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It’s easy to lambast Hollywood’s recent wave of superhero blockbusters. They’re visually stunning yet their plots are overly familiar; there’s never really any conflict or tension since, you know, nobody important will die, lest the next half-dozen already scheduled sequels and off-shoot movies be rendered obsolete; they’re more concerned with building cinematic universes than they are with telling substantial standalone narratives. So it’s only been a matter of time before Marvel Studios got in on the jokes being doled out by the most cynical anti-superhero critics. Deadpool is made largely for them. Based on Marvel’s anarchistic, wisecracking, formula-breaking comic book favorite, it’s what might happen if The Raid filmmaker Gareth Evans tried to make a modern-day Naked Gun with costumed mutant heroes instead of bumbling cops.
And in Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool director Tim Miller has his comically proficient Leslie Nielsen. Despite his futile efforts to both go dramatic (see, or, rather, don’t see: Atom Egoyan’s The Captive) and hugely commercial (ditto for Green Lantern and R.I.P.D.), Reynolds has always been at his best when allowed to fully embrace his gift for snarky gab, which he gets to do uncompromisingly here. He plays Wade Wilson, a former Special Ops soldier who, after being diagnosed with late-stage cancer, voluntarily undergoes an experiment overseen by the evil Ajax (Ed Skrein); post-hospital, his face looking like Freddy Krueger on a particularly ugly Elm Street day, but he's also capable of healing inhumanly fast. With his newfound powers, Wade, or the newly coined "Deadpool," forms a motley X-Men-lite crew to take down Ajax and rescue Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), the hooker turned love-of-his-life who’s been kidnapped by Ajax’s goons.
Deadpool’s dirty secret is that, despite its best efforts to obliterate all superhero conventions, and despite the aggressively subversive marketing that’s plastered Ryan Reynolds’ handsome mug everywhere imaginable over the last few months, it’s ultimately just another origin story. Like all of its predecessors, Deadpool escalates towards a reasonably thrilling yet altogether ho-hum action spectacle of a climax, which puts it squarely in line with every other Marvel movie. (Fortunately, though, there’s no post-9/11 city-under-fire allusions here, unlike both Avengers movies.)
But those other superhero movies didn’t have Ryan Reynolds—well, save for the awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which Reynolds played a bastardized and defanged version of Deadpool. Finally able to own the character’s roughness, Reynolds is brilliant here, even getting to throw shade at past follies like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Green Lantern. Opening with a tongue-in-cheek credits sequence citing characters as "A Hot Chick," "A Moody Teen," and "A Gratuitous Cameo," Deadpool immediately destroys the fourth wall and continues to dance all over it. And Reynolds does so with demented glee, nailing every line of juvenile dialogue (he calls himself a "butterface" twice) and using his elastically ripped physicality to give the film’s endless bursts of cartoony over-the-top violence their necessary Looney Tunes edge. He gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best performance yet, pulling off a magic trick that’d leave Deadpool’s fellow X-Men colleague Gambit in awe: Reynolds makes an otherwise familiar superhero movie feel like system-busting middle-finger-you to familiar superhero movies.
Deadpool opens in theaters nationwide tomorrow, February 12th.