Review: Once Upon a Deadpool

by Andrew Parker

Boasting a duller, nastier wit than its predecessor and a newfound brush with sincerity, the adult oriented super-anti-hero sequel Deadpool 2 lacks the anarchic glee and spontaneity of its blockbuster predecessor, but it still has a lot to enjoy. Caught somewhere between mounting an amped up rehash of the first film and an underdeveloped attempt at doing something different with the catty, pop culture referencing, and not all that heroic “merc with a mouth,” Deadpool 2 feels simultaneously far more controlled from a storytelling standpoint and scatterbrained from a tonal perspective. It’s a mixed bag on the whole, but undiscerning fans of the first film likely won’t notice many differences.

WAIT. Hold it right there, sports fan. We need to talk.

Excuse me, but who are you, why are you interrupting my review, and why do you have that crazed look in your eye?

I’m your future self, travelling from the month of December to let you know that this review of Deadpool 2 is going to be recycled later in the year when you talk about Once Upon a Deadpool, a PG-13 rated recutting of the film landing in theatres just in time for the holidays and long after the initial R-rated version that made a bazillion dollars arrived on home video.

I just wanted to let you know that you’re going to want to put a minimum amount of effort into dusting this thing off because the people who decided to make a kinder, gentler Deadpool movie surely didn’t give a flying fuck… wait… can I say fuck in a review of a PG-13 movie? Is it okay when the first version of the film had as many f-bombs and curses as it did bullets? Oh, man, this is too tough for me to wrap my head around. I didn’t think this trip to the future through. At any rate, I wanted to tell you that your review of Once Upon a Deadpool should be as glib, lazy, and pointless as possible. You know how Deadpool always says “maximum effort” before he does some crazy shit? Well, I want you to do this with minimum effort.

Wait, is there a reason for making this “Once Upon a Deadpool”? Did someone lose a bet or something?

No, it’s probably a combination of greed and contractual obligation. Since Fox pushed Alita: Battle Angel out of the holiday movie season, the company was probably obliged to provide something to exhibitors as a replacement, and they didn’t have any idea that were better, ready to be released, or cheaper. Or maybe it’s just greed. It could always be greed.

So, it’s basically the same movie minus a lot of what made it remotely amusing?

We’ll get to that. Just continue the review. The plot section is next and that’s not going to change at all.

Everyone’s favourite unkillable, foul mouthed burn victim, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds, who also shares a screenwriting credit this time out), suffers a personal tragedy and spirals into a depression. Searching for some kind of meaning in his life, Wade, a.k.a. Deadpool, reluctantly offers his assistance to some of his X-Men buddies (at least the ones who’ll talk to him) to help capture an unruly mutant teenager named Russell (Julian Dennison), who can produce devastating fireballs from his hands and is travelling down a dark, potentially villainous moral path. Russell has attracted the attention of Cable (Josh Brolin), a time travelling, partially bionic bounty hunter, who has seen the young man’s future and decided to take the lad out before future devastation and death can occur. Initially unenthusiastic about protecting Russell, Wade gradually warms to the awkward, but equally rude and crude teen. Wade shields Russell from Cable’s relentless onslaught, thinking that he might be able to reason with the frightened and misguided teen.

Deadpool 2 director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) and returning screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese follow the sequel production playbook to the letter. Rule one in that playbook is that everything has to be cranked to eleven at all times, and rule two states that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Neither approach works, but the new additions to the Deadpool 2 universe offer a lot more substance and novelty than the familiar, reheated elements.

So is there anything new about this or is it just a case of Once Upon a Deadpool scrubbing all of its nastiness away?

Well, there’s a little bit that’s new. Once Upon a Deadpool is framed by wrap-around segments revolving around the hero tying an adult Fred Savage to a bed in a replica of the bedroom set from The Princess Bride and reading him the storybook version of Deadpool 2. But outside of a handful of alternate line readings, one or two throwaway deleted scenes that will appeal only to those wondering if Wade really jerked off into a soap dispenser or not, and a tremendously incompetent editorial sensibility that destroys the novelty of the original version, no, there’s nothing new here.

So will my previous criticisms and praises of Deadpool 2 stand, or do I actually need to see Once Upon a Deadpool?

No. You never need to see Once Upon a Deadpool for any reason whatsoever, but just get on with the review or we’ll be here longer than you need to be.

Do these wrap-arounds do anything? Do they go anywhere?

Honestly, they’re pretty lifeless and worthless. Savage does what he can, but both of them seem to care very little about their turd polishing gig. They don’t even pop up frequently throughout the movie. There are some points where Savage will interrupt to interject about plot holes, Cable’s convoluted mythology in the comics, or how such an irreverent motion picture so readily embraces the cliches it seems to be railing against, but none of it is particularly laugh-out-loud funny, and the viewer always knows that it’s a matter of time before they’re transported back to watching the lethargic and dull daytime television edit of Deadpool 2.

