Deadpool, film review: Sarcastic superhero can't quite save the day

(15) Tim Miller, 108 mins. Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, Gina Carano, Brianna Hildebrand

Deadpool is a Marvel comic adaptation with a David Beckham joke in it. It is not an especially funny joke but at least it is there. As Marvel movies are made for ever bigger budgets, with ever more portentous storylines and overblown special effects, this is an entry in the cycle that makes a virtue of its relatively modest scale. The driving force isn't the action but the relentless sarcasm of the hero himself. Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) may be "super" but, by his own admission, he isn't really a hero. He challenges us to guess "whose balls" he had to "fondle" to get his own movie. His humour may be self-deprecating but that doesn't stop him taking sideswipes at other targets, including Beckham, for his squeaky voice, and Sinéad O'Connor, for her close-cropped hair.

The joshing tone is set at the outset, during the opening titles, in which are listed all the stereotypes and genre clichés the film intends to rehash. These include the mandatory "British villain". The storytelling style is deliberately choppy and episodic, with heavy-handed flashbacks and frequent winks at the audience.

Deadpool, directed by Tim Miller, is considerably more violent and salacious than the average Marvel adaptation – which is one reason why it has a 15 certificate instead of the usual 12A, which would allow in the younger audiences that bigger-budget blockbusters usually depend on. The disappointment is that the film is never quite as hardboiled as it pretends to be. Strip away the ironic jokes, and Reynolds' character isn't all that different from Captain America – and hardly any more sardonic than Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man. Deadpool may refuse to sign up with the X-Men but when the heroine is in peril, he starts behaving just like all the other superheroes. The plot, likewise, becomes increasingly formulaic the closer the final-reel showdown looms.

The film's DNA is all over the place. The early moments play like something out of last year's Keanu Reeves action movie, John Wick. Deadpool is an urban warrior out for revenge against the mutant British villain Ajax (Ed Skrein), who experimented on him in the labs. He has forgotten his ammo bag and so only has a handful of bullets with which to kill multiple villains. (His solution is to go about his bloody task daisy-chain style, lining up all his enemies like ducks in a row so that a single shot passes through several at once.) This early mayhem is shot in a very stylish way, with slow-motion and freeze-framing. Its impact is lessened by the fact that both Deadpool and Ajax are well nigh indestructible. If the former loses his hand, we know that it will very soon grow back again. If the latter is impaled on a blade, that counts only as a minor inconvenience. Their miraculous powers of recovery strain away any tension from the fight sequences.

From the cartoonishly violent opening, Deadpool lurches into love-story territory. We're cast back in time to before Wade Wilson was turned into Deadpool and had to learn to squeeze his body into red spandex. Wilson, a former Special Forces operative, was minding his own business, working as a wisecracking thug for hire. During these halcyon days, he fell in love with Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin), a street hustler from an even more deprived background than his own, and who could out-trump him when it came to double entendre-laden one-liners.

The episodes involving Wade and Vanessa's courtship play like something out of a screwball romcom and provide many of the film's best moments. Reynolds and Baccarin have an easy comic rapport. It is as if we've escaped momentarily from the Marvel universe. The film-makers are taking the time to establish their characters and to make us care about them. This interlude is too good to last. After a brief diversion into sentimental, Terms of Endearment-style melodrama, we're thrown back into the action. After grim torture scenes in labs, and lots of fire and explosions, the upshot is that Wilson assumes his new identity as superhero (or super anti-hero) Deadpool.

Strip away the ironic jokes, and Reynolds' character isn't all that different from Captain America

Certain plot elements don't make much sense. Deadpool is supposed to be hideously ugly beneath his mask but he is no elephant man. On the rare occasions when he does peel off his mask, he looks scarred and his skin is flaky but he isn't especially badly disfigured. The screenplay (by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese) is so busy serving up one-liners for Ryan Reynolds that its attempts to make us believe in Deadpool's deeper feelings soon founder. Given that he jokes about everything (including sex, death, blindness and terminal illness), it is too much of a leap to accept that he could ever be heartbroken. He is such a flippant character that you struggle to believe that he could be so set on revenge. Reynolds plays him in just too appealing a way for us to get any real sight of the darkness in the character.

The scenes with his accomplices, the punkish Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and the gigantic Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic), don't help. They are so obviously one-dimensional comic-book characters that, whenever they are on screen, the film begins to seem like an episode of a creaky old kids' TV show along the lines of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. There is an obvious tension between Reynolds's sophisticated Deadpool, riffing away in his voiceover like a stand-up comedian, and the other characters, who seem to have stumbled out of some B-movie matinee.

For all the creakiness of its plotting, this is a Marvel adaptation mercifully shorn of bombast. There is far more bite in its humour than in last year's Ant-Man. Reynolds plays the lead role in an enjoyably freewheeling fashion. It's just a pity that the film itself never quite has the courage of its own cynicism.