Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds, “The Proposal”) is perhaps Marvel Comics’ most memorable character of the ’90s, and he sometimes feels like a time capsule of that decade’s pop culture. His stories are self-referential, ultraviolent and filled to the brim with the same skateboard-riding, backwards hat-sporting ‘tude that filled the era’s music videos and professional wrestling shows. Lately, though, his books have felt a bit dated — the chimichanga jokes have been getting a bit tired, and the fourth-wall-breaking metahumor has, at this point, been done better elsewhere.
Thankfully, 20th Century Fox and Reynolds’s long-in-the-making superhero vehicle provides a nice update to a character on the verge of feeling passé. “Deadpool” is a comedy surprisingly on the pulse of contemporary geek culture, gleefully satirizing the nine-figure grossing comic book films that have skyrocketed Disney and Marvel to the forefront of the film zeitgeist. While he’s killing the bad guys, Deadpool loves to spit one-liners and make fun of superhero tropes. No pop culture is safe here — from digs at Reynolds’ terrible 2011 “Green Lantern” film to a particularly nasty “127 Hours” meets Judy Blume joke (yeah, I’m not going to try to explain that one here — just see the movie), “Deadpool” ’s referential satire is refreshingly on point.
But it isn’t purely a comedy. “Deadpool” is a decent comic-book origin story sandwiched between two huge, extraordinarily entertaining action scenes. Reynolds is a superb Wade Wilson, a lowlife gun-for-hire with a heart of gold, who falls for Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, “Homeland”), a sassy but endearing prostitute. The two fall into a superficial but still rather sweet romance (via one of the better meet cutes I’ve seen lately), which is promptly interrupted by some bad news for Wade — he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer.
We don’t quite get enough time with the two to really care about their relationship, but we get the point. He loves her, he’s going to die and he needs to cure himself so he can be with her. Wade makes a deal with the devil: he’s deceived by the Machiavellian Ajax (the Jai Courtney-esque Ed Skrein, “The Transporter Refueled”) into undergoing a brutal mutation treatment. He’s cured, and given Wolverine-like mutant powers to boot — but his features are deformed, he’s brainwashed and left for dead. Deadpool is born, and he’s out for revenge.
That last part probably sounds pretty familiar, huh? For all its innovation as a piece of satire (I’ll be spoiling none of its jokes here), “Deadpool” doesn’t nail the formal meat-and-potatoes stuff of being a good superhero movie. Skrein’s Ajax continues the long tradition of lame, one-dimensional supervillains that plague the Loki-less Marvel films. Vanessa is an initially interesting foil for Wade, but she’s quickly packed away into a damsel-in-distress box and isn’t really given space to feel interesting again. Perhaps most obnoxiously, mutants Colossus (Stefan Kapičić, “24”) and the insufferable Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand, “Annie Undocumented”) are shoehorned into the otherwise excellent fight scenes for no perceivable reason other than to promote the upcoming “X-Men” film.
But where “Deadpool” fails as a straightforward superhero movie, it more than makes up for in its subversive humor, and its performance from Reynolds. This is by far the most impressive work, comedic or dramatic, that Reynolds has done. His razor-sharp cadence and bravado carry this film even when it’s on its most tired dregs in the second act. He’s dropping six jokes a minute, and the majority of them hit hard. T.J. Miller (“Silicon Valley”), essentially playing himself, is another highlight as Deadpool’s confidante Weasel, a smarmy hipster who somehow ended up as the proprietor of the tough-guy bar where ‘pool hangs out.
“Deadpool” is at its best when it’s poking and prodding the lurching Kevin Feige-shaped blob of the “other” Marvel Comics movies, and isn’t quite as competent at standing freely as its own superhero film. But with the exception of a few unfortunate clunkers (there’s a pretty transphobic joke or two in there, ugh), “Deadpool” ’s innovative, hilarious comedy is more than enough to justify the trip to the theater.
Stay until the end of the credits. If you’ve been paying attention, I shouldn’t have to tell you why.