After an initial set-up that’s more of a comic send up of Leitch’s previous films than a Deadpool film, everything settles into a familiar groove. There will be plenty of inappropriately used, but instantly recognizable pop ditties to score the bloodshed and bawdiness.

I gotta stop you right there to note that for no particular reason, Fox wasn’t able to get the musical rights to all of the songs used in Deadpool 2 for Once Upon a Deadpool, a title that you should only repeat because SEO rules dictate that we repeat it as many times as possible for cheap Google hits. Once Upon a Deadpool. Once Upon a Deadpool. Once Upon a Deadpool. Anyway, the inspired opening credits sequence with the baffling Celine Dion song is gone (as is most of the opening sequence), as are a handful of others.

There’s an impressive, large scale car chase. The whole thing will build to a group schmozzle where even the underused side characters can show off their stuff while saving the day. The film’s true villain (Eddie Marsan’s evangelical, maniacal schoolmaster) barely factors into anything and is underdeveloped outside of being heinously sadistic and evil.

Leitch does a fine enough job containing it all, but almost every major set piece is just a riff on previously designed set pieces and beats from the last film (save for Reynolds and Dennison attempting to fight their way out of a supermax prison for mutants). It’s not that these sequences are bad or mounted without a sense of action-packed cleverness, but that they’re uninspired because they’ve been trotted out a second time with only minor tweaks to differentiate them.

The jokes fall into the same category of familiarity, and while there are still plenty of genuine belly laughs and witty meta gags peppered throughout, the shine of Deadpool as a character has worn off considerably. After the first film, audiences will know exactly what to expect from Wade Wilson, and the punchlines becomes almost as predictable as the plotline. Some of that is a side effect of the character just spouting off witticisms like bullets in hopes that any of them will stick, but the amount of material the character has at his disposal is somewhat limited. Reynolds can sometimes get a laugh simply through his unrivaled way to turn the most banal of phrases into gold, but the hit to miss ratio skews slightly into the negative category here. It doesn’t help matters that Wernick, Reese, and Reynolds have subscribed to the idea that offering up meaner, edgier, and purposefully triggering jokes automatically makes things funnier and more bombastic. Again, like everything else here, sometimes it works, but mostly it doesn’t. Like many sequels, not much thought has been put into changing the mechanics of the main character and the film around it in favour of not tampering with a potentially lucrative brand.

“Tampering with a potentially lucrative brand”? It’s almost like you sensed this was going to happen. Can we talk about the comedy in Once Upon a Deadpool and how it retroactively makes Deadpool 2 look like a terrible movie?

Sure, but mostly because I’m afraid to stop you.

The problem with scrubbing all the blood and cursing from Deadpool 2 is that it turns Once Upon a Deadpool into a confusing, confounding, and atonal mess. Forget for a moment that some of the dubbing used to insert alternate lines or obscure nasty language is so piss poor that sometimes it’s obvious that the actors’ mouths aren’t even moving when they speak, and focus on how Once Upon a Deadpool does everything in its power to ruin all of its comedic and dramatic timing. They’re only allowed a single f-word, plenty of shits, and only a couple of bitches, and those who re-cut Once Upon a Deadpool doesn’t even know how to keep the best instances of such language. No one’s heart is in doing this.

Once Upon a Deadpool seems to have been crafted at a pace somewhere shy of 1.5 speed in a bid to gloss over some of the gore and gags they weren’t able to digitally remove. Punchlines are already crippled through their newfound gentility, but they’re also not given space to breathe. Every comedic beat crashes into the next one like an eighteen car pile-up of shitty jokes that you knew weren’t as shitty the first or second time you heard them.

Clean humour is absolutely fine, but it requires a completely different script than the one created for Deadpool 2. No amount of dubbing and tinkering will ever save this mess. It makes the original version into something incompetent, but I guess it’s worthwhile viewing for anyone wondering how studios can turn something with potential into an outright fucking disaster through a variety of awful creative choices designed to bring in the largest possible audience; something that the Deadpool films never needed to do in the first place to succeed. I’d almost suggest that you don’t even proofread the things I’m saying out of protest.

Second time?

Oh, yeah, I guess I should mention that you end up seeing Deadpool 2 more than once, which might explain why you’re absolutely going to hate Once Upon a Deadpool.

But is the stuff that I really liked the most still in there and mostly intact?

I was just getting to that.

