides of its mouth at once, since the ha-ha dead girl joke is also the underpinning of the entire film’s emotional arc: Deadpool’s search for redemption, in the person of a young mutant with anger issues who is gratingly unlikable, and whose own emotional arc also falls flat. But enough about that. Let’s talk about fight scenes and CGI.
Look, there’s no nice way to say this: The film looks cheap. The lighting is rough as old boots, the costumes and makeup look bargain basement, the CGI is barely above “mobile gaming” standard, and just... Colossus. Colossus doesn’t work. Every time he’s onscreen, I’m not thinking, “Wow, cool," I’m thinking, “Eesh, that looks bad.” Beyond that, the fights are dull, with bizarre pacing that involves stopping in the middle for no reason. The fight choreography is nonexistent, which is a surprise, coming from one of the John Wick guys. It seems the directors can’t manage the amount of characters they have in the fights that are scripted. Deadpool had great fight scenes; Deadpool 2 doesn’t have a single memorable one. There’s not one shot I’d steal. And hey, it’s fine to not have a big budget. Then you just focus on doing simple things well, rather than big things very badly. I learned this lesson shooting music videos, and believe me, it’s the most important lesson in the business.
There’s also a lot of failures of internal logic in the film. On the one hand, it’s Deadpool, who cares. On the other hand, the one scene where I laughed until I cried was the baby-legs scene, itself a derivative of one of Deadpool’s best gags. But why, when Deadpool blew himself up early in the film and woke up in the X-Mansion, did he not have baby appendages? And when everyone starts going back and forth in time near the end, there’s only ever one of that person. So Deadpool goes back in time to fix a mistake by Past Deadpool, but it’s like Past Deadpool vanishes while Time Traveling Deadpool steps into the scene (except for once). Why aren’t both Deadpools in the scene? It would have been funnier, and then maybe they could have cut some time off that lingering and not-funny extended death scene.
I’m still mad at this movie, Simon. I feel like they had to work really hard to make it this mediocre, squandering one of Hollywood’s best comedy-action talents in the process.
Abrams: Yes, I'm increasingly upset about the sheer laziness of Deadpool 2's jokes and wink-wink crassness. Because, like we said after we saw the movie, this kind of nerd-pandering shouldn't be so nerve-shredding. We are the target audience. We know who Deadpool creator Rob Liefeld is, and even get the in-joke about how he can never draw feet well. But do you remember when Shrek was a huge deal, and many critics understandably complained that its success established a trend for the use of pop culture references as punchlines? It's the same problem that many people (including me) have with Family Guy's frat-guy gags, only their jokes hit two out of 15 times, despite being so proudly retrograde that they make you not want to wade through the other 13.
Deadpool 2 has the same problem: So many of the jokes conclude where they should develop. I didn't even like the baby-legs joke because I thought that routine didn't work as a sight gag, despite the fact that it never seems to end. As if the very idea of a computer-generated baby dick is hee-larious. The Basic Instinct reference that's embedded in this routine is bad, but the fact that one character calls attention to it is even worse. Please stop nudging me, movie, I get the joke, I just don't think you're good at telling it.
Same thing with the action set pieces. Like you, I was disappointed by the fight scenes given how cluttered and busy they were. CGI Colossus was bad, but I expected that after the first film. Juggernaut was worse, I think, since he looked like he came right out of the Marvel video game advert that preceded our advanced screening. I'm also 100 percent with you about how the film has too many supporting characters, and therefore too many subthreads to cross-cut between during the big fight scenes. That said: I laughed during the terrible "Thunderstruck" montage, where a handful of established X-Force members die horrible, premature deaths. That was funny. But, well, one in 15, right?
A fun parlor game for you: What comes next for the R-rated super-film now that Wolverine's dead, and Deadpool's already had one sequel? There are bound to be more R-rated Marvel films after Deadpool 2 rakes in a ton of booty. Also, they practically have a mandate to make more of these things now that Logan's Beyond-Thunderdome-Meets-Mark-Millar script got an Oscar nomination. Will Marvel/20th Century Fox stick with soft-R mutie stories or expand to the superhero universe? Maybe we'll get a Foolkiller story, or even a Death's Head II programmer (stop rolling your eyes, I can see it through the internet). Or, and maybe this is a better question: Will more ever really mean more in these films? Because these films keep attracting talented performers, directors, screenwriters, etc. But lately, nothing extraordinary seems to come of it.
De Campi: Oh, please, the filmmakers have already teased an X-Force movie. This wasn’t a sequel so much as it was a platform, and, boy, did it feel like it. I think what I mourn most about Deadpool 2 versus Deadpool was that I was hoping for a small, focused movie with a few characters that was heavy on the funny and the action. Instead, I got another bloated Marvel film with 800 characters bouncing in and out of the story too fast for me to care.
I have this thing I call The Unified Theory of John Cassavetes: Certain filmmakers do a difficult thing so well, they make it look effortless. Think about Johnny in the 1970s, running around shooting pretty, well-framed handheld in New York with Ben Gazzara and his pals improvising away. Now think about all the terrible, terrible American indie films that style spawned. Not every filmmaker is Ryan Coogler, or the Russos/Markus & McFeely, able to juggle 80 hojillion characters and make it look easy.
I just wanted to trim so much fat off of Deadpool 2. The R-rated superhero films that work are small, focused films, allowed to play in their own little fenced-off playground. But Deadpool 2 tried to go big, and that’s where it suffers: It tries to do too many things, too quickly, and in the end doesn’t do any of them well.