Two years later, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what was so enjoyable about the first Deadpool movie. Was it the action? The fourth-wall-breaking? The swearing? The cocaine and masturbation jokes? Well … yes. A hard-R bloodbath that gleefully polluted the pristine sea of squeaky-clean superhero movies, Deadpool went on to make more than $783 million worldwide at the box office. It was the kind of success that guarantees a sequel. Of course, that sequel faced an entirely new problem from its very conception: living up to its predecessor.
In theory, this shouldn’t be that hard. Star Ryan Reynolds and director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) presumably had more money to work with this time around. The cast is bigger, and includes Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz (the lucky hero Domino) and Thanos himself, Josh Brolin (the cyborg Cable). But there’s one thing no amount of money and star power can give: the element of surprise. Deadpool got a lot of mileage out of the fact that no one outside the character’s die-hard fandom saw it coming. A sequel can’t do that. It can, and often does, coast on the fumes of the first one; it can also just be a total letdown. But Deadpool 2 doesn’t just match the original—it cuts it off at the knees and gives its hero a whole new set of legs to run on. (This is both a metaphor and an actual plot point.)
Deadpool 2 opens on Wolverine. Well, a figurine of Wolverine. Wade Wilson (aka Deadpool) is none too happy that his Marvel brother has also gotten himself an R-rated movie and he’s celebrating Logan’s demise by showing a miniature of the clawed hero impaled on a tree, just as he was at the end of Logan. Cut to Deadpool, splayed out on drums of fuel, smoking a cigarette. “Guess what, Wolvie?” he says. “In this one, I’m dying too.” He flicks the smoldering butt and is blown to bits along with his entire apartment, his arm—middle finger outstretched—flying toward the audience.
He, of course, survives, and through a flashback and fast-forward viewers discover out why he had a deathwish and how he can get over it. Cue the 007-themed, Celine Dion-accompanied, completely tongue-in-cheek opening credits.
After being picked up and dusted off by Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), Deadpool returns to the X-Mansion to convalesce. While still an X-Men trainee, he encounters Russell (Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s brilliant Julian Dennison), a gifted orphan threatening to destroy the home where he’s been living to get revenge on its abusive headmaster. Deadpool tries to stop, then ultimately helps, Russell’s efforts and soon enough they both find themselves in a mutant prison known as the “Icebox.”
Enter: Cable, a cyborg from the future (or an “old fuck with a Winter Soldier arm,” if you’re Wade) who is looking to kill Russell to fulfill a weird twist on the Hitler time-travel paradox. The kid gets away, but sets in motion a series of events that brings together Deadpool’s “forward-thinking, gender-neutral” X-Force super-team and gives Deadpool 2 a much stronger narrative arc, and emotional payoff, than its predecessor.
That’s not to say the Deadpool sequel is in any way a serious film. The genius of the script, which Reynolds wrote with Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, still lies in its jokes and sight gags. There are riffs for comics fans—punchlines about “Martha” and Domino being created by “a guy who can’t draw feet”—and general-interest pop culture bits. (Personal fave: A visual shout-out to a-ha’s fourth-wall-breaking, comic-book-invoking “Take on Me” music video.) The X-Force’s first mission feels like something out of Macgruber, in the best way possible. There’s an A-list celebrity cameo that somehow makes perfect sense, a Rob Delaney appearance that has already become a cult favorite, and a moment that once and for all closes the book on Reynolds’ disastrous Green Lantern.
Not everyone, obviously, will succumb to Deadpool 2’s charms. Jen Yamato at the Los Angeles Times noted it can often feel like “more of the same.” That’s fair. The movie is nothing if not overstuffed. There are rarely breaks from the snark and one-liners. But amidst the piss-taking is a subversive superhero film with more than a few high-action set pieces—which, once Domino enters the fray, become a wonder of Goldbergian choreography. (Leitch was a stuntman and stunt coordinator for years before taking up directing and, as Atomic Blonde proved, knows his way around a fight scene.) And in a cinematic world where the comic-book-adaptation poles are Shiny and Smart Marvel Heroes and Dark and Brooding DC Heroes, it’s nice to go off the grid every once in a while.
As Deadpool 2 builds to its surprisingly heartfelt ending, it becomes apparent that this sequel actually set out to be a movie, not just a series of jokes stuck to a Macguffin. There’s a story, and feelings, and they’re real! This is still a Deadpool movie, though; as soon as the credits roll, it takes a page from the other Marvel films and inserts sequence that restores all the fourth-wall frivolity that set these films apart from almost everything else in the genre. It ends as it began: giving a middle finger to anyone with the gall to call themselves a hero and take the title seriously.