The only tampering that has been done to Deadpool 2 (I love that you used the word tampering so much in this review) is the film’s stealthiest and greatest asset. Instead of playing Wade’s backstory for laughs, Deadpool 2 allows the character to show some degree of vulnerability and weakness. At several points, Wade will snap out of his snarky wheelhouse and suddenly realize the severity of his situation, and it’s always well played here. There are also moments where the selfish anti-hero shows a genuine and heartfelt concern for those close to him. Sure, he’d just as soon kill everyone in the room so he could take care of business on his own, but the softening of Deadpool as a character offers a nifty, much needed wrinkle into a character that’s more or less portrayed as being unstoppable and purposefully annoying.

So here’s the thing: not only does the choppiness and clear lack of care that went into the repackaging of Once Upon a Deadpool kill the jokes, it also makes the original work’s stabs at sincerity and genuine emotion feel trite and cynically crafted. In a sanitized and bastardized version, the earnestness of Deadpool 2 becomes insufferable and suffocating. Instead of a clever riff on superhero movies, it becomes just another superhero movie that’s indistinguishable, but somehow lamer and tamer than a Guardians of the Galaxy film, and the emotional growth of the material is stunted because it doesn’t feel like the work of the same characters or writers. If the comedy doesn’t work this time, the drama assuredly doesn’t work.

But do you think that’s because I’ve seen this film a couple of times now?

No, I think it you just know how to spot a bad movie when you see one. And Once Upon a Deadpool is a bad movie made from something you had marginally positive feelings about.

Reynolds can be a warm screen presence when called upon, and he displays it nicely here in scenes alongside the gruffly reliable Brolin, Dennison (who proves that his star making turn in Taika Waititi’s The Hunt for the Wilderpeople was no fluke), the CGI rendered Colossus (voice by Stefan Kapicic HA! I found an old typo. We’re totally leaving that in.), or Morena Baccarin, who returns as Wade’s beloved. He’s also a generous enough performer to not hog all of the laughs, giving everyone else plenty to do regardless of screen time, especially Zazie Beetz, who effortlessly and coolly steals all of her scenes in the film’s action oriented second half as Domino, a mutant blessed with unbelievable luck. There’s a sense that Reynolds and company want everyone to have a good time, and while their definition of a good time might differ from everyone else’s, the film’s jovial nature is the only thing that makes Deadpool 2 feel like a lark rather than an assembly line studio film.

Why are you looking at me like that?

I thought you might have something to add here. Did I think anything differently about the cast this time?

Well, you definitely miss seeing Fred Savage in something that’s actually good. And you were also reminded that Zazie Beetz is a goddamned superstar.

Maybe I’m reading into Deadpool 2 too strenuously, but I’m sure that everyone who thinks I’m some sort of academically minded buzzkill stopped reading after the opening sentence and looking at the star rating. I know that a film built around a fourth wall breaking character with a penchant for sex, scat, and snide jokes probably won’t reinvent the cinematic form, but judging by how unexpectedly successful the first film in this now solidified franchise was, it’s hard not to expect something more and different. Visually and mechanically, it’s basically the same film as the first one, which will please some and leave others wanting. It’s not a bad or a badly made movie by any stretch, but if it cut back on the nastiness in favour of fresher jokes and tried something new from an action standpoint, Deadpool 2 would have been a lot better.

So, what I still don’t get is why this is something necessary to release into theatres. Do they think Once Upon a Deadpool will actually make money? Do they think that the kids who wanted to see Deadpool 2 haven’t seen it already, either in secret or with the permission of parents who have been pestered into letting them watch it?

Well, Fox has framed Once Upon a Deadpool as something where approximately one dollar from every ticket sold will go to charity, but you could just as easily and more genuinely donate to literally any charity on earth and save two hours of your life that could be better spent just watching Deadpool 2 again. It’s just a shameless attempt to bleed a cow dry by vigorously milking it. It doesn’t deserve a shred of your attention. Just donate to charity directly this holiday season.

Well, thanks for taking that bullet for me, but doesn’t that mean that if you’re here, I still go ahead and watch this thing anyway out of morbid curiosity? Am I powerless to stop the future?

Probably, but that puts more thought into what you’re doing now than the team behind Once Upon a Deadpool put into making it.

Any other advice while I have you here?

Yes. Once Upon a Deadpool comes out the same weekend as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which is the best superhero movie of the year next to Black Panther, and you should just watch that multiple times instead. Also, if Sony releases a horror movie and they don’t screen it for press in advance, don’t bother doubling back on it. You’ll just hate your life.

Do you think any other critics are having this same discussion with their future selves?

I’m sure you’re not the only hack critic who has thought about this. Much like Once Upon a Deadpool, it’s a lazy way to address something insufferably cheap.

Once Upon a Deadpool opens in theatres everywhere on Wednesday, December 12, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Once Upon a Deadpool:

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