‘Deadpool’: Surprise box-office hit mocks superhero clichés

“Deadpool” doesn’t necessarily mark an advance in Hollywood’s approach to superhero blockbusters. But it does mock and ridicule the standard genre formula.

"Deadpool." 20th Century Fox PR image for new Marvel Comics-based film.

WASHINGTON, February 28, 2016 – Prior to its recent release, the biggest news swirling about the surprisingly successful new superhero film “Deadpool” was its rumored R-rating—a rating that’s now a reality. Filmmakers generally shy away from this rating, to the point of reluctantly editing a film enough to gain a pre-release, somewhat more family-friendly PG rating.

But in the case of “Deadpool,” everyone involved was absolutely pushing for the “R.” The burning question: Why were they doing this? After all, since superheroes derive from comic books, and since the medium and the genre are viewed by most people as a somewhat juvenile pursuit, studios have tended to focus on acquiring a PG-13 rating as the easiest way to attract the widest audience possible.

Yet that, in large part, this is why so many superheroes arguably feel about the same, save for cosmetic changes here and there. Which is a problem. One senses there’s a certain formula, a certain code of conduct that’s mandatory in a superhero film. The formula can feel either comforting or rote depending on the audience. In some cases, a film can feel like both.

Superhero movies: Action films or new genre?

Here’s the issue, though. Once viewed simply as a subset of Hollywood’s action genre films, the recent rush of attention-grabbing superhero films is rapidly evolving into its own genre—one that’s currently in the throes of trying to define this growing niche into a distinct cinematic canon.

But this evolution is still a work-in-progress. That leads to a pair of crucial questions, namely “What exactly makes a good superhero film as far as critical analysis is concerned?” And “What kind of tone can or should films in this newly developing genre establish?”

Granted, “Deadpool” doesn’t really answer these questions in any significant way. But the film certainly does push the perceived boundaries of the superhero genre, continuing in a direction that could establish new paths for this still evolving genre.

Despite opinions to the contrary, “Deadpool” isn’t a game changer for the superhero genre. Not by a long shot. In fact, it’s probably the most derivative superhero film to date. The only difference is that the movie itself tells you it’s entirely aware of this, leaning into that notion so strongly that it risks rolling over and crushing itself at key points.

When a movie is described by writers and critics as being “self aware,” it’s usually a tip-off. No, it’s not necessarily an un-subtle wink or a nod to the audience, inviting them to become part of some “in-crowd.” That could easily become off-putting or condescending.

Instead, the pre-release “self aware” buzz and the film itself inform the audience either visually or textually that they should just have fun without their involving their intelligence. Invoking brainpower is something Deadpool refuses to do, both as a film and as a character, because this has never been what Deadpool’s is all about, as is easily seen in the trailer below:

Origins of Deadpool

The original “Deadpool” was created by Rob Liefeld as part of his work developing Marvel’s X-Men spin-off: X-Force. The original character of Deadpool was essentially a chatty, standard-issue chatty mercenary and not much more.

It wasn’t until the mid 1990s when Joe Kelly took over writing for the character that Deadpool became the character current audiences are largely familiar with and have been clamoring for on film.

Kelly transformed Deadpool into a wisecracking anti-hero, actually a bit like Spider-Man. Except that the Special Forces-trained Deadpool has absolutely no problem skewering, maiming, disemboweling, and killing his intended targets or villains. In the process, he goes to great lengths to break through cinema’s 4th wall in various ways.

Depending on who’s writing the story, this can mean having Deadpool offering snarky comments on the intricacies and inanities of superheroes, pointing out specific narrative mechanics, or just talking directly to the audience for no other reason than he feels he has to talk to someone.

Deadpool = Ryan Reynolds

That’s precisely the tone “Deadpool” (the film) sets from the very beginning, and the conceit doesn’t let up from the film’s opening credits all the way to the mandatory Marvel movie after-credits scene.

