You know that uncle? Not the racist one. The one who’s always the life of the party, even when there’s no party, who has one beer too many and punches your arm just a little too hard, who’s always telling jokes even when no one laughs and takes that silence as an invitation to try even harder. That’s Deadpool 2. The follow-up to 2016’s surprise superhero smash is even more overtly “edgy,” concluding its opening sequence with a shot in which its nigh-indestructible hero is blown to bits, his severed head and limbs turning graceful slow-motion spirals as they ride a fireball toward the camera. But not too far beneath the movie’s superficial abrasiveness is a desperate desire to be loved, a puppyish determination that is both hard to resist and, eventually, difficult to endure.
In classic fashion, the unplanned-for sequel to a movie about a chronic loner that ended by pairing him off with a woman begins by killing her off, as Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa takes a stray bullet meant for Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson. (Rather than list the cast and crew, the opening credits channel the audience’s purported shock, reminding us that the director is “one of the guys who killed the dog in John Wick.”) That leaves the new movie free to start from scratch. A few characters carry over from the first, including Karan Soni’s cabbie, T.J. Miller’s barfly, and Brianna Hildebrand’s C-list X-Man (Negasonic Teenage Warhead), but their roles are minor, mostly there to placate fans looking for more of the same. (Weirdly, the returning figure who gets the most screen time is Stefan Kapicic’s Colossus, whose steely humorlessness makes him a perfect foil.)
Although Deadpool 2 repeats the first movie’s jokes about the character being a scrappy castoff not good enough for Marvel’s higher-profile franchises—at one point, Wade opens the wrong door in Charles Xavier’s manor and finds the better-known characters staring back at him in confused irritation—this one has the budget and the clout to allow him to associate with a higher class of co-star. The movie’s most sublime sequence has Deadpool putting together a superhero team of his own, a quick-cut job-interview montage that allows Zazie Beetz’s Domino, Terry Crews’ Bedlam, Bill Skarsgård’s Zeitgeist, and Lewis Tan’s Shatterstar to cycle through in short order, along with Rob Delaney’s Peter—a nonsuperpowered fellow who just liked the sound of the want ad—and the Vanisher, whose invisibility powers prevent him from needing to be played by anyone at all. (If you don’t recognize that as the setup to a gag cameo, you have not been in the Deadpoolverse for long.) Josh Brolin, fresh off turning half the Marvel Cinematic Universe to dust, steps in as Cable, a time traveler from the future with a rather violent approach to correcting the past, and Julian Dennison plays a mutant version of his Tupac-loving Hunt for the Wilderpeople character, here with a traumatic backstory and hands that shoot flame.
Deadpool 2 doesn’t have as many characters as Infinity War, but full enjoyment of it is even more conditional on a thorough versing in the source material. The script, by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and Reynolds, is ceaselessly, sometimes insufferably, knowing. Reynolds breaks the fourth wall so often he might as well be sitting in the seat next to you, mugging and pointing at the screen. When the in-jokes pay off, it’s more satisfying than Infinity War’s knotted plot threads, but the movie often feels like it has the shape of humor without the substance, as if the screenplay were dotted with notations reading [INSERT REFERENCE HERE]. In some ways, Wade Wilson is the ideal role for Reynolds, exploiting his comedic sharpness while hiding his attractively bland face and weaponizing his inextinguishable smugness. But he wears on you over the course of the movie, until you laugh out of exhaustion instead of delight.
Directed by John Wick’s David Leitch, Deadpool 2 has better choreographed, more coherent action scenes than any of its comic book cousins, and its post-credit scenes are genuinely worth sticking around for. They might even be the best part of the film, but only because the rest of the movie feels patched together from scraps, including some sentimental interludes that seem designed to give it “heart” but merely come off as insincere. A little of Deadpool’s incessant winkiness goes a long way, and by the time the movie was over, all I felt was sore.