Deadpool: Trying Harder Than You Have To While Still Holding Back

While watching Deadpool last night, I kept thinking back to Guardians of the Galaxy from two years ago.

Guardians has what is, if you think about it, an absolutely bizarre opening sequence. The bulk of the movie presents itself as a lightweight chase-the-maguffin space opera lark, but the first five minutes are all about the day our hero Peter Quill’s mother finally died of cancer. In front of him. While he was a child. It feels like it’s from a completely different movie; the playful energy still to come is completely absent, and the movie gets started on a note of pure pain, misery, and regret. Even when the sci-fi elements kick in at the end of the sequence, it isn’t fun, it’s goddamn terrifying.

It’s an incredibly ballsy way to open the movie. If the story hadn’t worked, if it had just wound up being a jarring mishmash of disposable characters and tropes, armchair movie types like me would have jumped all over that opening as a part of the reason why. It sets the wrong tone! It’s completely schizophrenic!

But the movie did work. And the opening establishes a core of genuine, heartfelt depth and sadness that’s present in the background even when we’re reveling in the antics of an ammosexual raccoon and his best friend a tree. And when when implicit question of “Why the hell does Quill keep insisting everybody refer to him as ‘Starlord?'” finally gets addressed at the end, that opening ensures the answer lands with a whallop.

So when I say “Deadpool is good, but mostly afraid to take any chances,” that’s what I’m talking about.

Because honestly, the movie is pretty goddamn good. MovieBob, as usual, has a strong take on a lot of the details why. It leans into its R rating with absolute glee, wallowing in sex jokes and fuckwords, and showing off a splatstick sense of humor reminiscent of Sam Raimi at his Evil Deadiest. Young-teen me would have likely laughed hard enough to pass out; adult me just thought it was a damned good time, and was glad to see plenty of fun moments that didn’t show up in the trailers.

One of my big fears was that the movie would wind up being insufferably glib and weightless, and it took jusssssst enough risks to avoid that. There are moments — isolated, but most definitely present — of genuine emotional pain and vulnerability. There’s nothing to compare with young Peter Quill balking at his dying mother’s request for a hug; Deadpool’s not gonna go that far out on a limb. But a lot of the scenes with pre-superpowered goon-for-hire Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) and his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), particularly after he’s diagnosed with terminal late-stage cancer, leave the tongue-in-cheek fourth-wall-shattering shenanigans behind and feel like something real people might actually be enduring.

And I’m with MovieBob in that this may be the most fun Morena Baccarin has ever been on-screen before. In what could have been a completely thankless role (the cheeky-as-fuck opening credits list her as “The Hot Chick”), the screenwriters instead decide to make Vanessa Wade Wilson’s equal in off-kilter horndog energy. Baccarin throws herself into the role, and even if the script can’t quite sustain that liveliness wire-to-wire, there’s still a hell of a lot to enjoy. This is not one of those love stories where two people are into each other because they’re both blandly attractive and the script keeps reminding us they’re in lurrrrrrve. Wade and Vanessa just plain make sense.

But going too far down that path of genuine human emotion might have gotten in the way of the Merc-With-A-Mouth zaniness fanboys have been anticipating for years. More importantly, nobody behind the camera wanted to fuck this up. Again. (As alpha-fanboy Ryan Reynolds himself reminds us in the advertising, the last time this studio took a crack at this character, they botched it so badly they actually sewed his fucking mouth shut.) So mixed alongside the genuinely moving emotional core provided by Baccarin and Reynolds, we get a lot of … safe shit. Safe, unremarkable villains. Safe, unimaginative fight backdrops.

Safest of all, we have Colossus taking the role of Traditional Lantern-Jawed Hero. For my money, this was easily the weakest element, an unwelcome glimpse into the much crappier movie that could have been made but, thankfully, wasn’t. Colossus was there to act as a straight man. It’s an important role with a character as goofy as Deadpool bouncing about, but being a good straight man means having some dignity and a valid viewpoint, and these are not things the story is interesting in providing the big metal Russian. He’s just there to wind up with a variety of pies on his face, and their comic value is badly undercut by how he seems to be wearing a sign around his neck that says “THROW PIES HERE PLEASE” at all times. (More gratifying was Negasonic Teenage Warhead [Brianna Hildebrand], a D-list X-Man who comes out of freaking nowhere to provide Deadpool with a genuinely amusing foil. More of her in the already green-lit sequel, please.)

So on the balance, Deadpool’s not as good as it could have been, it’s not as subversive as it likes to pretend. Underneath it all, this is a bog-standard superhero origin story, just one with more decapitations, bewbs, and dirty jokes than audiences have been trained to expect in a Marvel movie over the last decade. But it has just enough heart to keep from floating away under its own weightlessness, and just enough genuine wit under its bratty attitude to be really funny.

I had a good time, and I wanna see where they go from here. Recommended for fans of the genre curious to see a rauchier, more irreverent take on the material. Just don’t bring the kids.

And stick around for the post-credits stinger. Of course.

Yeah, Pretty Happy These Didn’t Become A Thing

X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

It’s a love story. Between an indestructible superhero and Explosions. Explosions loves Wolverine, and is trying to hug him. But Wolverine just isn’t feeling it, and runs away from Explosions every time. Poor Explosions. Explosions just wants to be loved!

This is basically a live-action cartoon that opens with a killer piece of efficient visual storytelling and then spends the rest of its runtime pandering to thirteen-year-old boys — badly. If you’re going to pull blatant fanservice by including a character like (popular violent wack-job) Deadpool, shouldn’t you at least make some effort to understand just why the fans you’re pandering to like the character in the first place? Maybe hit-up Wikipedia?

“Bad” doesn’t cover it. This movie is exuberantly stupid, gleefully thick-headed. It has a bunch of boxes to check off, and checks them off with as many bullets, blades, and booms as it can manage, with a heavy dose of fanwank Marvel cameos just for good measure. I have no idea how a movie this over-the-top ridiculous can exist with neither Nic Cage nor Paul W. S. Anderson having had anything to do with it.

This movie is like an adorable, excited, incontinent puppy who sprays the room with shit whenever he’s hyped-up, which is always. Yes, the little devil is kinda fun to play with, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that he’s covered everything you care about with a layer of dog feces.

The movie has an energy to it that’s actually kind of appealing. Not appealing enough to overcome its own awfulness, mind. But, still. It’s unique. And awful. But nevertheless, unique.

Luckily, The Franchise Resurrected Itself

Jasmine and I are taking a personal day, and just crossed X-Men: Last Stand off the to-do list, and I get it.

I get the outrage and disgust. I simply don’t share it.

This was a very ordinary movie — it is, I suspect, the movie fans feared the prior two would be. Weightless, silly, and flashy, this was a Comic Book Movie made for and by people who really don’t care that much about comics and think they’re fundamentally for kids.

And I didn’t care for it. Whatever depth and humanity the prior movies possessed largely evaporated, making it a hell of a lot less interesting to me as a movie watcher. But to be properly outraged, you need to be invested. You need to have spent a lot of time appreciating the depth of Magneto’s convictions and the truths behind them, contemplating his role as Malcolm X to the professor’s MLK, to be properly disgusted by the way he discards Mystique when she’s suddenly nerfed, or treats his Brotherhood of Mutants as disposable mooks. You need to have earned an appreciation for Scott’s qualities as a leader, his ability to get the most out of an extremely limited and limiting superpower, to be appalled at how shabbily the script treats him. You need a long-standing respect for Professor X and his deep sense of humanity to be bitterly disappointed at his role as a font of clumsy, wooden exposition.

I’m unfamiliar with the Dark Phoenix storyline, don’t know what it is that made it so beloved and iconic. I’m willing to bet, however, that it wasn’t a weird and superfluous B-plot tacked-on to a fundamentally unrelated story. And I bet the pain of watching a favorite story get thoroughly botched has only deepened with this new generation of Marvel movies, which you know damn well would have been laying the groundwork for Jean Grey, Unstable Uber-Mutant right out of the gate.

It has its moments. Kelsey Grammer was a very enjoyable Beast, the action scenes were lively. I can’t bring myself to truly hate it.

But I definitely respect the opinion of anybody who does.

X-Time

Jasmine wanted to catch up on the X-Men movies before seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past this summer. And since I quite enjoyed the three I’ve seen, I was game to grab the lot at Exchange, even the ones that are alleged to be terrible.

