It seemed a pipe dream twenty years ago that we'd see any Marvel superheroes on the big screen at all, but now the multiplexes are absolutely stuffed with them. Superhero cinema went from a couple burned-out Batman and Superman franchises to being the rock-hard cornerstone of modern blockbusters. In the process, studios have perfected a generic formula, taken less risks, and become ambitiously obsessed with extreme franchise-building. Superheroes are everywhere on screens now and like all things that become overwhelmingly popular, they could use something of a shakeup.
Into this situation waltzes Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), who becomes invincible anti-hero Deadpool as much to lambaste the genre as for the revenge purposes required by the plot. It’s a novel concept, not that the protagonist is there for our entertainment, but that the protagonist knows he’s there for our entertainment. Sure, many action movies have had heroes speak to the audience in voiceover and some just let them speak to themselves so we can grasp how they’re in on the joke, like John McClane voicing his frustration about the plot recycling in Die Hard 2, but Deadpool takes it to a particularly unusual meta level.
One of the first images in the movie is a People magazine floating towards us in slow motion as the contents of a car in an animated crash credits sequence move weightlessly around onscreen. The shot of the magazine wouldn’t mean much of anything if it wasn’t for the cover showing Reynolds himself being labeled the Sexiest Man Alive.
This is the first of many references to Reynold’s acting career, ranging from jokes about his Green Lantern suit to a random shot of an action figure version of Reynolds’ first stab at playing a very different take on Deadpool in the disastrous 2009 embarrassment X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman, is the subject of some gags, too, but he manages to have his name left out of it. That’s not the case for some other prominent X-Men franchise actors.
At one point, Deadpool is informed by hulking chrome X-Man Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) that he’s being taken to see X-Men head honcho Professor Xavier, to which Deadpool replies “McAvoy or Stewart?” It’s a quick moment, the aural equivalent of blink-and-you-miss-it, but it’s there for the listening and it’s hilarious that a movie released by the studio that’s often played it very safe with the X-franchise would so blatantly break the illusion and name its actors in the same breath as the characters they play.
For all that John McClane does, he’s not one to directly skewer Bruce Willis for laughs. To be fair, Deadpool is certainly no Die Hard, but that’s not the point. Deadpool is no, well, anything, really, because it’s playing by a different set of rules than all other superhero movies. Even its also R-rated subversive cousin, Matthew Vaughn’s ultraviolent Kick-Ass, mainly pokes fun at the superhero genre in a general sense, taking pot-shots at tropes, while Deadpool has fun at the expense of specific characters, franchises, and stars.
It's a gutsy move in a Hollywood climate that treats an R rating like the plague and in a genre that has become all about careful franchise building. Deadpool will clearly get a sequel and rumours are that he’ll be integrated into the X-Men franchise as a way to replace an aging Jackman, who’s already been the flag bearer of that series for likely too long, but this particular movie feels like a one-off. It’s just so comically dismissive of everything these movies stand for and its mix of whimsical vulgarity and wanton violence doesn’t feel like a sustainable model for future pictures.
But that’s Deadpool’s charm. The movie so cheerfully goes against the grain of superhero blockbusters that its very existence seems to be the biggest joke of all. Even the opening credits are brazenly winking at the audience, replacing cast and crew names with mocking labels like “A British Villain” and “A CGI Character”. It’s shocking that the movie gets away with as much as it does because its desire to mock other superpower-themed flicks knows no bounds.
The gags are relentless here, bursting out of every frame, and if one misses, director Tim Miller doesn’t seem bothered because he has another ten lurking around the corner. Reynolds constantly breaks the fourth wall, then comments on his breaking of the fourth wall, then cracks a masturbation joke, and finally insults his old blind roommate. He probably blows a few bad guys' brains out somewhere in there, too.
There is an actual story in all this raucously raunchy riotousness and it’s a fine one as far as superhero origin tales go. It’s a darker story than usual, involving Wade being diagnosed with terminal cancer and then being given the opportunity to beat the disease by undergoing a sketchy mutant serum treatment at a top secret clinic. He’s tortured as part of a brutal process to awaken his mutation and finally scarred for life following a stint in a device that deprives him of oxygen. The result is that he looks horrible, but is now invincible.
His scarred body has given him a thirst for revenge, though, and so he dons a fancy costume and gets to hunting down nemesis Francis aka Ajax (Ed Skrein). There’s also room in here for a love story that shockingly doesn’t suck. So much dark humour and goofy gore would seem to discourage the use of any mushy stuff, but Miller and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick make it work by allowing the romance subplot to be as vulgar as everything else in the movie. Surprisingly, Morenna Baccarin proves very adept at going toe-to-toe with Reynolds in the comedy department and the two have great chemistry to boot.
A running gag where Wade and Baccarin’s Vanessa try to outdo each other with their tales of woe is an inspired riff on the concept of couples connecting on common ground and it matches the movie’s overall dirty, grungy tone. The filmmakers were clearly confident that the romance would work because Wade’s whole motivation hinges more on his love for Vanessa than anything else. The revenge angle is an extension of his frustration with having lost Vanessa and fearing that she could never see past his frightening physical appearance.
So this seems to be another gutsy move, even if the love story blatantly signals an adherence to formula. It’s also flirting with being an invitation for sentimentality and seeing Reynolds and Baccarin forge a moving union in the midst of such meta mania gives Deadpool a welcome shot of sweet emotion. This also gives Wade’s journey some considerable stakes because we have two people’s happiness to root for.
Mainly, though, Deadpool is all about taking fifteen years of Marvel movie success and boiling it down to dick jokes. It sounds juvenile and it sort of is, but it’s also quite unexpectedly clever and particularly adventurous with its references and humour. It becomes a commentary on the genre that, while silly for the sake of being silly, is genuinely refreshing, like a slap across the face for the superhero genre that has become so ubiquitous, popular, and profitable that it’s turned creatively generic and commonplace in an increasingly risk-averse Hollywood.
Of course, there's no need to take this all so seriously. Deadpool himself probably wouldn't like that. It's just nifty to see the genre spoofed at this level, from within one of the key franchise-building machines. Deadpool isn't some new direction for superhero cinema, but it marks a memorable deviation. When a whole subgenre has become so bloated and overstuffed, it does some good to deflate it a bit, letting out all that hot air. So in that sense, Deadpool is like a whoopie cushion, only actually funny.