Deadpool 2 – Entertaining But Nothing Too Special

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It’s easy to lambast a sequel, especially a sequel to an unexpected runaway hit like ‘Deadpool.’ Low-budget success stories almost always lead to bloated, high budget follow-ups. You’d think lessons have been learned, but this is the trend and things don’t change very swiftly in the Hollywood circuit. With a fifty million dollar budget, ‘Deadpool‘ walked away with more the three-quarters of a billion dollars at the global box-office. This makes it one of the most successful R-rated films of all time and, when we consider investment-cost versus return, ‘Deadpool‘ is one of the most successful comic book movies of all time. Of course there was going to be a sequel.

Consider, for just a brief moment, ‘Avengers: Infinity War.’ It’s likely to break the billion dollar tape, but production costs (before advertising) are rumored to be around three-hundred-million dollars. Speaking dollars and cents, ‘Deadpool‘ is a hum-dinger of a smash-hit compared to the likes of this season’s most aggressively promoted and widely talked about blockbuster. Spend fifty and make a thousand, or spend three hundred and make a thousand? The math is pretty simple, isn’t it?

Bloated budgets lend themselves to bloated features, and that’s really the only problem with ‘Deadpool 2.’ After it’s initial success, nobody was surprised that the studio green-lit a follow-up with an increased budget, increased scope, increased scale, and increased ambitions; in some ways (not all) it’s hard to deny that the money was spent wisely – on excellent action set-pieces, extraordinary visual effects, and surprising cameos. But the cast size has more than doubled and, as a predictable consequence, the narrative is less focused.

I grant the follow-up to ‘Deadpool‘ one thing: it’s a film that knows exactly what it is.

I know we don’t like to give much credit to goofball comedies and comic book movies – we don’t expect them to earn awards for screenwriting or acting or find a seat at the film archive at the library of congress – but what separates a good film from a bad film isn’t genre. Self-awareness is what separates the wheat from the chaff; nobody spoke of ‘Dumb and Dumber‘ as an award-worthy feature, but it’s still considered a contemporary classic because it wasn’t ever trying to be anything other than precisely what it was. There’s nothing worse than mediocre Oscar-bait trying to be something more than it is – consider ‘J. Edjar,’ ‘Seven Pounds,’ ‘The Soloist,‘ ‘Stop-Loss,’ and even successful scam-jobs like ‘Crash‘ and ‘The Hurt Locker.

I’m not much into spoilers, which makes it hard to talk about ‘Deadpool 2.’ Hidden jokes in machine-gunned dialogue, background easter eggs, and at least one major (and hilarious) cameo, this is a film that is less about being high art and more about being a carnival ride, a roller-coaster, a treat to the senses that appeals, let’s face it, to our baser selves. Severed limbs, creative visual effects, and the occasional fart joke never hurt anybody. And ‘Deadpool 2‘ is worth the price of admission.

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Logan (Soaring Character Development – Low Budget)

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The struggle between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ is a real one. Content is regularly stripped of complexity to make stories more accessible to more people. Films are also regularly stripped of violence and profanity to achieve a PG-13 rating, making stories more accessible to the widest possible audience. Material is dumbed-down, focus-grouped, and manufactured ‘by committee,’ and the result is often a muddled, boring, effects-driven dumpster fire.

Wolverine Origins is a good example. It had stunning visuals and a magnificent opening montage to illustrate Logan’s near-immortal status and battle-hardened personality, but it also bastardized many beloved characters and fell flat to a passionate fan-base. More recently, we have the Suicide Squad and Batman V Superman debacles, films that spent a tremendous amount of money only to insult hardcore fans. Sure, these films performed okay at the box-office and appealed to casual fans, but they were roundly dismissed by critics and didn’t perform as well as the studio had hoped. With huge up-front costs, large action set-pieces, and remarkable visual effects – not to mention monumental marketing campaigns – these films ultimately did not pass muster.

Films made by committee, that attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, never endure. Marketing may contribute to successful opening weekends, but the numbers predictably dropped-off as the word spread. Home video sales take a huge hit in these situations, and movies like this quickly become bargain-bin offerings at Wal-Mart.

We’ve had a couple of wonderful object-lessons in recent years. Deadpool‘s monumental success is often cited as the only reason Logan was allowed to have an R rating. Both films were made with a modest budget compared to other films of the genre and both films performed exceedingly well at the box office. With smaller crews, practical effects, and lower budgets, the film-makers were given more freedom to execute their vision without interference from the studios.

A novelist doesn’t hire a crew of people to change his story in order to make it more palatable to wider audiences. Why is this model so routinely employed in Hollywood? The most celebrated films of all time are typically the realization of one person’s singular vision. The rise of the writer/director in the 1960s and 1970s is our evidence. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are two recognizable names, and they are notorious for their relentless control over their productions. I would shudder to imagine what Pulp Fiction would have been like if Bob and Harvey Weinstein had insisted on focus groups and a rating reduction.

We certainly wouldn’t be revering the film today.

Director James Mangold spun some magic with Logan, borrowing the tone from the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book series and allowing the titular character to be exactly what he has been on the written page for the past several decades. The budget was modest and the set-pieces weren’t heavily glossed over with digital trickery. The film was concrete and character driven, something that’s difficult to do with a large ensemble cast. The gravitas of a specific character’s arc is difficult to illustrate with an Avengers-style film, with over a dozen major players to consider. Logan focuses mainly on two characters, Logan and Charles Xavier, and the minimalist approach leads to meaningful and emotional character arcs.

Being smaller is a good thing for super-hero and comic-book properties. The source material is serialized story-telling anyway, and we’ve seen several new comic book properties being adapted for the small screen. Daredevil and Luke Cage, Dirk Gently, Preacher, The Walking Dead, and many others have proved to be successful adaptations of comic book stories, capturing the imaginations of not just children, but adults as well. This is where the R rated film comes into play. Comic books aren’t just for kids, as television networks and Hollywood executives have assumed for an entire generation. Comic books are our modern mythology. We’ve all been raised on comic books and there are plenty of 18+ viewers who want to see these stories told in an adult, mature way.

Logan effectively closes the chapter on the Wolverine story, passing the torch to a new Wolverine. It lays the groundwork for a whole new set of stories without overwhelming glitz and glamour, without throw-away exposition and forgettable characters. The film relies on character and story, not effects. It respects its audience, rather than insulting the audience’s intellect. It did something that few of these superhero films has been able to achieve – it has a heart. It has grounded characters whose struggle we can identify with on some level. In over fifteen years of playing Logan and Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart ended the saga in a beautiful way, paving the way for new stories.

After the success of Deadpool and Logan, let’s hope that the message has been read loud and clear. Audiences aren’t only ready for more mature stories. They want them.

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