It’s not easy to capture lightning in a bottle twice, and it’s even harder to push boundaries when you’re playing it safe.
In “Deadpool 2,” the manic antics fly fast, but the franchise loses its edge as wise-cracking antihero Deadpool goes dadcore, attempting to infuse standard-issue four-quadrant studio blockbuster beats into what was once a revolutionary R-rated premise.
Of course, superfans of the fourth wall-breaking Marvel Comics character will be delighted to see Ryan Reynolds’ Merc with a Mouth back on the big screen, slicing up baddies and roasting everyone from his enemies (this time around it’s futuristic soldier Cable) to his frenemies (Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) to his own studio, 20th Century Fox, just as he did in 2016’s surprise smash “Deadpool.”
Two years ago, the scrappy film based on Rob Liefeld’s and Fabien Nicieza’s Marvel Comics creation felt fresh and subversive, introducing the origin tale of cancer patient-turned-mutant mercenary Wade Wilson. “Deadpool” charged along with an anarchic energy on its way to two Golden Globe nominations and the biggest R-rated global box office in human history while mercilessly eviscerating the superhero genre.
“Deadpool 2” finds its antihero nursing gut-wrenching existential pain by mentoring a troubled mutant youth, battling a murderous visitor from the future, linking up with a handful of the precious few other Marvel superheroes licensed by Fox and attempting to cobble together his first superteam, X-Force, by placing an ad in the newspaper. (Shockingly, it does not go well.)
But while the sequel benefits from Reynolds’ superhuman charisma as the charmingly annoying, katana-wielding protagonist, the film nevertheless feels too much like more of the same: more of the same gross-out gags, more of the same irreverent jokes, more bits where Deadpool has to regrow severed limbs to the disgust of everyone around him, more running commentary on the movie he’s in….
Thankfully, “Deadpool 2” has a Canadian national treasure aboard to breathe new life, emotion and a winking, self-aware wit into the action.
No, not Reynolds.
The involvement of Dion, whose mournful, actually-good “Ashes” serves as the James Bond-esque “Deadpool 2” theme song, is a welcome stroke of genius; for starters, as anyone who wore out their “Titanic”’ soundtrack on CD knows, a little Celine goes a long way.
Days after the screening, the legit earworm of an inspirational ballad the legendary crooner belts at the start of “Deadpool 2” over a cleverly-executed 007-satirizing intro (complete with a reprise of the first film’s snarky opening “credits”) remains a highlight.
It’s also, frustratingly, the only truly surprising new addition to the “Deadpool” saga, which gets a beefed-up budget and a handful of new characters but for the most part churns out overly familiar eccentricity.
Even fueled by Reynolds, whose likability is practically a super power, a new director in David Leitch (“John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde”), charismatic new costars like Zazie Beetz (“Atlanta”) and Julian Dennison (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”), bigger stakes (and more money to execute them), “Deadpool 2,” suffers from the sequelitis that typically threatens gimmicky gambles turned tentpole franchises.
Your mileage will vary depending on how much patience you have for Deadpool’s tireless antics and how easily you are entertained by limb-severing, body-battering physical humor, the relentless parade of blue jokes about pranking coworkers with bodily fluids, infant genitalia, and the “Human Centipede” movies, and the spectacle of Reynolds flaming himself over how much “Green Lantern” sucked.
There’s a tedium to the sort of repetition that merely rehashes and recycles the same wink-wink barbs that worked the first time around — but also a relatable, even pitiable humanity in the film’s desperation to be liked.
At the core of this follow-up written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and Reynolds, is an emotionality that — like the pimped-out weapon that the humorless Cable (Josh Brolin, growling life into his second Marvel character of 2018 after “Avengers: Infinity War”) totes back in time along with a conspicuously significant teddy bear — has been cranked all the way to 11.
Picking up where the first film left off, the sequel finds the happily content Wade mulling fatherhood and purpose with the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), until his day job offing yakuza, gangsters, and Russian thugs follows him home.
Adrift in a waking nightmare, severely suicidal yet unable to kill himself thanks to his mutant healing powers, Deadpool finds purpose mentoring Russell (young Kiwi talent Dennison), a hotheaded 14-year-old juvenile mutant delinquent he takes under his wing after the youngster tries to set his orphanage on fire.
He gets help from returning sidekicks Weasel (TJ Miller), Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), and Dopinder (Karan Soni); reunites with X-Men Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand); and finds a capable new teammate in the superhumanly lucky Domino (Beetz, one of the sequel’s saving graces).
Uninspired plotting lands him in mutant prison, shackled by a techno-collar that renders his mutant powers useless and brings back his cancer, which, in turn, allows for some impressively morbid fight scenes featuring body-twisting physical humor.
Director Leitch, a former stunt pro lauded for his inventive action, never reaches the dynamic virtuosity of his previous films but ably pieces together a midpoint set piece set on wheels, tracking a speeding convoy through a busy city center. Later he stages four simultaneous, forgettable battles in the film’s biggest fight sequence — and even that moment is deflated by Deadpool himself, who interrupts the action to announce the movie’s big VFX clash between entirely computer-generated characters.
The film’s impulse to profess a knowing, snarky superiority can become painfully awkward. The jokey opening credits that name Leitch as “one of the guys who killed the dog in ‘John Wick,’ ” is a lot less funny juxtaposed with the brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it end credits acknowledgment of Sequana SJ Harris, the stunt woman who died during the making of the film.
At one point in “Deadpool 2,” Reynolds as Deadpool references the surprise Golden Globe acting nomination he earned for his work in the first film. “The Academy is watching,” he whispers to his audience. Are they? It’s either self-deprecating snark or earnestness masquerading as self-deprecating snark.
Deadpool, a superhero who deep down inside is just as basic as the rest of us, wants it both ways. He might need another sequel to actually pull it off.
Rating: R, for strong violence and language throughout, sexual references and brief drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes