Lukewarm Takes #5: Deadpool
There’s hype and then there’s Deadpool. For months before its blockbuster, record-setting opening weekend, Fox effectively crammed the film’s awesomeness down the throat of the movie-going public with such frenzied ferocity that there almost no way it could possibly live up to the hype, creatively or commercially.
Some debate exists as to how successful the movie was at living up to the hype creatively but commercially the movie was a beast. It was a sleeper that came seemingly out of nowhere, or, alternately, was willed into existence by the comic book geeks of the world, to gross nearly a billion dollars at the box office worldwide. Deadpool wasn't just a movie. It was a phenomenon that, in keeping with the fourth-wall-breaking, prankster spirit of its protagonist exploded out of the world of blockbuster super hero movies and penetrated the deepest recesses of popular culture.
This was a superhero movie unlike any other, with the notable exception of the many other superhero movies it has a lot in common with. But Deadpool had some notable distinctions. In sharp contrast to other superhero movies ,it had a wisecracking anti-hero who doesn’t always play well with others, or pay attention to the rules. Okay, so that also describes many, if not most, superhero movies but Deadpool is rated R and has a lot of graphic violence and a hero who kills people without mercy or remorse. Okay, so that also describes Punisher: War Zone but Deadpool has Ryan Reynolds playing a superhero. How many times has he done that before? The only superhero or comic book movies on Reynolds’ resume are Blade:Trinity, X-Men: Origins: Wolverine, Green Lantern, Paper Man (he even plays superheroes in mediocre independent movies!) and R.I.P.D.
Okay, so Reynolds has been in a lot of comic book movies but only because before last year’s Deadpool he never found a superhero role that suited him like the notorious Merc with the Mouth, right? Well, okay, yes, he actually played Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine as well but it was a completely different take on the character! They sewed his mouth shut for the love of God! The Merc with the mouth! More like the Merc with his mouth sewn shut in an egregiously misguided creative decision emblematic of the film’s mishandling of the X-Men universe in general and Deadpool/Wade Wilson in particular!
So, uh, Deadpool breaks the fourth wall and makes a lot of comic book in-jokes. Yeah, I guess a bunch of other superheroes do that too, but none of them wear red spandex or have Dead in their name, right? Well, I guess Spiderman and Deadshot probably would have something to say about that but what other superhero movie has a hammy cameo from Stan Lee? Or involves Dr. Xavier’s School for Mutants? C’mon, people! We need to give Deadpool more credit for breaking so much new ground!
I’ll stop now because otherwise I could easily devote this entire column to all of the superhero conventions Deadpool serves up relatively straight despite its reputation for stylistic and thematic audacity. That the movie was received so rapturously says more about the safe, tradition-bound nature of superhero movies than it does about the film itself, which is mildly innovative in some ways but in many others is just like every other superhero movie, only a little bit more so, and with a little more in-your-face attitude. Because in 2016, Deadpool got all up in everyone’s face with its bad boy attitude and even the stuffy, monocle-wearing Stuffy Sues and Uptight Erwins were all, “I love it!”
But before Deadpool hits the usual superhero beats involving tragic medical conditions and low-level criminals with hearts of gold and sinister medical experimentation and mutation we’re treated to gag credits winkingly listing not the actual cast and crew, but rather the comic book archetype/cliche they embody, like A Hot Chick (Morena Baccarin as soulful, funny prostitute Vanessa, the movie’s love interest), Comic Relief (T.J Miller as sidekick Weasel) and A Gratuitous Cameo (that would be one Stan Lee, emerging from decades of seclusion to favor the film briefly with his presence).
These opening credits set the tone for the rest of the film: aggressively meta, irreverent and clever in both a way that continually calls attention to itself and also isn’t actually all that clever. Deadpool opens with a big, not terribly impressive set-piece involving Deadpool, the red-suited mutant with the mouth of an insult comic happy to substitute quantity for quality.
Much of the next hour of the film is devoted to a series of flashbacks tracing how a former super soldier turned small-time criminal named Wade Wilson (Reynolds) became the vengeance-crazed superhero Deadpool after contracting pretty much all of the really bad forms of cancer. Wilson doesn’t want the love of his life to be a widow so he signs on for some experimental treatment that promises to not only cure his cancer but also render him largely invulnerable to pain and injuries.
It’s mad science at its maddest. This turns out to be the one time when the malevolent scientists experimenting fiendishly on helpless, vulnerable and desperate subjects turn out to not have everybody’s best interests at heart. Oh sure, the sadistic medical experiments may have given ol’ Wade superpowers, but he’s also super-deformed, not unlike the Matthew Sweet song of the same name.
Post-experimentation, Deadpool is truly an altered beast, also like the Matthew Sweet of the same name, and is understandably reluctant to reveal his horrific scars to his girlfriend, knowing that life as the soulmate and life partner of someone who looks like more Phantom of the Opera than Ryan Reynolds, world’s sexiest man, can never be 100 percent fun.
Sorry, guys, but Matthew Sweet has been paying me, and paying me handsomely, to mention his songs and albums in my articles and this seemed as good a place as any. Product placement inside articles is the wave of the future, and I intend to send Declan to college with Matthew Sweet’s sweet, sweet payoffs.
