In our brave new world of ever-multiplying and cross-pollinating superhero franchises, Ryan Reynolds was the first man to be cast in two different super-roles: playing the supporting character Deadpool in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and then the lead in 2011’s Green Lantern. (He beat Chris Evans, who played the Human Torch and then Captain America, by a nose.) But with his encore turn as the protagonist of Deadpool, Reynolds is now alone in the distinction of having played titular characters from both principal comic-book universes, Marvel (Deadpool) and DC (Green Lantern).* As such, he is a near-perfect test case for the different paths the two companies have chosen in their adaptations from page to screen.
Green Lantern was a terrible, terrible, terrible movie. As the hot-shot-test-pilot-turned-galactic-policeman Hal Jordan, Reynolds was intended to be an amusing wisecracker, a la Tony Stark. But the movie failed so utterly that DC famously (if only allegedly) instituted a “no jokes” policy for all its subsequent properties (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.). This was, in a word, idiotic. Green Lantern didn’t fail because it was funny; it failed because it was painfully unfunny, a sour tale full of unlikable characters. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine more dispositive proof that humor and superheroing are compatible than the ongoing mega-success of Marvel Studios, which has ridden a light comic touch to approximately one gazillion dollars in box office over the past several years.
But anyone still seeking additional proof need look no further than Deadpool. Crass, profane, and intermittently quite funny, the directorial debut of animator Tim Miller inaugurates a new genre hybrid: the super-bromedy. Reynolds stars as Wade Wilson, a former special-forces soldier currently working as a low-rent vigilante-for-hire, roughing up stalkers and the like. (Or, as Wade himself puts it: “I’m just a bad guy who gets paid to fuck up worse guys.”) Carousing in a bar, he meets the love of his life, an escort named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Following a montage that features more sex than every other superhero movie to date combined, Wade proposes marriage. And then he discovers that he has terminal cancer.
Wade leaves Vanessa and volunteers for a murky experimental procedure that promises to cure him by triggering latent mutations. (It’s perhaps worth noting here that the rights to the Deadpool character are owned by 20th Century Fox, so he inhabits the same super-verse as the X-Men, rather than that of the Avengers et al.) What Wade doesn’t know is that the procedure in question involves his being tortured to the brink of death for weeks (months?) on end—nor that, should it succeed, his tormenters (Ed Skrein, Gina Carano) intend to turn him into a super-slave. The procedure ultimately does succeed, granting Wade miraculous regenerative abilities but also a terrible case of full-body psoriasis. He escapes, vows revenge on the people who did this to him, and adopts the moniker Deadpool. From there the movie proceeds in pretty much the manner you would expect.
As is perhaps evident from that summary, Deadpool doesn’t have a great deal to offer plot-wise: The arc is predictable, the villains forgettable, and the Big Finale relatively small. It’s true that the movie is more extreme in its violence than is customary—Deadpool favors swords and pistols over his fists—but where it truly breaks new ground is in its tone. Flamboyantly vulgar and determinedly self-referential, Deadpool has the shape of a superhero movie but the soul of a Danny McBride flick.
The college-lampoon mood is set early, with a title sequence promising, among other characters, “a British villain” and “a sexy chick,” and explaining that the film is produced by “some asshole” and written by “the real heroes here.” (Those would be co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.) Over the course of the movie, Reynolds will spend far less time fighting bad guys than he will offering crude commentary, demolishing the fourth wall, making X-Men inside jokes, and occasionally all three at once—e.g., “Whose balls did I have to fondle to get my own movie? I can’t tell you, but his name rhymes with ‘Pulverine.’” There’s a gag riffing on Monty Python’s “Black Knight” sequence, another that recalls a bit from Stripes, and a third that borrows from Saw (and, before it, the original Mad Max). And there is, of course, a barb hurled in the direction of Reynolds’s failed earlier franchise: “Please don’t make the super-suit green!”
Reynolds brings admirable charm to the parade of puerility, and he gets welcome backup from T.J. Miller, who plays bartender/best friend “Weasel” with the same sloppy brio he brings to Erlich Bachman on Silicon Valley. There are appearances by X-Men both second- (Colossus) and third-tier (Negasonic Teenage Warhead), and more than one joke about how they couldn’t afford to feature bigger stars given the movie’s budget. (What’s less clear is whether it’s deliberate that Colossus’s shoddy CGI makes him look like a man in a foam rubber suit that’s been spray-painted chrome.) Tucked away in there is a likable bit part for 72-year-old Leslie Uggams as the foulmouthed blind lady with whom Wade takes up residence. And although it almost seems beside the point, first-time director Miller keeps the film moving along and shows a solid knack for action choreography.
Does it all add up to much? No. Is the movie as clever or subversive as it imagines itself to be? No. But for those in the mood for its super-powered low-brow, Deadpool offers an eminently amusing diversion and an object lesson in the elasticity of the genre. Or to put it another way: It’s a hell of a lot funnier than Green Lantern.
* This article originally stated that Ryan Reynolds was the first actor to play multiple superhero roles in movies made by both Marvel and DC Comics. In fact, Halle Berry was the first. We regret the error.