WASHINGTON — “Deadpool” was the most hilariously raunchy surprise of 2016, as the R-rated superhero got away with things that no other superhero can in the Marvel Universe.
Not only did Deadpool spit profanity and unleash bloodshed, he was refreshingly meta with countless pop culture references, fourth-wall breaks inside other fourth-wall breaks, and such self-reflexive lines as, “That guy over there came in looking for you. Might further the plot.”
This weekend, we get the hotly anticipated “Deadpool 2,” a bloody sequel that is at times uproariously funny and too clever by half, rocketing hilariously out of the gate then gradually testing our patience as it overstays its welcome during an oddly structured third act.
Heartbroken over his main squeeze Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a depressed Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) must throw on his Deadpool suit once more to stop the time-traveling mutant Cable (Josh Brolin) from killing a young boy named Russell (Julian Dennison), who will grow up to kill Cable’s family after childhood abuse at an orphanage run by a pedophile.
While the 2016 director Tim Miller surrenders his directing reins to David Leitch (“Atomic Blonde”), Reynolds is just as meta-sarcastic as ever, hilariously calling Brolin “Thanos,” the role he just played in “Avengers: Infinity War.” Like last go round, Reynolds also lovingly talks to the audience with direct address: “That’s the last time you get a speaking part,” “Hopefully the Academy is watching,” and “That’s no CGI right there — that’s an actual stunt man on fire.”
Beyond any of these dialogue belly laughs, the film is worth watching alone for a sequence in which Deadpool assembles his X-Force of “X-Men in Training.” This rag-tag bunch features a recruit who’s invisible, another who vomits acid, and a third who is consistently lucky (Zazie Beetz’s Domino). Their first mission is one of the funniest moments in any superhero flick.
Along the way, expect Reynolds and his co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick to make countless references to “Logan,” “Annie,” “Yentl,” “Say Anything,” “The Terminator” and of course “X-Men: First Class” (the biggest audience laugh). There’s even a James Bond graphics sequence that is both visually inventive and quite clever in its post-modern filmmaker credits.
On the downside, the constant audience winks start to wear on us after a while. Some of the meta zingers undercut the film’s own story with hand-holding voiceover: “There comes a point in every movie where the hero hits rock bottom.” Later, Deadpool jokes, “That’s just lazy writing,” an intended joke that backfires by reminding us of the script’s other lazy elements.
Case in point, the protagonist’s ability to heal from any bodily mutilation. Such a narrative crutch lowers the stakes to the point that he is never in any real danger. Many of his wounds are masochistic in a series of suicide attempts, a la Bud Cort in “Harold and Maude” (1971) or Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day” (1993). Only in this case, we’re never quite sure why Reynolds keeps coming back to life. After a while, you’ll quote Austin Powers: “Why won’t you die?”
If you dig through the jokes, the script is oddly structured. To start, Cable arrives out of nowhere without explanation. We ultimately get the necessary exposition, but it arrives way too late in Act Two. Then, just as we’re about to accept him as the antagonist, he suddenly sides with our hero to fight a newly introduced villain, because, well, franchise-building.
As it all builds to the destruction of a pedophilia ring, it appears Marvel is attempting a dig at the allegations against its “X-Men” director Bryan Singer. However, it undercuts its message by having Deadpool himself cracking pedophilia jokes. Perhaps it’s the studio’s attempt at a self-deprecating apology, but it’s an awkward choice that stirs up too many ugly real-life truths. While the kid banter elevated “Iron Man 3,” Russell’s character is downright annoying here.
It’s just one of many ways “Deadpool 2” overstays its welcome. I was shocked to find that the total run time was just two hours, because the in-theater experience feels like it takes much longer. This is due to a number of false finishes that drag down Act Three. In the end, diehard fans will be mostly satisfied with the result, just don’t expect this one to win any new converts.
As Deadpool said in the first film: “That sounds like a f***ing franchise,” the philosophical opposite of the very magic that made “Deadpool” a trend-bucking flick in the first place. By becoming a franchise itself, Deadpool just sold out. At least it’ll laugh all the way to the bank.