Franchise films today tend to keep viewers moving quickly from one emotion to another, the constant variation giving the impression of a balanced meal, but without the actual nutrition of a well-digested moment. Studios have become so adept at this sort of juggling that a film like Logan is immediately recognizable as an outlier, simply because it picks a mood and stays with it (that the mood was deep despair was the real envelope-pushing on the film’s part, not its R-rated leanings). For most studio films, though, the tendency now is to open and close emotional valves quickly.
An extreme example of emotional flightiness occurs in the first 15 minutes of Deadpool 2. A prominent character is killed off; a bold move for a franchise built on near-constant irreverence. But barely have we processed the death, and we’re watching opening credits which replace the names of cast and crew members with smart-aleck references to the demise. In the screening I was at, the audience’s shock was immediately replaced by knowing laughter.
If a film can’t take a character’s death seriously, should the viewer? Every scattered emotional beat after this rang false—just because the film couldn’t hold off for some time before winking at the audience. In doing so, Deadpool 2 revealed itself to be, underneath all the cussing and violence, as careful and compromised a studio offering as any other.
Since the events of the first film, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), he of the scarred face, smart mouth and extraordinary strength, has become a globe-trotting superhero. A series of setbacks places him in the path of Russell (Julian Dennison), a troubled young mutant with fiery hands, whom he undertakes to protect from time-travelling soldier Cable (Josh Brolin). He also gains an ally in Domino (Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz), whose superpower is that she’s incredibly lucky. Deadpool piecing together a makeshift family—mutant Colossus (Stefan Kapičić), cabbie Dopinder (Karan Soni) and trash-talking buddy Weasel (TJ Miller) are back as well—is the clearly spelt-out subtext of David Leitch’s sequel. It’s an amusing conceit (especially when an early attempt comes violently undone), though one that’s been explored multiple times within the X-Men universe (which Deadpool is a part of), and, outside it, in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.
There’s no denying that Deadpool 2 is rippingly, exhaustingly funny: there isn’t a line uttered by someone other than Wade that isn’t topped with a follow-up wisecrack. With a barrage like this, not every joke has to land—Reynolds, with his trickster voice and comic timing, can sell almost anything—but Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s patter is as wide-ranging and acerbic as it was in 2016’s Deadpool. There isn’t a corner of the cultural landscape that’s safe: Marvel, DC, Air Supply, Say Anything, dubstep, the Terminator, Josh Brolin (called “Thanos" by Wade). The one thing that escapes parody, surprisingly, is Norwegian band A-ha, whose 1984 hit Take On Me is given an ethereal reworking. It’s used close to the end, and shows how it doesn’t take much more than a well-chosen song and two capable performers to graft emotion onto a scene.