Ryan Reynolds owned the distinction of appearing in two of the all-time worst superhero films.
Now he’s in one of the best.
After being smothered with dreadful digital effects in “Green Lantern” and relegated to a few one-liners in the woeful “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” Reynolds conquers the leading role of mercenary antihero Deadpool. The actor delivers a perfect combination of kick-ass and smart-ass in Marvel’s first R-rated flick in nearly a decade.
“Deadpool” succeeds as a comedy, a love story, a revenge thriller and a meta comic book skewering — the latter is especially refreshing. Costumed crime-fighters have lost their novelty, but this one capitalizes on that familiarity, taking amusing shots with both a wink and a punch to the throat.
The movie’s first image cements the tone, with Deadpool tumbling in ultra-slow motion along with the opponents he has dispatched (one by way of a dashboard cigarette lighter), who are now mutual victims of a car crash. Then comes the title sequence of the year. The customary marquee names of stars and filmmakers instead are replaced with euphemisms:
“Starring God’s Perfect Idiot.”
“A Hot Girl.”
“A British Villain.”
One credit is particularly telling: “Written by The Real Heroes Here.”
Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Zombieland”) merit that acclaim via a flashback-heavy narrative that nonetheless always pushes forward. Through the heaps of funny asides, the plot remains as unwavering as its protagonist’s wrathful determination.
“I may be super, but I’m no hero,” Deadpool says.
In flashback, we’re introduced to Deadpool’s alter ego, special forces vet Wade Wilson.
Hanging out at the shady bar owned by Weasel (comedian T.J. Miller) — a place described as a “job fair for mercenaries” — Wade makes a living strong-arming deadbeats and stalkers. The venue places a daily bet on who will die first: a dead pool written in chalk above the bar.
But Wade’s lifestyle improves when he meets Vanessa (the dazzling Morena Baccarin), and soon they get engaged. Then he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“Cancer is like Yakov Smirnoff opening for the Spin Doctors at the Iowa State Fair,” he says.
Seeking a last-ditch cure, he’s recruited by a sketchy company run by callous scientist Ajax (Ed Skrein), who promises a radical treatment. That cure comes with its own set of side effects, pressing Wade into adopting a red-and-black costume that hides his permanent disfigurement and going on a quest for vengeance as Deadpool.
Attitude is everything in a project like this. Whereas Reynolds’ natural irreverence clashed with the intergalactic cop he played in “Green Lantern,” it perfectly matches up with the “Merc With a Mouth.” As in the Marvel comics (which introduced Deadpool as a bad guy in the X-Men universe), the film often breaks the fourth wall. The dual sword-wielding warrior gives updates about himself, the movie he’s in and its budgetary limitations — that’s why no matter how many visits he makes to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, we only ever see two X-Men.
Director Tim Miller (a past Oscar nominee for animated short) keeps the humor flowing in his feature debut without ever turning the picture into a joke. The stakes are real. Deadpool’s fury is tangible and justified. Plus, the movie still offers all the delights of a high-end Marvel production while simultaneously making fun of the brand. Doubtful you’ll see Captain America engage in a closing brawl as a knife sticks in his head.
“Deadpool” does to the superhero movie what “Cabin in the Woods” did to the horror film. What a fresh, engaging approach to a seen-it-all-before genre.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 1:48.