A different kind of superhero movie? Not really, no.
Deadpool 20th Century Fox
Director: Tim Miller
Screenplay: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the character created by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefleld
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Brianna Hildebrand, Gina Carano and Stefan Kapicic
Rated R / 1 hour, 48 minutes
February 19, 2016
(out of four)
You've almost got to feel a little sorry for Deadpool. Here's this young superhero movie, full of piss and vinegar and ready to conquer the world, and as it turns out, it is exactly the movie it never wanted to be. Exactly the movie it promised itself it wouldn't be. It's a sad story, really. A story of inadequacy, disappointment and fate. This Deadpool kid was raised by flavorless superhero movies, but rebelled from that fate, bound and determined to forge its own path and defy its upbringing. And now that the prodigal mutant has returned, he will take a good, long stare into the mirror and abruptly realize, to his abject horror, "Shit. I've turned into my dad."
And it's true. Deadpool, the long-gestating, fan-driven, alt-superhero movie, is fundamentally identical to every superhero movie it mocks, parodies, pokes fun at or otherwise holds in contempt. Except it has naughty words. It's got the generic gritty realism, the science-experiment origin story, the interchangeable British baddie, the revenge angle, the love interest who needs rescuing. But - and here's where it think it's different - adds a snarky voiceover on top to assure us it doesn't take any of this seriously.
I know, I know, I know - fans are going to insist that this is all part of the irony, that the film deliberately sticks to an overly familiar superhero template, just to make the IDGAF veneer land - as if doubling down makes its own point. But see, that's the thing about ironic detachment. Cheeky acknowledgment of your own derivativeness doesn't make you any less derivative. Merely pointing at the formula doesn't satirize it. If it were actually functioning on that level, it would take those familiar elements - the villain and love-interest archetypes, the origin details, the mechanics of superhero violence - and undercut, subvert, re-contextualize or otherwise play around with all of the clichés it inherited. But director Tim Miller and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick do nothing of the sort (though I do believe the earnest intent is there). And the result is that Deadpool is more or less the same as the movies it so badly wants to separate itself from.
It's probable that superhero movies will get eventually their Hot Fuzz, or their Cabin in the Woods. But Deadpool - which is kinda like an updated Darkman but with less visual panache - isn't it. The case has been made that its existence is a sort of timely, punk-rock rejoinder to the mass-market superhero model, but on the contrary, I think it comes along at precisely the moment in time when it fits in most comfortably - and far more than it wants to believe it does. Most comic-book movies of this era are relatively self-aware, so there's no distinction there. Sardonic, first-person narration? Um...how many examples should I list? How much time ya got?
And the meta framework, self-reference and fourth-wall breaks? Yes, Deadpool, welcome to All of 21st Century Pop Culture. Yes, the one distinguishing characteristic is its snark, its profanity and its un-P.C. attitude, but again - see previous sentence. This is basically your standard Marvel movie but with a Twitter/Reddit overlay. (Frankly, The Avengers - a mainstream corporate product if there ever was one - did more to "subvert" superhero movie conventions than this movie does.)
Most crucially of all, Deadpool never really does much to address form, beyond throwaway references to wide shots and entrance music. There's no more vulnerable spot for superhero flicks to be attacked, yet somehow Deadpool can't find anything to say about it. It's almost as if Miller doesn't actually have any new ideas for what a superhero movie should look, feel or act like. Huh.
Giving Deadpool credit for accomplishing what it's not is rather deflating, because if this is what counts as "subversive" - occasionally breaking the fourth wall and dropping a few F-bombs - then maybe it's a lost cause. The movie is even getting credit for busting some supposed boundary by being an R-rated superhero movie - which, even if you place examples like Watchmen and Kick-Ass in a slightly different category, would still leave The Crow, all three Blade movies, and both Punisher movies. But yeah, sure - if you don't count any of those, then Deadpools really has broken through that R-rated glass ceiling.
In all honesty, I often have disdain for movies (or TV shows) that try desperately to appear "edgy" or radical when they're anything but. That's not the case with this movie, however. I have no such disdain for Deadpool. It gives it a real shot, and simply fails. It's not desperate; it just isn't particularly clever. My initial thought was that the movie pulled all of its punches; now I'm just not sure if it had many punches to pull in the first place.
It's certainly a bit disingenuous about the way we're supposed to see, and think about, the character. He - or rather, Wade Wilson - may begin a mercenary, but his means justify only noble ends. Once he's made indestructible in an underground lab (a misguided attempt at curing his cancer), he may only don his bright red super-suit to further his own agenda, but he still winds up saving a woman's life and taking out a bad guy (Ed Skrein, sort of a colder, more muscular Nicholas Hoult). Given his self-congratulatory mischievousness, Deadpool has been compared to Bugs Bunny, but Bugs was a much more committed sociopath who held no illusions of heroism. Wade/Deadpool may be a stinker, but he's a stinker with a heart of gold.
And that's all fine - I'm just trying to find some level on which the character or the film really go all the way, and I can't come up with anything. It certainly has its moments - Wade's Meet Cute with his future fiancé, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, donning short hair and tattoos, a look that works for her so spectacularly that I'm retroactively angry at Firefly and Homeland for not thinking of it) is anything but, as they swap increasingly embellished stories about how diabolically horrific their childhoods were - all while he's trying to secure her professional services for an hour.
The film's best meta moments are not the mid-action-scene fourth-wall breaks (I still can't believe his hackneyed "Did I leave the stove on?" zinger made the cut) or the allusions to comic-book formulas, but the smaller visual touches, like the appearance of Ryan Reynolds' Sexiest Man Alive People magazine cover, or self-deprecating references to the actor's infamous Green Lantern failure. And among the rapid-fire profanities and insults thrown around by Wade, his bartender buddy Weasel (T.J. Miller) and his old, grumpy roommate Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), there are more than a few that land. But despite a seemingly genuine desire to upend expectations for the genre, and a fervent belief in the naughtiness of its own brand of self-awareness, the sad truth is that Deadpool is a basic bitch.