When Deadpool referred to Cable as “Thanos,” the guy sitting next to me lost it. Because, you know, Thanos is the name of the villain in “Avengers: Infinity War” who is played by Josh Brolin, who also plays Cable, who is mostly the villain in “Deadpool 2.” So many levels of joke, whizzing by in a split-second of screen time. I chuckled, too, then and at other moments. I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies, and that laughter was like cash back from a credit card. Not exactly a huge windfall relative to the original expenditure — I mean, a “Martha” joke is hardly compensation for having endured “Batman v Superman” — but not nothing either.
The first “Deadpool,” based on a Marvel character introduced in the early 1990s (his real name is Wade Wilson), presented itself as an antidote to superhero fatigue, but it was really just another gateway drug. If you wanted to get the jokes, you had some homework to do. More than that, the appeal was predicated on a deep enough investment in the genre to sustain both enthusiasm and cynicism.
“Deadpool 2,” cracking wise at the expense of nearly every intellectual property in the DC and Marvel universes — and occasionally drawing metaphorical blood to go along with the abundant onscreen gore — uses its self-aware irreverence to perform the kind of brand extension and franchise building it pretends to lampoon. By the end, a motley band of warriors has been assembled to fight evil. Another one. Just what we needed. Those jokes about sequels lined up into the next decade aren’t really jokes, are they?
In the meantime, we get a sustained dose of Reynolds’ profane, inventive voice-over, and some kinetic fight scenes, briskly directed by David Leitch. Wade’s face and body are still scarred with burns, and he still dispenses sanguinary rough justice, from behind his makeshift mask, with a pair of ninja swords sheathed in an X across his back. Deadpool’s superpower is his indestructibility. He can’t die even if, for much of the movie, he very much wants to. He is knocked down, cut up, stomped and detonated, and then gets up and keeps fighting.
Grief and despair drive Wade first to seek revenge and then to try to prevent two other acts of vengeance from taking place. His feelings also provide him with a permanent alibi. However vicious he may seem, however cavalier in his killing and maiming, his righteousness is always assured. He befriends a boy named Russell (Julian Dennison), who has pyrotechnic abilities and who has been bullied and abused at a Dickensian home for young mutants. Deadpool protects Russell, which helps guarantee Deadpool’s good-guy status.
Cable pops onto the scene as the kid’s nemesis, and as a lumbering, square-jawed compendium of knowing clichés. He’s a time traveler with a mechanical arm and a military demeanor, in effect Buzz Lightyear to Deadpool’s Woody. The other misfit toys in the box include Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), a large titanium-skinned Russian, and Domino (Zazie Beetz), who has the mysterious ability to emerge unscathed from perilous escapades. “Luck is not a superpower,” Deadpool insists, and his skepticism drives an almost-interesting philosophical argument.
Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), the love of Wade’s life, warns him that his heart is not in the right place, and there is a softness, a sentimentality, at the heart of “Deadpool 2” that at once guarantees its mass acceptability and undermines its satirical credibility. What drives this franchise is the same force that drives so much culture and politics right now: the self-pity of a white man with a relentless need to be the center of attention. He is angry, violent, disrespectful to everyone and everything, and at the same time thoroughly nontoxic and totally cool.
Sure. Great. But there is something ever so slightly dishonest about this character, something false about the boundaries drawn around his sadism and his rage. “Deadpool 2” dabbles in ugliness and transgression, but takes no real creative risks.
Rated R. So you can feel grown up. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.