First up, if you’re not familiar with the Marvel antihero Deadpool, I’d head to the excellent Youtube channel, The Idea Channel and watch the first four minutes of their recent Deadpool video which does an excellent, high-energy job of summarising Deadpool’s origins, powers and attitude.
(Actually, even if you know who Deadpool is the video is worth watching because it’s great.)
Now that we’ve all refreshed our memory of Deadpool, let’s get started at the somewhat tangential beginning of my review.
Choosing when to go to the cinema in Canberra is a meteorologically-dependent exercise; you want to go when sitting in the cinema will be of greatest benefit relative to the temperature outside. Last Sunday was very hot; I went to the movies; it was a most glorious decision. I say glorious for two reasons. One: commercial-strength air-conditiong. Two: Deadpool rebuilt my disintegrating faith in the superhero genre because it was prepared to challenge the increasingly restrictive mould of what a superhero film should be.
I’ll get to discussing the ways I think Deadpool broadened the superhero genre in a moment but first it’s worth contextualising how it’s the latest in a seemingly endless stream of increasingly similar high-grossing films about people in hi-tech spandex saving the day/city/world/galaxy/universe. I say “seemingly endless” not hyperbolically – three out of the three trailers I saw at Deadpool were for superhero films – Batman Versus Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War and Suicide Squad (a.k.a DC’s desperate attempt to cash in on the Guardians of the Galaxy market). (Yes, of course I know it makes sense to promote superhero films to an audience who are clearly not adverse to the genre given that they are, you know, at a superhero film, but what irritated me about these trailers was that their premises were all so samey.) That is, the three trailers offered us an ensemble cast of (anti-)heroes who need to save something much bigger than themselves – in all three films it looks like a city (although Captain America might be looking a bit larger and be putting an entire nation on the line).
My problem is not with ensemble casts or saving cities/planets/galaxies as a premise per se (I loved Avengers) but with this premise being the go to one superhero films seem to use lately. Let me illustrate what I mean. Before Avengers 2 came out I read that Whedon had said that any sequel would be different “By being smaller. More personal, more painful.” His intentions here are great – he knew that he needed to tell a new story, he knew that he needed to develop the characters, and he knew that rather than simply raising the stakes (“Ok, last time we saved NYC, this time we need to save the world!”) that he needed to do something narratively different. Now for whatever reason(s) (most likely studio interference as they simply wanted a repeat of the money-making Avengers) he failed in his ambition as Age of Ultron was gigantic in scope – let alone the number of international cities they crashed through, or the additional characters they crammed in, the story was about them saving the whole damn plant via rescuing one soon-to-be-a-meteorite-nation. And this grandness of scale and this raising of stakes is commonplace in superhero films. Somewhere along the line filmmakers seem to have decided that the way to an audience’s hear (or at least their wallets) is through epic do-or-die battles where absolutely everything is on the line. A problem with this kind of storytelling is that audiences can feel disconnected from it – the stakes are so high that they become incomprehensible and impersonal. Moreover, films that do this tend not to do anything that interesting with character – instead they use familiar archetypes – and rely on spectacle alone to keep audiences hooked.
This is where Deadpool is different.
Deadpool is an intimate, small-scale film with a refreshingly inward focus. Deadpool (Wade Wilson) is not out to save the city, or the planet, or the universe – he just wants to force Francis, the bloke who ruined his face to fix him, then he’s going to kill him, and then he’s going to get his maybe-still-fianceé, Vanessa back. Deadpool’s quest doesn’t get interrupted by the need to help save a planet or anything and because of this Deadpool manages to pull off what Age of Ultron doesn’t: it’s small, it’s personal and it’s painful. Deadpool is, of course, conscious of this, joking in voice-over, “This is a romance movie”. But the thing is that he’s serious – ultimately he is (riffing off the classic Notting Hill line) “a boy, standing in front of a girl.”
It’s exciting to see romance treated as a primary narrative strand in a superhero film (rather than as a minor subplot). And the romance is handled well: Deadpool and Vanessa’s relationship is fun and original (a relationship initially based upon sex? How great is that to see?!) and as an audience, we invest in them being together. Moreover, it’s easy for us to empathise with Deadpool’s anxiety about no longer being attractive to Vanessa. And audiences are clearly responding to this intimate little story because we get his mission – it’s on a scale that is comprehensible and we can relate to the emotions he feels – vanity, revenge, insecurity, rage, love – that are driving him on.
