To quote This is Spinal Tap, there is a fine line between stupid and clever. The long-awaited film adaptation of cult Marvel comic Deadpool seems to have taken this nonsensical ethos to heart, all but obliterating the notions of a film being either “stupid” or “clever” by letting the two co-exist. This is a satire of the formulaic nature of modern superhero movies and the state of contemporary pop-culture – yet it downplays its bite by peppering the screenplay with a plethora of jokes about male sexual organs, letting you think it’s as braindead as the very thing it so distinctively stands apart from.
Sure, “stupid” and “clever” co-exist in all the best comedies. But for a superhero movie to give itself such a singular comedic personality, independent of the increasingly formulaic nature of caped crusader movies even as it ticks off the same narrative boxes, is a rarity. You’ve heard the story Deadpool tells a million times before; but the attitude with which it is told here makes it feel fresh and as close to innovative as you’re going to see in a tentpole blockbuster anytime soon.
Ever since he ad-libbed the line “cock-juggling thunder cunt” in Blade: Trinity, Ryan Reynolds has excelled in playing various douchebag types in films that aren’t worth anybody’s time, that in retrospect feels like he has constantly been auditioning for the role of Deadpool. I should confess that I was expecting to hate the film, due to the fourth-wall breaking, pseudo-edginess that the trailers promised the film would provide. As soon as Deadpool was introduced, I found him insufferable company – at least initially. This is the film’s sole structural problem and it is resolved within the first fifteen minutes; he is introduced as a fictional construct, somebody who read a bunch of comic books and decided to live their life doing the opposite of the conventional superhero “moral code”.
The self-referentiality and the fourth wall breaking suggest an artificial character created in order to mock superhero films and to not emotionally invest in the story. When we flash back to Wade Wilson’s life two years earlier, he is still an amoral arsehole, but one whose emotional arc proves to be worth investing in. Maybe it’s just my own personal cinematic nihilism, but I found myself starting to truly admire the film during a meet-cute where Wilson and his future fiancee Vanessa meet for the first time, swapping stories about their abusive childhoods as a competition to see who suffered the most.
On the whole, Deadpool doesn’t have take the superhero origin story narrative to its brutally realistic (and excessively nihilistic) conclusion in the way a film like Super does – nor does it have the genuinely subversive spectacle of the first entry in the Kick-Ass franchise. But in moments like the one above, it proves to have a heart; a dark heart, but a fully human heart nonetheless. More importantly, for a performance that could so easily be written off as cold and artificial, Ryan Reynolds does an impeccable job of making you invest in Wilson’s story – one you’ve seen a million times before, but feels thrilling again due to the confidence with which it is being told.
However, the two movies that Deadpool were most reminiscent of weren’t in the superhero genre at all. Directly from the opening credits, a tracking shot through the wreckage of a car crash, I was reminded of Fight Club, which had an eerily similar tracking shot through The Narrator’s waste paper basket, full to the brim with consumerist products, mainly empty cups of Starbucks Coffee. Whereas Fight Club set its satirical sites on capitalism, Deadpool takes aim at superhero movie convention; the opening credits don’t contain any names, just “British Villain”, “CGI Character”, “Some Overpaid Asshole”, to name but a few. In the wreckage, we see a glimpse of Green Lantern, a DC character previously embodied in a cinematic adaptation by Ryan Reynolds – by placing it in the wreckage, the movie confirms this is the type of formulaic superhero movie it is going to render obsolete.
With superhero movies being the most popular blockbuster genre of recent years, helping to keep many studios afloat, critiquing these money-makers is akin to criticising consumerism; no wonder the car-wreckage looks so similar to The Narrator’s wastepaper basket. Outside of this scene, Deadpool is defined by a jet-black humour of the type that would make David Fincher proud, as well as containing some of the more left-field pop culture references this year. The meta-referentiality extends to the pop-culture jokes; the post-credits sequence is a parody of the post-credits sequence in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – the original inspiration for Marvel’s teases at a film’s close. This is a film that may appear dumb, but is very intelligently calculated when held up to deeper scrutiny.
The other film Deadpool is reminiscent of is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s underrated 1993 flop Last Action Hero, which openly mocked the generic nature of action movies in a deeply self-referential way. With superheroes widely being regarded as this generation’s equivalent to action stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, it is easy to draw parallels; not least because both are films in which the main star plays a fictional character who waxes lyrical about the actor playing him (“You think Ryan Reynolds made it this far because of his superior acting ability?”). But also because both films explode conventions by highlighting how easy to scrutinise they are, yet manage to make them gripping and engaging in spite of this.
Deadpool was a pleasant surprise; it is as vulgar and as self-consciously meta as the trailers suggested, yet done with a cocky confidence that proves infectious. Although not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is still one of the best adaptations of a Marvel comic book to date, due to retaining its cartoonish spirit from page to screen.