Before the ubiquitous advertising over the last few months, if you mentioned the character of Deadpool to someone, you’d get one of two responses: a blank stare or effusive raving. Among comic readers, Deadpool has been one of the most beloved characters of the last quarter-century, always staying just hip enough to never have caught on with the masses the way other newer superheroes like Spawn, Hellboy, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did.
What makes him so special? While Wolverine may rampage, Deadpool goes out of his way to kill for fun. While Iron Man may be sarcastic, Deadpool is flat-out vulgar. And while Spider-Man may be self-aware enough to name-drop Superman, Deadpool constantly breaks the fourth wall, talking to his readers and mocking his narrators.
The challenge with turning such a distinctly different and rough-edged comic book into a movie is retaining the sardonicism and unconventionality while still changing what needs to be for a different medium. Tim Miller’s years-in-the-making film does that better than most could have expected, retaining the tone of the character in a way that could have gone wrong so many ways.
Deadpool’s origin story is not dissimilar to that of many Marvel characters. After Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a smart-ass mercenary, gets a fourth-stage cancer diagnosis, he’s approached by a mysterious businessman who offers to cure his cancer if he volunteers for a radical and experimental treatment. (That always works out, right?)
Once strapped to a hospital bed in a sketchy warehouse, Wilson is subjected to brutally inhumane tortures by the psychotic Ajax (Ed Skrein) to trigger a mutation, which finally happens, leaving Wilson’s entire body garishly disfigured. (As Weasel, a friend of Wilson’s played by T.J. Miller, later comments, “You look like Freddy Krueger face-f—ed a topographical map of Utah.”)
Wilson’s scarring, though, was just the side effect of his real mutation, which is an ability to heal himself so quickly he’s practically immortal. Donning a mask and the name Deadpool (taken from a betting pool between mercenaries at Weasel’s bar), Wilson goes on a rampage of revenge against Ajax, vowing to track him down and force him to undo the procedure.
The story is nothing original — one part Captain America: The First Avenger, two parts X2: X-Men United, two parts The Mask, and a dash of Darkman — but what has always made Deadpool so beloved is the character, and man alive, does it make Deadpool the picture that it is.
As a cinematic character, it’s easy to make comparisons to other comedic superheroes of recent years, like Iron Man or Spider-Man, but the most accurate is Jim Carrey’s titular oddball in The Mask. Both share many similarities in comic form as well, but on film, the manic anarchy and unhinged banter make one a direct descendant of the other. (Close your eyes, and you can hear the through-line from Carrey’s “Somebody stop me!” to Reynolds’ “Time to make the chimi-f—ing-changas!”)
Reynolds, who played a neutered version of the character in the disastrous X-Men: Origins — Wolverine, fought for years to play Deadpool properly, and his fondness for the character shows. Deadpool truly feels like the role Reynolds was born to play. He’s always operated on a self-aware frequency, winking at the audience without ever turning to face them; here, he gets to look right at them.
Fourth-wall breaking, as commonplace as the device has become in modern movies, is still rarely done well. It’s far too easy to lose artful subtlety, relying on it instead as a storytelling crutch. Deadpool goes so far with it, though, it discovers a place beyond subtlety and overtness, a place of self-awareness so sublime, you just shake your head in marvel. (When a mutant tells a handcuffed Deadpool he’s being taken to meet Charles Xavier, he quips, “McAvoy or Stewart? I find these parallel universes so confusing!”)
Deadpool’s best quality, though, also brings out its two weaknesses. Much like a kid who makes fun of themselves to avoid being bullied needs to know when to stop or else they’ll do just as much damage as a bully would, Deadpool’s comments on his movie’s small budget, unoriginal archetypes, and lack of appearances from more popular X-Men wear out after an hour, doing as much harm in the second half as the good they do in the first.
The other problem is, as brilliantly funny as the character of Deadpool is, Wade Wilson is much less so. The screenplay chooses to frame the origin story within giant flashbacks, which means we get introduced to the chaotic hilarity of Deadpool from the start, and then have to sit through long stretches of the less-amusing Wilson. It’s a credit to Reynolds that he’s so good as Deadpool that it makes Wilson less enjoyable, but it still proves somewhat detrimental.
While all the pieces of Deadpool feel individually unoriginal, the way they’re assembled definitely makes it a superhero movie of our own very specific time: both a rebellion against the mass-marketed Marvel Cinematic Universe and a testament to the demand for darker superhero movies post-The Dark Knight.
It’s pretty amazing that, after all the troubles Deadpool went through over the last decade to get made, it’s as good as it is. Moreover, the parts of it that work well work so strongly, they actually harm other parts of the film. That’s honestly really impressive, despite its counter-productivity. Besides, it’s just more fodder for Reynolds to ridicule in Deadpool 2: The Even Better One.