These days, there’s no better golden ticket in Hollywood than getting cast in a superhero movie. Just ask Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Tom Holland, Chris Hemsworth, and many others who’ve turned into household names. But while superhero projects have owned the box office—and are now making their way onto streaming with similar dominance—that doesn’t mean they’re a completely foolproof path to stardom. Look no further than the many phases of Ryan Reynolds’s oddly mercurial career.
Since breaking out with his starring role in 2002’s National Lampoon’s Van Wilder—a performance that captured the actor’s trademark snarky humor and likable dickishness—Reynolds has been earmarked as a potential movie star, and set upon a trajectory that, naturally, has been supplemented by roles in superhero films. He was Hannibal King in 2004’s Blade: Trinity, and yammered incessantly opposite an unamused Blade (a scenario that’s especially funny when you realize an equally unamused Wesley Snipes was an absolute nightmare on set); played the first iteration of Wade Wilson in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which made the notoriously ill-fated decision to sew shut the mouth of the only character with any semblance of charisma; and appeared as Hal Jordan in 2011’s Green Lantern, a movie so reviled that Warner Bros. immediately distanced it from the forthcoming DC Extended Universe. With those high-profile setbacks sprinkled in next to the occasional hit like The Proposal and (critically, at least) Buried, Reynolds’s movie stardom—if it even existed in the first place—was put into question.
And then, of course, came Deadpool. Spurred by his own confidence in the project—and perhaps from being burned three times already by the superhero industrial complex—Reynolds made his self-deprecating persona indistinguishable from the title character, with the film’s meta humor poking fun at superhero-movie tropes and his own career in equal measure. The actor bet on himself, and there’s little denying that it paid off: Deadpool became the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, a mark that’s since been surpassed by its sequel (and later, Todd Phillips’s Joker). If Deadpool didn’t make Reynolds a movie star, the bankability of the franchise at least turned him into a strong facsimile of one—someone who understands that marketing and an all-out assault of self-branding is half the battle.
Thanks to the Disney-Fox merger, plans for a third Deadpool movie have stalled as the House of Mouse mulls the best way to use an asset that is extremely profitable but also goes against the company’s family-friendly values and the typical Marvel hero profile. (At least Marvel Cinematic Universe mastermind Kevin Feige knows not to mess with a good thing and confirmed that Deadpool 3 will have an R rating.) In the meantime, when Reynolds hasn’t been peddling the gin brand he sold last year for a healthy profit—which, by the way, if you want another example of his aptitude for marketing, just recall the liquor ad he made with the Peloton lady—he’s parlayed Deadpool’s success into roles that, for better or worse, have given him the A-lister treatment while allowing him to play off his persona.
In a microcosm of the rest of his career, though, Reynolds’s post-Deadpool slate has been just as hit or miss. Arguably the strongest of the bunch was an unexpectedly sentimental turn voicing the eponymous lead in Detective Pikachu, which showed Reynolds’s schtick can be just as effective when sincerity is embraced over cynicism. Another role in the win column was, in fact, Reynolds taking an L in Sony’s horror film Life, as the actor got the time-honored Shocking Early Death treatment—and what a shockingly gruesome death it was. But Reynolds has also latched himself to underwhelming action flicks such as The Hitman’s Bodyguard and its equally loathed sequel, as well as Michael Bay’s 6 Underground, a blockbuster that even Netflix conceded was creatively bankrupt. Finally, his smarmy cameo in the Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw as a character whose name might as well be “Ryan Reynolds” barely qualifies as acting and should go down as a mulligan.
Though these films were largely box-office draws, Reynolds also wasn’t doing much to step out of his comfort zone—the closest thing to bucking convention was hopping into a recording booth to voice a cuddly Pokémon. (Meet the new Ryan Reynolds, same as the old Ryan Reynolds.) What’s more, post-Deadpool Reynolds was continuing to share the spotlight with other stars rather than standing on his own—a frequent occurrence in his filmography. That remains the case in Reynolds’s latest project, Free Guy, which sees Emmy winner Jodie Comer solidify her standing as a rising star in her own right. But the film is very much selling itself as the Ryan Reynolds Blockbuster—all the way down to him donning the Deadpool suit to parody trailer-reaction videos that have become popular on YouTube. (As if there were any doubts that Deadpool’s been welcomed into the Disney family, here he is sharing a couch with Thor: Ragnarok’s Korg while making fun of the lack of dalmatians in Cruella.)
All the hallmarks of Reynolds’s carefully curated brand have been on display, but looks can be deceiving. The Deadpool-ification of Free Guy’s marketing might lean on its star’s meta-appeal, and works as a bit of [sigh] Disney corporate synergy as a 20th Century Studios project, but it belies a lead performance that’s more aligned with the wholesome spirit of Detective Pikachu. (I’m really not kidding.) In the movie, Reynolds is Guy, an NPC (or nonplayer character) blissfully indifferent to the violent nature of the open-world video game, Free City, that he exists in. But after a chance encounter with a human player using the gamer tag Molotov Girl (Comer), Guy realizes that his home isn’t exactly what it seems. His existential awakening is basically The Truman Show by way of Grand Theft Auto.
Free Guy could’ve easily slipped into some of the darker elements of its premise—the NPCs are getting offed as consistently as the robots in Westworld, within the limitations of a PG-13 rating, of course—but the film is as surprisingly good-natured as its protagonist. Guy functions like a live-action version of Chris Pratt’s character in The Lego Movie, reacting with boundless enthusiasm to everything from greeting his best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) every morning to eating bubble gum ice cream by Free City’s shoreline. (His catchphrase: “Don’t have a good day, have a great day!”) Somehow, it’s charming.
Given Guy’s infectiously cheery demeanor, it almost feels like Reynolds is playing against type, which might say more about how little the actor steps out of his snarky comfort zone. Still, it’s genuinely refreshing to watch a movie that lets Reynolds play the emotional beats relatively straight without being mocked for it—even the occasional moments of pathos in Deadpool and its sequel are almost immediately punctured by a fourth-wall break to afford some ironic distance. But by subverting what audiences have come to expect out of a Ryan Reynolds performance, Free Guy is rewarded for its uplifting approach with one of the strongest performances of the actor’s career.
That earnest sentiment is also expressed within the game, when Guy starts participating like a human player and gains XP in Free City by being a good samaritan—something so rare that he becomes an object of fascination in the gaming community. (Considering the toxic reputation of the gaming industry, from controversial YouTube celebrities to the common practice of crunching, that’s not all that surprising.) But this kind of unapologetic sincerity is just as rare in Reynolds’s career, in which expressing any emotional authenticity often comes at the expense of a punch line, or must be hidden behind the guise of a Pikachu. It’s why Free Guy, despite featuring a cringe-inducing sequence that amounts to Disney spon-con in the vein of Space Jam: A New Legacy, still feels like a breath of fresh air.
Deadpool isn’t going anywhere and will undoubtedly remain Reynolds’s most recognizable project. But Free Guy demonstrates that the latest phase of the actor’s career doesn’t have to solely adhere to the superhero franchise’s self-deprecating formula. There’s more than one way for Ryan Reynolds to endear an audience to his schtick, and like Guy, level himself up in the process.