Smug, adj.: Exhibiting or feeling great or offensive confidence with one’s abilities, superiority, or correctness; self-righteously complacent. See “Deadpool” (2016).
If “Deadpool” planted the flag for smug — for the flippant, pseudo-rebellious fourth-wall breaking that passes for subversiveness in the Marvel corporate universe — the new sequel, “Deadpool 2,” represents its franchising. The movie exports the sensation of being inordinately pleased with oneself and sells it as shock-value entertainment. Directed by David Leitch, “Deadpool 2” is very good at what it does, which is flattering the audience into feeling like it’s in on the joke. If you’re a doubter, though, you may wonder if the joke’s on us.
To get you up to speed: The first “Deadpool,” directed by Tim Miller, brought to the screen an anarchic and fairly minor figure in the X-Men superhero comics cosmos: a wise-cracking former mercenary whose superpower (for reasons detailed in the film) is that he can’t be killed. The movie merged the character with the established persona of actor Ryan Reynolds, whose snarkiness can be so extreme that it precludes emotional involvement; ironically, doubling down on the smarm proved to be a commercial breakthrough. The “Deadpool” movies are positioned as the bratty, ratty, foul-mouthed little brother in the Marvel star system; you go to them to see all the pomposities of the other movies called out and mocked. And to see Wolverine made fun of.
If you can go along for the ride, especially in a crowded and jacked theater, it can feel like a contact high. If you can’t — if the sound of self-congratulatory self-consciousness wears you out after 15 minutes or so — it’s just sort of depressing, like going to a circus that keeps boasting about how stupid it is. Reynolds returns as Wade Wilson, who, under the red-and-black mask, is a mass of burned skin tissue and cynical one-liners; so, too briefly, does Morena Baccarin (“Homeland”) as his lady love, Vanessa.
Most of the action in “Deadpool 2” flits around the edges of the X-Men universe, with Wade called to the oddly underpopulated Xavier Institute by Colossus (a steel behemoth voiced by Stepan Kapicic) and enlisted as a trainee X-Man, a lowly status for which the hero proves his unfitness time and again. The one big joke of this franchise is that Deadpool is an anti-hero superhero, with poor impulse control and a tendency to shoot first and not bother with questions at all.
In a sense, he meets his match in Russell (Julian Dennison), a husky teen misfit who, as Firefist, can throw fireballs to augment his adolescent rage. Those of you lucky to have seen the off-kilter New Zealand comedy-drama “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016) will be happy to know that Dennison, that movie’s small, angry, rotund star, has found gainful employment in Hollywood. I’m not convinced this is progress.
“Deadpool 2” lifts bits and plots from other sci-fi/action properties, but that’s all right, since the 1990s comics on which the movie is based did so too, and without the hero copping to the thievery with jokes about RoboCop and the Terminator. Josh Brolin, whom Marvel apparently has on retainer, appears as Cable, a tough-as-nails super-soldier from the future who wants to stop Russell before the kid grows up to do Something Bad; you don’t have to wait long before Deadpool references Brolin’s day job as Thanos in the “Avengers” cycle.
But it’s that kind of movie, a sort of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” with Joel and the robots actually running around inside the story as they comment on it. All you need to do to play along is get enough pop-culture references to laugh knowingly when the script (by a quartet of writers including Reynolds) makes jokes about depressing DC superhero movies, has Deadpool ape John Cusack in “Say Anything,” or cues up schlocky Celine Dion songs to underscore the blood and guts.
There are one or two characters I wouldn’t mind seeing spun off to their own franchises, though. At one point in “Deadpool 2,” Wade rounds up his own team of off-brand superheroes, each somewhat less than super (and most of them based on actual Marvel characters from the ’90s). One is an average guy named Pater with no powers at all, played by the deadpan comic Rob Delaney of TV’s “Catastrophe.” Even better is Domino (Zazie Beetz of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta”), whose superpower is luck. That’s all — she’s just really lucky, and to see one of those over-controlled, digitally souped-up action sequences lay itself open to chance is a brief and heady thrill. It almost makes you wish they’d make a whole movie that way.
Leitch, a former stuntman turned director, choreographs the action and CGI mayhem with brutal effectiveness and little of the dirty grace he brought to Charlize Theron’s operatic stairway shoot-out in last year’s“Atomic Blonde.” The star does his schtick and invites us in for a giggle but there’s no weight to the character or to Reynolds’s playing of him. He’s like Robert Downey Jr. without the soul. And Robert Downey Jr. without the soul is . . . smug. Even more so the second time around.
Directed by David Leitch. Written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Ryan Reynolds, and Rob Liefeld. Starring Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin. At megaplexes in Boston, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 119 minutes. R (strong violence and language throughout, sexual reference, brief drug material).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.