Since the dawn of time, human beings have laughed — and for nearly as long, one of the easiest ways to get them to do so is to drop an F-bomb. No matter how mature we get — or, maybe, in spite of it — a well-placed vulgarity can be liberatingly hilarious. It lambastes decorum; it punctures stuffiness. Of course, swearing can also be a crutch. Jerry Seinfeld loves telling a story about how, early in his stand-up career, he decided he had to nix a punch line when the joke didn’t get a laugh without a curse word in it. If an audience is laughing only because he swore, he figured the joke wasn’t good enough.
Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool movies have made a killing, in part because they subverted and mocked the conventions of the superhero film. At a time when Marvel was asserting its box-office dominance thanks to a machine-precision assembly line of predictably entertaining product, 2016’s Deadpool was rude, irreverent and satirical. Also, there was lots of swearing. Where most comic-book films are PG-13, Deadpool embraced its R rating, doling out copious amounts of blood and cursing. In hindsight, the film’s success wasn’t surprising: Too easily, we can equate vulgarity with edginess, and after years of Marvel’s safe formula, it was nice to have Reynolds’ smart-ass Wade Wilson character call bullshit.
This May’s Deadpool 2 was more of the same, successfully so, but it opened the series up to what might be called the Jerry Seinfeld Criticism: Sure, these movies are funny because Wilson and his buddies curse a lot, but what would happen if the producers had to clean up their act? Could Deadpool 2 work as a PG-13 film?
Once Upon a Deadpool is here to answer that question — and, it turns out, the film vindicates both sides of the argument. Yeah, I missed the cursing and shocking graphic violence. But I was also reminded that these films aren’t, in fact, just a bunch of F-bombs strung together. Like an acoustic version of a raucous electric rock song that reveals the depth and craft underneath the noise, Once Upon a Deadpool is practically Deadpool 2: Unplugged. It’s not a good movie on its own, but it does speak to what’s good about this franchise — even if it excises a lot of what makes them so fun.
As you’ve probably heard, Once Upon a Deadpool is basically a recut version of Deadpool 2 without the stuff that gets movies an R rating. No nudity, no sex, very little cursing, very little blood. The major new addition is a framing device that mocks a similar technique used in The Princess Bride: Here, Deadpool reads to an adult Fred Savage (who played the kid in that 1980s chestnut) the story of Deadpool 2, with the movie occasionally cutting back to them so Savage can ask questions or comment on what’s happening. (For instance, Savage brings up Deadpool 2’s “fridging” controversy, turning Once Upon a Deadpool into a self-critique of the franchise itself.)
For the most part, the PG-13 version is the movie we saw back in May. It’s the same plot, the same thematic arc, the same ending. But it’s profoundly weird — and illuminating — to watch Deadpool 2 this way. In fact, it might be the most meta film yet in a series that’s been pretty high on postmodern irony and self-referential jokes from the start. You watch Once Upon a Deadpool aware of the parts that aren’t there.
To state what’s probably obvious, you have to have seen Deadpool 2 (and, in theory, the first Deadpool) to really appreciate what’s being attempted here. For one thing, the PG-13 version (because of the new material and the trimmed offensive parts from the original film) sometimes feels like trying to pay attention to the film being derided on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or the music video that Beavis and Butt-head were skewering. In other words, the text itself is sort of not the point of the experience. Savage and Deadpool don’t pop up a ton in the “present,” but they appear enough that Deadpool 2 — which is the core of Once Upon a Deadpool — itself feels like an afterthought.
Other times, Once Upon a Deadpool reminded me of the sensation of watching censored movies on cable. That wasn’t that hard to imagine since I’ve seen Deadpool on FX enough to know that it’s severely neutered with all those F-bombs and bloody wounds excised, their memory hanging like phantom limbs over the cleaned-up film. And especially in the early going, Once Upon a Deadpool is a slog, as funny interactions between characters are hacked to bits and lose their comedic rhythm.
These would seem like very good reasons not to make Once Upon a Deadpool. So why did they? The obvious answer is, duh, money: A PG-13 Deadpool 2 allows kids who couldn’t see the movie in the theater to buy a ticket. But The Ringer’s Miles Surrey points out another important reason: With Fox (which released Deadpool 2) merging with Disney (which releases MCU films), the success of Once Upon a Deadpool could make it feasible that Wade Wilson joins Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers.
“The X-Men and Fantastic Four would ideally fit right into what Disney has done with the MCU, but Deadpool is a trickier nut to crack,” Surrey writes. “Would a fourth-wall-breaking antihero with a penchant for ludicrously gory, R-rated violence work under Mouse House? Will Disney be all right keeping the Deadpool franchise as is, or will the company want to dull its edges?”
Once Upon a Deadpool coyly jokes about the studio merger during one of the Savage segments, but if Disney decided to insist on a PG-13 Deadpool 3 — although unlikely — this new film argues it might not be a total disaster. Because although I missed the profanity and violence, what emerged even stronger in Once Upon a Deadpool is Deadpool 2’s really likable characters and its surprising amount of heart.
For example, I had forgotten how great Zazie Beetz is as Domino, who insists her superpower is being lucky. (She might have a point — hilariously so, as she gets out of every scrape miraculously unscathed.) And I hadn’t prepared for myself how legitimately touching much of Deadpool 2 is. Sure, the film turns Wilson’s girlfriend into a conventional plot point when she’s killed, but there’s real pathos to her death and Wade’s eventual, albeit brief, reunion with her. And for all of Deadpool’s claims that Deadpool 2 really is a family film, in a sense it sorta is — and that sentiment about the search for community among misfits is just as strong here, even though the cursing is absent.
There are very few precedents for Once Upon a Deadpool. Sometimes, PG-13 comedies will get unrated versions on DVD and on-demand, allowing the filmmakers to squeeze in more nudity or swearing that they couldn’t include for the theatrical release. The Weinstein Company released a PG-13 cut of The King’s Speech — it got an R for a few curse words — but that film wasn’t significantly redone. Once Upon a Deadpool is, although it doesn’t bring anything substantially new to Deadpool 2. (There are “new” scenes that are clearly outtakes from the original shoot.)
And yet, this might be the most experimental studio movie of the year. Yeah, that experiment is almost entirely based on craven commercial considerations (as well as, it turns out, raising money for a good cause), but the film represents the first time in Hollywood history where a blockbuster has been re-released without the elements that are its calling cards. (No one wants to see Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.) Happily, Once Upon a Deadpool argues that Deadpool is more than curse worse and gunshot wounds — its snotty tone and gooey emotions remain intact. But it’s hard to imagine why most sane people would want to fucking watch it.