The next thing that Deadpool does that separates it from the amorphous glut of superhero films is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, it is the apotheosis of not taking itself too seriously. Of course, a large part of this lack of seriousness is due to Deadpool’s character – he’s a self-referrential, wise-cracking, hyper-meta smart arse – whose deeply naughty brand of humour translates well onto screen. His postmodern fourth-wall breaking reflexivity gives the film its dynamism and his reasonably vain quest further prevents the film from being serious and earnest. Unlike many superhero films, in Deadpool there are no earnest rallying speeches about justice, heroism, and sacrifice (aside from when Colossus makes one to Deadpool about being a hero and Deadpool does the opposite to what’s being suggested – classic Deadpool). This is not to say that other superhero films don’t have humour – Suicide Squad was trying so hard to be irreverent and quirky that it hurt to look and Age of Ultron seemed to have a contractually agreed upon number of witty one-liners. But Deadpool/Deadpool doesn’t have to try to be funny – the film is funny, he is funny – and it’s having fun taking the piss out of a genre that has become overloaded with seriousness.
The final thing that Deadpool has going for it is that the studio thought it would fail. While this seems to be a strange thing to see as a positive, their low expectations freed Deadpool from the need to be the next big superhero hit – which meant that the filmmakers could get away being the next relatively derivative superhero film, relying on a formula that had previously raked in the cash dollars. Instead, it could be a love story with swearing, sex, nudity, and an incredibly unconventional protagonist who broke the fourth-wall all the time. Also, it was allowed to get an R rating – US studios are normally incredibly hesitate to let their films be graphic enough to get R ratings because the conventional wisdom is that an R rating spells box-office disaster – but if the studio wasn’t counting on success then what did it matter? Low expectations also meant that the film’s budget was severely restricted which also turned out to be no bad thing. Firstly, rather than having a plethora of villains – Garrison Kane, Sluggo and Wire – they were condensed into one – Angel Dust. Having one character in place of three adds to the the film’s sense of intimacy. Likewise, rather than having masses of action sequences, they only had a few – which made those few really count. Thirdly, rather than having an abundance of X-Men as supporting heroes, there are only two – Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. Visiting Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters Deadpool is reflexively tongue-in-cheek about the dearth of X-Men saying, “It’s funny, I only ever see the two of you… It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.” And finally, the low budget means that at 1 hour 48 minutes Deadpool’s running time is significantly shorter than most other superhero films out there (e.g. AoU: 2 hours 22 minutes; The Dark Knight Rises: 2 hours 45 minutes!) I praise the short running time not because I wanted the film to end (I didn’t!) but because unlike many other superhero films it wasn’t padded with extraneous detail or flabby sequences.
While I said just now that I though the film’s 108 minutes running time was a good thing, I do think that one story beat needed to be fleshed out a bit more. When Deadpool finds out he has cancer he moves too quickly into wanting to leave Vanessa in order to spare her the pain of seeing him deteriorate. This also means that he moves too quickly into joining the intensely shady super-solider programme. The thing is, I think we needed to see some of the cancer horror that Deadpool is trying to spare Vanessa from. All we needed was one or two scenes of him undergoing chemo and him being sick and her looking anguished and a doctor saying that the treatment wasn’t working. Then his decision to leave would have had more weight – he was out of options! – as well as making their parting all the more poignant. As it was it felt too fast (but hey, maybe they originally did have those scenes but thanks to their budget cuts weren’t able to film them).
Deadpool deserves its success. Hopefully it is also a lesson to other superhero filmmakers that doing something different, and being something different is what audiences want. They don’t want a stale rehash of familiar scenarios, tropes and characters. Instead, give us the joie de vivre, self-reflexivity, intimacy and originality of Deadpool (and of course, Wham!’s Careless Whisper.)
*Not quite it – Francis, the bad guy, also tortured Deadpool for weeks, was going to sell him as a super-slave.