I thought I had a firm idea of what the newest 20th Century Fox superhero film would be like based on the trailer or, rather, a specific scene from it. At the end of one of them, which features prolonged rap music and bad typeface, T.J. Miller's character tells the disfigured Ryan Reynolds what he looks like, rattling off clearly improvised joke-like insults, the kind found in that species of comedy where nobody really had a written script going in so they just hired a bunch of funny people to make it up on the set. In other words, I vividly imagined the pitch meeting: "Kids like those 'Hangover' movies, don't they? Let's make a 'Hangover' movie with superheroes! Kids love them, too!"
And honestly, that is probably how that pitch meeting went. While this film would've been risky 10 years ago, it seems like an ATM now: R-rated comedy meets a superhero film. And that was why I had very, very low expectations for the film, which I figured would be an awkward interplay that shuffled between improvisational "comedy" scenes and mindlessly busy CGI action sequences for that all-too-boring subgenre of superhero movies: the origin story. What makes "Deadpool" work is that it transcends these genre trappings with good writing, a strong and charismatic lead performance, and frankly excellent direction from first-timer Tim Miller.
"Deadpool" opens in media res with a masterful(ly computer-generated) opening shot that sets its tone: a "Matrix"-like freeze frame of a car in mid-collision as the self-referential credits play (Ryan Reynolds is credited as "God's Perfect Idiot"). It all elicited an eye roll from me instead of a laugh, but the movie gets better from there as what follows is a violent and often very funny joyride of how Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) transforms from a snide and provocative mercenary to a snide and provocative superhero named Deadpool via a desperate attempt to cure his cancer gone wrong. I won't go too into detail for fear of spoilers, but let's just say the main thrust of the plot is that he becomes physically disfigured to the point that he can't confront the love of his life (Morena Baccarin) and he must find the Bad Guy (Ed Skrein) who destroyed him (and gave him his powers) to cure him.
That story may be the key to caring for the Deadpool character at all as his superhero powers basically make him immortal: He can heal from bullet wounds and severed limbs. The main problem with Superman is that you never really felt he had anything at stake because he can destroy anything, not be destroyed by anything else, and he looks like Henry Cavill.
Ryan Reynolds is definitely a sex symbol, but you have to hand it to him because, for most of the film, he's either completely covered in a superhero outfit or covered in boils that would make Job shudder. (He still shows off his abs, though. I can't really blame him.) And he was the biggest revelation of the film. I've liked one other Ryan Reynolds film, "Buried," but otherwise, I've found him to be an affable enough pretty boy who has no screen presence. This opinion was reversed for "Deadpool," as he grounds a character who constantly breaks the fourth wall and has such a filthy sense of humor that I actually laughed at its shock value (a line involving Bernadette Peters comes to mind). I never found Reynolds' portrayal annoying, which is saying a lot, because his greatest power over other characters isn't martial arts but his talent to annoy them.
The storytelling is also, astonishingly, not annoying. The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is paced excellently, knowing when and where to play up either drama or comedy. They very wisely eschew the chore of sitting through a backstory by intercutting between the opening action sequence (the beginning of the second act) with Deadpool's creation myth (the first act), switching before either feels too sluggish.
And the action sequences are really something to behold. Not that they're technically that impressive or anything that we haven't seen before, but the opening shootout sequence is more competently directed than anything in "Batman Begins." I love Christopher Nolan, but he definitely learned how to create great action set pieces over time, whereas Tim Miller somehow makes it look effortless the first time around. And his credits are mostly in animation and special effects (including "Scott Pilgrim," and the film's visual humor takes more than a few pages from Edgar Wright). It makes you wonder how he even got hired in the first place.
Something else I want to point out that I feel isn't getting enough attention is the costume design by Angus Strathie. Sure, it comes from the comics, but I've never seen a mask so expressive in a superhero film. Granted, I don't much like superhero films and have seen very few, but Deadpool's mask stuck out as being unusually readable of his facial expressions. His eyes look computer generated (which is weird, considering the movie mocks the CGI of Ryan Reynolds' Green Lantern costume), but it still works.
I can imagine a lot of people falling head over heels for the film's brazen "originality." I really liked "Deadpool," but I can't say I loved it. It's not particularly inventive storytelling nor really that risky. Its soundtrack, although superior, couldn't have been made without "Guardians of the Galaxy," its raunchiness wouldn't have sold without "Hangover," and it follows every beat of a standard superhero movie. The movie references itself so relentlessly the only other point of comparison is the superior "21 Jump Street," wherein the humor rose out of the situations. "Deadpool" still relies on zingers for the most part, but at least I didn't feel too insulted.
And finally, none of the humor is really too subversive. Deadpool's ambiguous sexuality is played more as fake locker-room homoeroticism than anything truly groundbreaking in mainstream cinema. The leering shots of strippers are troublingly objectifying, and the revels in the protagonist's macho narcissism. My point is that, even as insulting as it is toward other people in Hollywood and even to its audience, "Deadpool" still feels like an insult comic who comes from a corporation that's trying to lure teenage boys to opening their wallets. The insult comic is dirty and profane and violent, but it still feels like someone who's playing it safe. At least it's a good comic.