The best joke Deadpool makes at the expense of superhero movies is in its opening credits. As the camera glides through a frozen scene of car-flipping chaos, onscreen text announces that the movie stars "God's Perfect Idiot" (Ryan Reynolds, face fluttering by on the cover of a People magazine, as the title character, aka Wade Wilson), "A Hot Chick" (Morena Baccarin as his girlfriend Vanessa Carlysle), and "A British Villain" (Ed Skrein as Ajax). It's directed by "An Overpaid Tool" (Tim Miller). It suggests you be ready for "A Gratuitous Cameo," which turns out to be an appearance from Stan Lee — we are in Marvel territory, after all, and some things are unavoidable.
It's a bold beginning for what is, after all, the latest superhero saga (and the first of a planned seven due out this year) — one that openly breaks down the reigning blockbuster genre into some of its most interchangeable component parts. It's the promise of a film that's self-aware and that therefore knows better, though only the first part of that suggestion turns out to be true.
Deadpool, written by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, in keeping true to its fourth-wall-breaking, wisecracking, sword-wielding mutant main character, makes countless self-referential jokes about its own existence. It acknowledges Reynolds' previous turn as a version of Deadpool back in 2009's unfortunate X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It gibes about Hugh Jackman and how confusing X-Men movie continuity has gotten. It mentions franchises and sequels and the studio only being able to afford two X-Men for Deadpool (that would be Colossus, voiced by Stefan Kapicic, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, played by Brianna Hildebrand).
It's fun for a while, and then it all becomes deeply disheartening, because calling attention to the more businesslike mechanics of superheroics isn't subversive when you're also playing right into them. Pointing out the symptoms of superhero fatigue isn't the same thing as overcoming it.
Deadpool is the peak instance of the mainstream movie trend of tipping a hat to studio cynicism without really departing from it. Take, for instance, the hilarious barrage of increasingly halfhearted sequel concepts at the end of 22 Jump Street, the deliciousness of which was only slightly decreased by the news a few months later that a third film was actually in the works. Then there was the Jurassic World moment when the teenage lead took a phone call while, behind him, the T. rex tore apart a goat — a centerpiece scene from the 1993 movie turned into a backdrop as a nod to the need to keep jaded audiences entertained with ever-bigger action sequences. There was also Ant-Man's whole Hope van Dyne storyline, which was like a built-in apologia about how the reasons for not having a female lead in a superhero movie are dumb. But we didn't get a female lead in the one we were watching anyway.
But Deadpool is on a whole other level — a movie that puts its audaciousness in the forefront, even if it's only mutated-skin-deep; a movie that makes space for violence, sex, and swear words, but never bites the hand feeding it by diverging from formula. Early in the film, Wade pauses the action to tell the audience, mid–skewering someone, "You're probably thinking, My boyfriend said this was a superhero movie!" before assuring everyone that he's no hero, and that this, in fact, is a love story.
It's a self-congratulatory bit that rings phony twice over — first in its creaky assumption that the women in the crowd wouldn't be there of their own volition, and second in pretending that beneath the R-rating, Deadpool's story isn't a standard-issue supe one of getting powers, fighting bad guys, and winning (back) the girl. Sure, he kills people, but they're all evil and mostly faceless — there's none of the discomfort of honest-to-god moral ambiguity.
But at least he has a good time doing it. Deadpool is the kind of role Reynolds, who's often miscast, was meant to play — one in which his unshakable smirking edge works with the character rather against him. Reynolds is at his best playing smartasses with hearts of gold, and he makes Wade's compulsive motormouthedness tolerable for longer than it should be, especially when playing off T.J. Miller as Wade's bartender friend and sidekick Weasel, the only character in the movie who can keep pace with him.
Baccarin can't, though it's not her fault — her character is a Disney version of a sex worker who falls in love with the one trick we see her turn and who makes all the right pop culture references. "It's like I made you in a computer!" Wade exclaims at one point, which, of all the calling-bullshit-on-itself-before-anyone-else-can moments in the movie, is the one that stings the most — the open labeling of the romantic lead/MacGuffin of this self-proclaimed love story as a shrugging fantasy. She's as much an accessory as the red suit Wade sews for himself.
Superhero sagas aren't, in general, built to be daring. There's no benefit — not until the current model stops working. They're commodified and expensive — even if Deadpool's budget is reportedly lower than the norm — and they have to serve many masters, guided more by the vision of executives focused on global markets and planning years out than they are by filmmakers trying to make a good standalone picture. This doesn't mean there isn't room to take chances, just that there's little motivation for it — and what Deadpool sells is a very safe form of acting out, all surface with a timid center, the movie equivalent of a kid who wears a T-shirt with a swear word on it to school in giddy anticipation of what Mom will say when they get sent home. The satisfaction it offers lasts as long as it takes to consider how, when a character flips off the camera, he's also flipping off the audience.