Late in the hodgepodge that is Deadpool 2, the superhero joke-machine (Ryan Reynolds) confronts the muscular, time-traveling villain, Cable (Josh Brolin), who’s trying to murder an adolescent mutant. Deadpool yells, “Hands off that kid, John Connor!” and part of the audience laughs and part of it stares dumbly, trying to process the movie’s 674th pop-culture reference. But what’s the joke, exactly? John Connor wasn’t the time-traveling killer. He was the kid who the time-traveling Terminator was trying to kill — except (I think) in the last sequel, which no one even remembers, when he was trying to kill … his own mother??? Himself??? It’s not worth the time it takes to process. The basic joke, repeated ad infinitum, is that that Deadpool has seen the Terminator films, along with the Marvel and DC and Star Wars movies. He’s like an especially obnoxious fanboy except you could punch a fanboy and he’d shut up. Deadpool takes a licking and keeps on shticking.
We’ve reached superhero saturation point, and Deadpool 2 is less a satire of that condition than a symptom of it. It has zero suspense — it’s too hip, too meta, for suspense. The action is brutally edited and mostly undistinguished — a surprise, given that the stuntman turned director, David Leitch, devised amazing, close-in, faux-single-shot fights in his last film, Atomic Blonde. But he’s out of his element with such pro forma CGI, which not even Deadpool’s CGI jokes can redeem. Although this is primarily a comedy (with gore), Leitch doesn’t hang back and let the actors develop a rhythm, the way Taika Waititi did in the Hope-and-Crosby-like Thor: Ragnarok. He just whomps away.
But dull-witted direction wouldn’t matter if the script (credited to Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Reynolds) were more consistent. In my (favorable) review of the first Deadpool, I estimated that 50 percent of jokes hit home, another 30 whizzed by inoffensively, and only 20 percent were real stinkers. In Deadpool 2, the percentages are reversed. A small number of the gags land, among them a riotously tasteless parachute assault by an ad hoc team of second-tier superheroes. And I can never get enough digs — however limp — at the idea that all superhero mothers are named Martha. But there are so many wincers for so ramshackle a plot.
The thrust of Deadpool 2 is that Deadpool, having suffered a personal tragedy, kinda sorta wants to be an X-Man but keeps screwing up on account of how selfish he is — until he meets an extremely unappealing mutant kid, Russell (Julian Dennison), and finally thinks of someone other than himself. His chief antagonist appears to be Cable, whom Brolin plays more or less straight and somehow invests with dignity and pathos — making this an unprecedented twofer in the morose supervillain sweepstakes. Zazie Beetz shows great poise as a fun new character called Domino, whose superpower is luck, and wittier filmmakers would have concocted lots of Rube Goldberg disasters around her. (What’s there is decent enough to make you see what might have been.) But there’s nothing much to be done with the Boris Badenov special effect known as Colossus, whose face is dully frozen. To offset the happy fact that there’s a gay superhero, the writers bring back the babbling Indian cab driver, Dopinder (Karan Soni), who in light of the recent Hank Azaria Apu hoo-hah goes over about as well as Jar Jar Binks. Deadpool makes a crack elsewhere about “cultural appropriation,” but he’s silent on the dopey Dopinder stereotype.
I suppose you could make a case for Deadpool 2 the way people do for Joe Dante’s ramshackle sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch — a spirited goof on Gremlins — and, further back, Warner cartoon alum Frank Tashlin’s antic Son of Paleface, in which Bob Hope shared the screen with Roy Rogers and Trigger. A superhero movie with the looseness of a Mad magazine parody remains a viable idea, as demonstrated by the underrated Mystery Men and, of course, Deadpool. But a film that spits one-liners as mechanically as a tennis-ball launcher is even more tediously predictable than one with no sense of humor at all.
Incidentally, Deadpool, a 20th Century Fox release, opens with Reynolds exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke into the camera, probably meant to tweak his superhero cousins at Disney, which doesn’t permit smoking in its movies. Disney, of course, is on the brink of acquiring Fox’s entertainment division, which will make it even more of a franchise-oriented juggernaut than it already is. Although that’s an alarming prospect, I’m all for purging cigarettes from movies and TV, which statistics show have an undue influence in getting kids to start smoking. If the filmmakers were as self-reflexive as they pretend to be, they’d find a way to show that Deadpool’s insides are becoming as charred as his face. In any case, he should enjoy his cigarettes while he can.