Considering that the most recent spate of superhero movies have ranged from slightly uninspired (Avengers: Age of Ultron) to wholly mediocre (Ant-Man) to downright disastrous (Fantastic Four), nobody can deny that Fox’s Deadpool is the cleated kick in the pants the sub-genre, and Hollywood as a whole, sorely needs. Fox’s gamble to create a self-aware, R-rated antithesis to Marvel’s fatigued formula has paid off massively, with record-breaking box office numbers and plenty of critical praise. That success is not only understandable, but warranted… for the most part.
Truly relentless in its quest to entertain and shock audiences, Deadpool is fast, fun and packs in more jokes per minute than many more straightforward comedies. The story is so gleefully chaotic, and Ryan Reynolds is so insanely energetic in the lead role, that it’s almost easy to ignore that the movie copies and pastes just about every storytelling trope in the Marvel movie handbook, even as it proclaims itself so fundamentally different every chance it gets. As frustratingly predictable as it is unabashedly subversive, Deadpool is more admirable for what it represents than for what it actually delivers.
Ryan Reynolds, playing wise-cracking mercenary turned wise-cracking mutant freak turned wise-cracking masked antihero, has finally reached dry land after years adrift in a sea of bad career moves and general antipathy from the public. I was once one such disinterested soul, considering Reynolds a generic bro type (exhibit A and B: Van Wilder and Waiting) trying and failing to prove he had multi-genre appeal (exhibit C and D: Buried and Green Lantern). Only with last year’s under-watched and under-valued The Voices was I finally convinced that, yes, the man can demonstrate legitimately impressive range and can even be likable in the process. Now the secret is out.
Deadpool/Wade Wilson requires a deft balance to portray. The character performs some truly despicable deeds (and then jokes about them), easily making him the least heroic ‘hero’ in the history of the genre. Reynolds, however, provides just enough nuggets of dramatic pathos to give us something authentic to root for. The real-life enthusiasm he clearly has for the character seeps into his character’s enthusiasm for…uh, killing people and referencing pop culture. That energy goes a long way toward making Wade Wilson a presence you just can’t look away from, even if you’d never, ever want to hang out with him in real life. Praise should also be granted to whoever was responsible for making the mask itself, with eyes that change size and shape to create an expressiveness never before available to mask-wearers. I can’t tell if it’s CGI wizardry, an actual costume feature, or a combination of the two, but the success of the Deadpool character is a truly collaborative one.
It also helps that Reynolds’ timing and delivery of the script’s endless rolodex of one-liners is spot-on for triggering laughter. (Though to be fair, the fact that the mask is almost always on means that Reynolds and first time director Tim Miller were free to record and rework a large chunk of dialogue as many times as they needed afterwards). In fact, Reynolds is so funny in this movie that he makes TJ Miller’s character, supposedly the ‘comic relief’ role, completely unnecessary. This movie ain’t big enough for the two of ’em.
There are three types of comedy in Deadpool, with varying degrees of effectiveness. First and most importantly are the meta elements. Breaking the fourth wall is, apparently, one of the most unique and beloved aspects of the Deadpool comics. It is employed from the very first shot, with a beautiful and inventive opening credits sequence that might just be the movie’s most memorable gag. It’s in those moments of self-awareness that the movie demonstrates that it is unafraid to parody the Marvel juggernaut and deflate the general superhero mythos from within. It’s where Deadpool is at its most subversive, and thus at it’s most refreshingly hilarious.
The worst type of comedy, however, is of the Family Guy variety: pop culture shout-outs that are too often merely references without an actual joke to back them up. They are often strangely dated, but more importantly, they’re usually painfully unfunny. It reveals a major chink in the writers’ armor: their reliance on bluntness over cleverness. Bluntness takes them surprisingly far, but it’s also the sign of a movie that won’t age well and won’t stand up to multiple viewings.
What makes the movie so infectiously fun isn’t the over the top humor and gore, though. Deadpool is such a joyfully magnetic movie simply because it oozes passion, especially from its leading man Ryan Reynolds and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (or ‘the real heroes here’). And ‘oozing passion’ certainly isn’t something that can be said for the majority of superhero movies these days. If what movie studios take away from the movie’s financial achievement is that audiences want more R-rated, violent comedies, than they’re missing the point. What audiences want are movies made with care. In other words, what he said.
Though a revolutionary approach to a Marvel movie, the key components that make up Deadpool’s DNA are in no way groundbreaking. There are plenty of non-Marvel movies I could easily compare Deadpool to, like Kick-Ass and last year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, also comic-book adaptations darkly comedic comic book adaptations liberally peppered with expletives and Tarantino levels of gore. I could also equate the movie to 21 Jump Street if we’re talking crude, meta action/comedies. All of those movies are stronger experiences than Deadpool because their absurd, overblown sensibilities are backed by genuinely original and engaging storylines. Deadpool’s plot sticks so closely to other Marvel movies that if you stripped away the R-rating, the movie’s script would almost literally be X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
All of the problems with superhero movies, problems that the movie itself references, are still frustratingly present here. Remember how almost every Marvel movie lacks an interesting, memorable villain? Well, the villain here is even less interesting and memorable (and even more generically British) than those ones. Remember how the female characters are usually just background objects for the male hero to save and/or have sex with? Well that’s still the case here, though at least Deadpool is frank and shameless about that fact, and gives actress Morena Baccarin more screen time than she would have been granted elsewhere. It helps that she’s totally game for all of it, providing a sarcastic liveliness that stands toe to toe with Reynolds’.
Overall, Deadpool is a suitably insane, wonderfully distinctive and unusually earnest twist on Marvel’s tween-friendly tone. At the same time, it contradicts its own non-conformist attitude by duplicating the same tired plotlines and character arcs from every other superhero movie. Ineffective as an origin story and only mildly effective as a crude comedy, what’s really exciting is what it means going forward. Though we have yet to see something that truly transcends the Marvel label, the thunderous response from audiences and critics alike is a wakeup call that more of the same won’t always cut it, and that passionate filmmaking featuring distinctive voices are desired and required if the superhero genre is to keep on keeping on. In other words, what Deadpool does best is pave the way for what comes next.
Score: 3 out of 5