★★ ½
Now playing

With the irreverent action comedy Deadpool, Marvel Entertainment jumps headfirst into the hard-R end of the comic-book movie spectrum. The results are mixed. The good news is that the film is better than the trailers suggest—largely because the best jokes are far too filthy to put in general-audience previews.

The bad news is that the movie isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, and the essential shabbiness of the concept can’t be obscured. Deadpool is basically a wisecracking superhero movie, like Spider-Man, but with extended nudity, extreme gore, and lots of wink-nudge meta irony. Beneath the attitude is a strictly conventional, surprisingly formulaic comic book movie.

Ryan Reynolds headlines as our antihero, Wade Wilson, an amoral mercenary given to grim sarcasm and psychotic inner monologues. The gimmick—in the movie and the comic book source material—is that Deadpool knows he’s a fictional character. He addresses the camera directly and keeps up a running commentary on the story, alongside other self-aware characters. (His sidekick, played by T.J. Miller, observes: “We just had a fourth wall break inside a fourth wall break—that’s, like, sixteen walls.”)

Morena Baccarin occupies the dark-side Mary Jane slot as Wade’s girlfriend, Vanessa, a proverbial hooker with a heart of gold and the mouth of a drunken sailor. Their sex scenes, kinky indeed, are home to some of the movie’s better laughs. Ed Skrein is the villainous mad scientist Ajax, whose medical experiments have left Deadpool disfigured and virtually indestructible.

For the first forty-five minutes or so, director Tim Miller toggles between scenes of sadistic violence and dialogue built on profane sprints of pop-culture riffing. It gets pretty tiresome. But around the halfway point, an interesting thing happens. The script’s accelerating jokes, sight gags, and one-liners achieve some kind of terminal velocity. The comedy starts to click.

Reynolds delivers his bits with likability and deftness. He’s given plenty of material to work. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have jammed this thing to the gills with smart-ass references to other comic book franchises, Reynolds’s superhero history (Green Lantern), and random detritus ranging from the Spin Doctors to Liam Neeson.

The relentless meta jabbering doesn’t work all of the time, but it works enough of the time. I particularly liked the scene where Deadpool wonders why only two X-Men show up in his spinoff: “It’s like the studio couldn’t afford another character license.” But by the time the climactic battle rolls around—the underwhelming CGI destruction of a dry-docked aircraft carrier—the movie has pretty much drained its comic fuel tank and exhausted its premise. Stymied by a conventional structure, it never quite grasps the anarchy it’s reaching for. You can’t play by the rules and break them at the same time.