Thus far, we’ve watched the first two: X-Men and X2: X-Men United. X2 is reputed to be the much stronger movie, but I recalled my own reaction as being fairly contrarian: that it was perfectly fine, but actually fell a bit short of the first movie overall.

Having now recently seen them both back-to-back, my opinion was, weirdly enough, both affirmed and challenged.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, X-Men is probably not quite as good as you remember. Action-wise, the recent Marvel movies drink its milkshake right up. With the exception of the climactic battles in and on the Statue of Liberty, the action setpieces are all flashy curb-stomp battles where one side is completely overwhelmed and the outcome feels preordained. The final scenes remedy this, but do so at the expense of fight choreography that often looks distractingly hokey.

But it ain’t bad. The script has a light, deft touch that does a good job of humanizing its characters, and a lot of the quotable one-liners remain quite good in context. (“I am psychic, you know.”) Hugh Jackman owns as Wolverine, making his grumpy loner qualities come off as human and interesting when they could easily have been dull and tedious. And, of course, you have Ian McKellan as Magneto, who I tend to unjustly forget when discussing great cinematic supervillains. (Seriously, given the problems they’ve had with their own antagonists, Marvel Studios would probably kill to let Magneto be the baddie in one of their movies.) It deserves to be remembered as the strong foundation on which most modern superhero movies are based. Released today, it would come off as a worthy addition to the Marvel movies, just one that doesn’t particularly raise the bar — and given that, in the real world, it actually helped set that bar, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

X2 definitely tries to raise the bar over its predecessor, and in many ways it succeeds. The plot is bigger, more ambitious, and more interesting. The action scenes are (mostly) far superior. Alan Cumming and the special effects team absolutely nail Nightcrawler, who seems to have been quite well written to begin with. Halle Berry doesn’t embarrass herself, and raises her game to “Unfortunate non-entity where there’s supposed to be a strong, iconic figure.”

But … here, let me quote MightyGodKing’s Christopher Bird on how this movie is generally remembered:

“Everything about this is good and nothing is bad.”

Nope nope nope nope noooooooooope.

The climactic fight scene between Wolverine and Lady Deathstryke may be the worst third-act showdown in superhero movie history. Going into the full details would double the size of this post and obscure the fact that on the balance I quite liked the movie, but the short version: no buildup, no stakes, horrifying ending that makes the “hero” out to be every bit the monster the villain claims he is — and then some.

Jean Grey’s heroic sacrifice was probably the worst heroic sacrifice in superhero movie history until Man of Steel topped that shit. Again, short version for exactly the same reasons: contrived, very low stakes, completely ignores the mutants who would have had a fighting chance at getting everybody to safety but who inexplicably sat on their hands the entire time while Jean got herself killed apparently for the sake of a misplaced callback to an iconic X-Men storyline that most people watching the movie (including me) couldn’t have cared less about.

Of course, that sacrifice happens during a ridiculously drawn-out ending (topped only by Return of the King) that keeps on going and going a solid twenty minutes after the movie should have ended.

And the dialog and character interactions don’t even touch what the first movie accomplished. In their place are thudding moments like Professor X’s clumsy-playful threat to make Wolverine think he’s a six-year-old girl, or that ghastly “We like what you’ve done with your hair,” which deserves to be as reviled as Storm’s “You know what happens to toads when they get hit by lightning?” reading, and isn’t because Ian McKellan is otherwise so freaking fantastic. (Seriously, list all the villains who would be so cruel and tasteless as to taunt a sixteen-year-old girl dealing with the aftermath of their unsuccessful murder attempt. It’s a short list. The Joker and King Joffrey “Baratheon” would be on it. Magneto and Mystique shouldn’t be anywhere near it.)

No, X2 gets a lot of things right, but fucks-up more places than I think movie nerds like to admit. It’s still a good movie. And I definitely respect the effort to raise the franchise’s game. But on the balance, I don’t think it’s any better than its predecessor.

Next up, possibly this weekend, are X-Men: The Last Stand, on which I hear opinions raging from “Eh, actually not that bad” to “No, really, that bad;” and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for which my expectations have been set as low as you can get without digging into Manos: Hands of Fate territory.