Most people seeing this movie are aware that not only is this not the first time Ryan Reynolds has played Deadpool. It’s also fourth time he’s been in a superhero movie, most recently exemplified by his badly misplayed characterization of DC Comics’ superhero Green Lantern. That eponymous film flopped so badly it quickly vanished without a trace.

This actor’s flubbed superhero career is actually a fact the creators and Reynolds never let the audience forget. Yet this film offers an excellent solution to this actor’s dilemma.

As Deadpool, his new character’s most fascinating power—aside from the fact that he can’t die—is that despite any injury, he can always regenerate himself regardless of the pain he’s going through. (Too bad Green Lantern couldn’t do the same.)

For a movie that wears its unabashed, over-the-top self-referential awareness on its sleeve, what’s more painful—or painfully amusing—than consistently bringing the failures peppering Ryan Reynolds’ checkered acting career to the forefront?

For that reason, much of this film and any subsequent investment in the character is wrapped up in Ryan Reynolds’ personality and previous failures. That’s because the Deadpool in the current film is also driven by early failure and defeat, which is a dramatic and intentional course correction from the last time Reynolds played Deadpool, back in the most forgettable of Wolverine’s solo movies.

It would have been so easy for anything Deadpool does in this Deadpool solo film to fall flat. But in this outing, Reynolds plays his character as well as the situations he finds himself in with such tremendous amount of manic energy that if someone can buy into the sight of Deadpool getting shot multiple times and bouncing right back with a quip, they’ll be roped in for anything he does next.

That’s a two-edged sword. If you don’t invest in Deadpool—and Reynolds’ personality—as a believable character and superhero, then this movie will be lost to you from the start.

The reason: aside from those 4th wall breaking antics and the movie’s so-insufferable-it-comes-back-around-to-being-funny tone, there isn’t much that’s genuinely new or innovative in “Deadpool.” This film is a basic origin and revenge story, and anyone familiar with both superhero and action hero tropes, won’t be surprised at any of the directions this movie takes.

That doesn’t mean this film is bad. There’s an immense amount of sadistic whimsy taken with the dialogue – entirely sold by Reynolds with particular glee – that’s really funny in and of itself. But given the fairly standard plot, character development, and action sequences, this is a movie that’s steeped and marinated in tradition.

Of course, this, too is something else for the film’s creators to mock. They understand they’re not reinventing the wheel in this superhero film and point that out to you on a consistent basis.

The most obvious of these inside-superhero jokes is the scene in which Gina Carano’s villainous Angel Dust leaps to the ground from several stories up, only to crash to the ground in a dramatic but astonishingly standard four-point superhero landing pose with Deadpool offering giddy commentary on that visual cliché as it unfolds. This practice gets a little tiresome at times, but it’s usually salvaged by the distinct advantage of experiencing it through Deadpool’s uniquely psychotic world view.

Is “Deadpool” a good film?

In many superhero films, there’s a tendency to overload the audience with sidebars that eventually don’t have much of a purpose. “Deadpool” cuts away most of the excess baggage, offering what’s probably the most streamlined superhero film released to date, yet another distinct advantage. While this film’s narrative can be irritatingly jumpy on occasion, everything serves the essential purpose of getting “Deadpool” from point A to point B and looking good the entire way there.

In the long run, “Deadpool” isn’t going to be seen as an important film that’s key to the development and evolution of the superhero genre. It’s simply fun, lightweight, action/comedy escapism that’s likely to be remembered fondly by most even as they gradually forget everything except the basic details.

Yet in the pantheon of superhero film mythology, “Deadpool” still has an important role to play. It inventively strays away from the pre-arranged, standard superhero course the major studios seem already to have established for this still shape-shifting film genre. For that reason, “Deadpool” not only feels fresh on its own. (Though it might inspire a rash of cheap imitations.) It also points the way to how and where the genre can evolve.

“Deadpool” does not necessarily mark the start of a new trend. This film simply doesn’t deliver that kind of creativity. But it does suggest the possibility that something new and different enough can still happen to set the growing world of cinematic superheroes on edge.

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