I read a few collections of early Deadpool comic books when I was thinking about covering the comic book for my The Simpsons Decade column over at Rotten Tomatoes. Despite his over-hyped reputation for attitude and awesomeness, the heart of Deadpool’s appeal ultimately isn’t that he breaks the fourth wall or jokes about Marvel comic books or the Marvel universe or has a potty mouth and penchant forextreme, extremely stylized violence.
No, to me, at least, Deadpool’s appeal is that he’s a charming, wisecracking rogue and loner with a deeply masked romantic streak and a core of genuine idealism. That’s a ubiquitous archetype the public has historically loved in myriad different incarnations, including Rick in Casablanca and Han Solo in Star Wars Holiday Special. Or Theodore Rex in the film of the same name.
Heck, that’s not an inapt description of Tony Stark or even Deadpool’s sometimes foil Wolverine, who is winkingly referenced several times. So despite Deadpool’s oft discussed, potentially paradigm-changing R rating, the Merc with the mouth is nowhere near as bloodthirsty, sociopathic and or even outrageous as advertised. In fact, much of the first two acts of Deadpool are devoted not to colorful bloodshed liberally sprinkled with wisecracks but rather to the star-crossed, simultaneously adorable and mildly transgressive romance between Deadpool and the hooker of his dreams and then with Wilson coping poorly with his cancer diagnosis and wrestling manfully with whether or not to remain in Vanessa’s life if their relationship can only end with her watching him wither away and then die a horrible, young death.
Oh sure, Deadpool is full of gallows humor and sneering insouciantly in the face of death, but it takes its central romance seriously. For much of its duration it’s more dramatic than comic. Thankfully, Reynolds has evolved into a dramatic actor of some depth as well as an effervescent comic presence who delivers bad jokes and leaden pop culture references with a breezy indifference and laissez fare detachment that smartly distances from sometime groan-inducing material, like when he describes cancer as a shit show commensurate to “Yacov Smirnoff opening for Spin Doctors at the Iowa State Fair.”
That’s just an ugly, dumb, three-car pile up of a bad, lazy and dated pop culture reference but Reynolds’ charm makes it go down as smoothly and easily as possible. How deft is Reynolds at undercutting this kind of material’s innate silliness? He manages to do verbal hashtags more than once (which is more or less exclusively the domain of sad middle age people trying too hard in screenplays written by sad middle age people trying too hard) without embarrassing himself, or the audience. That’s important, since the conspiratorial bond between Deadpool and the audience is central to the movie’s success.
The role of Deadpool poses some unique challenges. Deadpool isn’t a superhero with a weakness for smartass wisecracks so much as he is a smartass wisenheimer who sometimes indulges in super-heroics, but more often in super-anti-heroics. Since Deadpool has more in common with Don Rickles than Superman, and is constantly cracking jokes and cracking wise (he does both, at the same time!) his comic delivery is of some importance.
In that respect, Deadpool makes Reynolds’ job infinitely harder by asking him to get big laughs while wearing a sturdy red and black mask that completely hides his face. As Deadpool, Reynolds can’t convey facial expressions because of the mask so it falls upon him to make Deadpool a complete and compelling and charismatic character using pretty much only the expressiveness of his voice, comic timing, and, I suppose, a certain amount of body language.
That the film is even able to convince us that we’re even watching Reynolds as Deadpool, and not a stunt man doing the heavy lifting while Reynolds reads his lines into a microphone in an air-conditioned recording studio (which could very well be the case) is a testament to the smirky authenticity Reynolds brings to the role.
Deadpool has some help, of course. Deadpool gives him a pair of sidekicks, Blind Al, a blind older black woman (Leslie Uggams) with whom he shares a certain Odd Couple dynamic and Weasel, a bartender and ammunitions expert played by T.J Miller. Miller tends to be a very big, very broad performer, an inveterate ham and master improviser whose performance tend to have a strong “Looky me, look me!” to them.
Miller’s surprisingly restrained, even deadpan performance here betrays yet again that this is not the outrageous, wacky, revolutionary badass comedy it was hyped as, but rather a sometimes unusual but otherwise fairly standard-issue superhero movie. This extends to the film’s treatment of Vanessa. The relationship gets off to a spunky, irreverent start, with these sexy survivors trading tales of formative molestation as a darkly comic form of flirting, followed by a montage of their evolving love rendered through shots of them enjoying healthy and adventurous sex, including pegging.
Yet by the time Vanessa becomes the helpless damsel in distress in the third act, anything remarkable or distinctive about her or her relationship with Deadpool has been forgotten. The film’s heavies are similarly forgettable. True, the movie has some fun with Deadpool’s relationship with second-string X-Men like Colossus, who steals scenes as an incongruously gentlemanly and paternal metal monster man, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, yet another sullen little girl equally at home texting or destroying men and monsters ten times her size, but it doesn’t exactly reinvent the superhero movie. Deadpool feels particularly lacking when compared to Logan, an R rated superhero movie that has Deadpool beat as entertainment as well as art.
Nevertheless, a buzz and hype magnet like Deadpool angrily demands the hottest of hot takes (even in these Lukewarm waters) so here is mine, the final, authoritative verdict on this most polarizing of surprise blockbusters: Eh, it was pretty good, I guess. Don't really see what all the fuss was about, though.
Up next: Lady Ghostbusters: Busting Ghosts With Their Vaginas
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