I have mentioned, once or twice in the past, my theory that superhero franchises are uniquely likely to produce sequels that improve upon their predecessor. And I'll stick by it, while noting with some annoyance that the 2010s most visible superhero franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, seems largely resistant to this trend. For here we are with Deadpool 2, an improvement on 2016's Deadpool in pretty much 100% of the available ways (it appears that I somehow found may way clear to giving Deadpool a positive review at the time, but boy, has it withered and rotted in my memory). And it's for the classic reason, too: the first film figured out how to do the character, so the second film gets to spend all of its time and attention on what to do. The result is a broader, more expansive thing in every way: it has more kinds of jokes than the first film (in which everything was either mocking formulaic comic book movies, or hoping the word "fuck" was intrinsically funny), more and better action, substantially more of an attempt to have some kind of strong emotional content. Though this last bit is inherently at odds with the film's open aim to be totally insincere and self-aware, a perfect post-modern object that wants us to understand that what we're watching is made up by filmmakers on a set and in computers and that the story has no stakes whatsoever. So I'm not sure if the emotional material is itself part of the joke, or a massive, idiotic miscalculation, though my instinct and preference is to assume it's the former.

Discussing the film in terms of its plot is at least somewhat missing the point, I think, but it's solid comic book boilerplate: immortal mercenary Wade "Deadpool" Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) has made quite a fine life for himself and his lady love Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) in the two years since the first movie, working as a low-rent killer for hire. But he's about to be pulled back into the X-Men universe: after Vanessa is killed by one of his marks, Deadpool finds himself hunting for meaning, which he finds by taking a job as an X-Man Trainee, under the firm guidance of metal Russian mutant Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapičić). It's in this capacity that Deadpool crosses paths with the troubled mutant orphan Russell Collins (Julian Dennison, playing a more violent version of his character from Hunt for the Wilderpeople to strong effect), a bitter little teenage asshole who can make fire with his hands. Having spent much of his life at a horrible "reeducation center" where young mutants are abused emotionally and physically, Russell really just wants to kill shit, and decades from now, he'll be pretty good at doing just that. This is why cyborg assassin Cable (Josh Brolin) arrives from the future to kill Russell when he's still a young hothead. Having witnessed enough death, Deadpool throws himself into the job of stopping Cable, and when the goody two-shoes X-Men won't help, he starts his own team, X-Force, to win by whatever dirty tricks are needed. This involves several of the film's best jokes that I want least to spoil; it also involves getting Zazie Beetz into the film as Domino, a mutant whose power is "luck", and Beetz is so enormously good as to be worth a whole half-star above the first film regardless of what else is going on.

It's hard as hell to take any of this seriously when Deadpool 2 itself refuses to do so: the main gimmick of the character, both in his years on the page and in the script by Reynolds, Rhett Reese, & Paul Wernick, is that he's aware that he's a somewhat tacky comic book anti-hero and the world around him is governed by a limited set of narrative tropes. The result is a parodic, comic tone that leaves virtually no room for stakes: even Vanessa's death, which the film exclusively treats with a somber tone, perpetually feels like the film realises and celebrates what a hacky non-solution that is to character motivation. The trick, then, is to find something that will do in place of stakes, which for Deadpool 2 largely involves going bigger and more ridiculous with the sarcastic humor that was the primary point of interest in the first film. It is a sillier film, basically. Deadpool 2 is 11 minutes longer than Deadpool, and much less focused in its narrative momentum, but it somehow feels breezier and bouncier, which I think has a lot to do with Reynolds, Reese & Warnick being more comfortable with the material. The first film tried very hard throughout: it has the stink of a proof of concept, in which every single moment is a mildly sweaty, overworked attempt to make sure we "get" how crude and edgy and quippy the character is. Deadpool 2 has plenty of forced, dumb moments that feel as weak as the worst parts of the original: a protracted "baby dick" sequence that stretches one poor joke out for several aching minutes, or a potshot at the character's notorious creator Rob Liefeld that was at least a couple of re-writes away from being a line of dialogue that Reynolds the actor had the capacity to speak out loud. Mostly, though, it's a lot lighter and more absurd, much better at making its exaggerated violence seem wacky rather than gross, its pop culture references springy rather than laborious (I am particularly fond of the James Bond credit sequence with a weepy Celine Dion ballad, a joke that cuts off just seconds before it gets old).

Could just be as simple a thing as the change in director. The most significant change to the creative team is that Tim Miller (who had never directed a film prior to Deadpool and still hasn't made a second) has been replaced by David Leitch, co-director of the 2014 John Wick, who made his solo debut with 2017's outstanding Atomic Blonde. This has one obvious, major effect on the film, which is that its action scenes are vastly superior not just to those in Deadpool, but to almost every other supehero movie of the last several years. There's a very good car chase in the middle of the film that moves between different stages of action with excellent timing (the film has four editors, some comedy specialists and some action specialists, including Leitch's regular collaborator Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir), and a climactic slug-fest between two CGI blobs that is one of the very best CGI blob fights I've seen, actually suggesting a clash of two heavy, large fighters with substantial weight and mass. It's, like, a proper action movie, something a superhero film hasn't been since God I don't even want to think of when.

More to the point, though, Leitch keeps things moving fast. This is a plottier film with more character moments than the first, but it never lags or even really slows down, all the way through its peppy mid-credits montage sequence (which feels, presumably by accident, like a piss-take of Avengers: Infinity War). How much of that is really the director's fault, I can't say - he's made no peppy films prior to this. But Deadpool 2 has an overwhelming sense of constant forward moment, a perpetual desire to see the next thing and the next after that, to get to the next joke as fast as possible, and that sprightliness is critical in making the film enjoyable as a bright popcorn movie in the absence of any real emotions or consequence.

Reviews in this series
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)
Logan (Mangold, 2017)
Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018)
Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019)
The New Mutants (Boone, 2020)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2 (Singer, 2003)