A weekend into its release, the mostly loose-limbed Deadpool is certifiably an accidental but genuine pop-culture zeitgeist-defining event rather than the belated cult classic it would have been at any other time in history. One can only predict the ripples of the film’s success, but some cause for celebration erupts. So many superhero movies – Christopher Nolan’s elephantiasis-prone Batman films not least among them – are content to cart around the depressive husks of their beings, especially over the past decade of glum, operatic, tortured superheroism. In this light, Deadpool represents a more manic, cheerier alternative to the doldrums of the self-imposed superhero funeral we’ve been undergoing since the genre supposedly “matured”. But it also suggests a more classical spirit: that being a superhero might, dare one say it, be fun.
Deadpool proposes itself as a new kind of superhero movie, but its classic hip-hop mixtape – Salt-n-Pepa features prominently – also connects it to a more old-school form of heroism, where spandex and dexterous gee-whiz matinee fare was the order of the day. Ironically, Deadpool’s most subversive gesture may be its most sincere: its legitimately earnest romanticism, and its refusal to put a cap on its whimsical mixture of oddball melodrama and soap opera-style love. In the end, Deadpool’s brackish mixture of salty thrills and candy-coated sweetness is its saving grace; the film is ultimately saved from the disgraced regions of smug superciliousness by the fact that it wears its bloodshot heart on its tattered sleeves.
To wit, one of Deadpool’s diamonds in the rough is its dexterous handling of the turmoil of the superhero origin story. Rather than expending countless hours on the tragic backstory of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds, pre-spandex), thereby inducing a tonal embolism when the film hypothetically shifts into high gear midway through, Wilson’s romance with Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin), his diagnosis with terminal cancer, and his admission to a superhero slave program to cure the cancer are all injected into the film at intervals via parsimonious slips of flashback. The flashbacks, no enemies of irony themselves, become resting tonal balances or troughs upon which the high-flying idiosyncrasies of the film can counterpose themselves. Now, the screenplay isn’t exactly a model of Ozu-inspired poise and visual harmony or aural metronomy. But the interpolations of humanity help the film from turning into a sort of self-aggrandizing grand larceny heist doing away with any and all genuine emotion as it pleases.
Still, Deadpool is, for the most part, a busy comic exercise in super-saturated irony through and through, maxi-packed with references, full-throttle with joie de vivre, and pedal-to-the-metal with comic-book delirium. Its humor is omnivorous, suffering less from immaturity than the occasional bout of pedantic smugness and holier-than-thou high-schooler superiority. Ultimately, Deadpool’s sincerity – not to mention the commitment with which it skewers not only comic book types but itself – saves it from self-cannibalization, but there’s some variety of Stockholm Syndrome at play in how the film convinces you to like it in spite of its undying egomania. Nevertheless, even if Deadpool is too aware of its own cleverness, that does little to diminish the unexpected appeal of, say, a simultaneous Yakov Smirnoff-Spin Doctors takedown (words never spoken before), a slurry of absurdist IKEA references, or a number of shockingly toxic ribs at star Ryan Reynolds’ expense. Deadpool is a cocaine-and-laughing-gas high; the reasonable know that it’s too much of a good thing, but it’s hard to say no after you’ve had the first whiff.
Reynolds himself is a cool customer throughout, ably committing to the film’s screw-loose hypermania and indicting his own history as a too-cool-for-school leading man. The film’s most amusing joke, a Blade 2 reference, is both a remark at the expense of Reynolds’ nadir in the comic book genre, the ominous Blade Trinity, and a salacious reminder of the more innocent, irony-free days of 2002. And, for that matter, a jab at the expense of Deadpool’s villains, whose welterweight seriousness would put them right in line in that early blockbuster for Guillermo Del Toro, before his imagination really flourished in the blockbuster space with the delicious Hellboy II. If the villains are a wash, at least Mr. Pool’s X-Men parole officers, the droll and frightfully earnest Soviet good-citizenry of Colossus (Stefan Kapicic and a murderer’s row of performance artist talents) and his trainee Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), are festive accompaniments.
Still, Reynolds is the play-ball star, and the film enviously congratulates itself for demolishing his physical presence throughout, finding time for cameos from a Hugh Jackman mask and a magazine bearing Reynold’s visage in the process. Director Tim Miller plays things like he’s smacking a baseball around with a bat, cottoning to the comic anarchy of the script and Reynolds’ Graucho Marx voice-as-weapon routine. But the director doesn’t necessarily accomplish more than spit-shine the stand-up routine on display in the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. The editing by Julian Clarke is suitably snappy, scrubbing away any vestigial structures and/or appendices from a film that lives and dies by its momentum and urgency, but the visual craft is ultimately subservient to the endlessly punched-up screenplay.
Deadpool isn’t an unqualified success, but give it credit for perusing its own rabbit hole and unmooring itself from stability and sterility. A more anarchic and better film – a Dadaist assemblage of Bunuelian influences of an animated treatise from the Brothers Quay on the untethered fringes of our mortality – might exist somewhere, but when dealing with Hollywood blockbusters, you can’t expect the unexpected. Now, Deadpool is not exactly the unexpected, but by the standards of its budget and its nomenclature, it’s a step in the right direction.
Follow-Up in mid-2017: Or, perhaps, the wrong direction. For all its irreverence and good-natured, bad-tempered charisma, Deadpool’s timidity has only been driven into starker relief by the relative moral and philosophical bravery of Logan. Comparatively, Deadpool’s screenplay remains as imprisoned in classically masculine and neoliberal notions of male autonomy and personal achievement as any superhero film of this decade. If Deadpool wants to be an anti-hero superhero film – and its worst feature is how much it flaunts this fact – it ultimately staggers into the limits of its genre and reaffirms their closeted dreams, becoming the apotheosis of their hyper-individualism. We Americans have a fetish for heroes in the liberal mode of autonomous individuality, unmooring themselves from social institutions and flowering to their fullest by absconding from society. In Wade Wilson, Marvel has not only a hero who can transcend social institutions in that rugged tradition of asocial men who exist untied to the world. He one-ups even that. He can transcend the limits of his fiction too, singularly recognizing the artistic walls that constrain him and blowing them open by exceeding and stepping over the ultimate wall: the fourth-one. He is masculine American individualism incarnate, a figure no longer bounded by the diegesis from which he is derived from, a figure who places personal agency above any form of structuration and, in doing so, reveals how structured by assumptions about self-sovereignty and American masculinity he actually is. .
So, for all Deadpool’s snarky autonomy, it is not an autonomous imagination, and its brand of anarchy really isn’t anything other than a more bad-mouthed sermon promoting the oldest and most foundational clarion call of all American entertainment: the model of men who can transgress the world, self-actualize, control their own fate. In 2017, Fox’s Logan at least gestured toward the understanding that its loner hero’s individualism – his very desire to cut all ties – only made him a prisoner of the toxic American archetype of the lone wolf male avenger, John Wayne decked out in all the bloody accouterments of an R-rating. Deadpool has no such capacity for rumination, no such skepticism about its own complicity in the system it pretends to buck. Far from a work of cut-up aesthetic modernism or moral radicalism, Deadpool’s fancy-pants post-modernism actually hides a film that is wholly and unabashedly conservative to the core.