If Deadpool had come out in 2006 – before Iron Man kicked the superhero boom into top gear – it might’ve been a genuinely subversive superhero film. The film – which sees Ryan Reynolds make his fourth attempt at pulling off the superhero shtick (if you count Blade III) – is definitely trying to subvert the formulaic constraints of superhero cinema, from its opening credits (in which first-time director Tim Miller is credited as “Some Douchebag”) to the self-aware jokes its fourth-wall-breaking eponym directs at everything from budgets to bullets.
But if you’re looking for a genuinely radical shot across the bow, Deadpool ain’t it. At its best, the film is a lot of fun, but it hews too closely to the archaic narrative model of its predecessors to successfully offer the kind of mockery cleverly promised by its marketing. There’s maybe an argument to be made that this is the entire point. The credits for “Entirely CGI Character” and “British Villain” are one of many acknowledgements that they’re not breaking the mold here; all the superhero team-up, origin story beats and third act showdowns are intended as parody, maybe? A sorta Cabin in the Woods deal? It’s a nice thought, but screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick spend too much time trapped in the familiar superhero structure to break down its scaffolding.
I will say this, though: despite refusing to stray too far from the stock storyline, this isn’t just another Marvel movie peppered with wisecracks. For starters, Deadpool earns its R-rating with showers of gore, unapologetic nudity (male and female) and the rare acknowledgement – for this genre – that sex is more than innuendo (or Chris Evans sans shirt). It’s not so much adult as the ‘adult’ you perceive when you’re fifteen years old and stumble upon a Lorenzo Lamas flick while channel surfing – neon-lit strip clubs! Excessive swearing! – but Deadpool’s aura has always been a little juvenile, so it fits (the dude is a Rob Liefeld character).
The film is at its best when it has forward momentum, as in its opening action sequence: briskly animated and populated with a plethora of genuinely funny jokes (delivered by an in-form Ryan Reynolds, clearly relishing returning to something approximating his Two Guys a Girl and a Pizza Place persona). You’re pretty well entirely in the dark about Deadpool’s motivations here, as he slaughters a gang of black-clad henchmen on a highway in search of the Big Bad, Francis (Ed Skrein).
Why we then need to spend half the film rewinding back to then Wade Wilson’s (decidedly grim) origin story, or establishing Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” (Brianna Hildebrand) as sidekicks, I’m not precisely sure. Like most of the film, the origin story provides an opportunity for jokes (which range from funny to outdated Limp Bizkit references), but slows the film down unnecessarily – especially when you consider that Deadpool’s comic book equivalent has notoriously abstruse origins. Because, basically, who cares?
We do at least get to see plenty of Morena Baccarin as Wade’s lover as his backstory unfolds; unfortunately, her vivacious performance is soon dulled into damsel-in-distress mode. Her transformation from punk-rock prostitute to doting wife in a swift montage could’ve stood as commentary on Hollywood’s version of female sexuality … but it’s not.
Similarly, you would think the half-assed inclusion of a couple of X-Men would be a prime opportunity to snipe at the contemporary insistence on ‘cinematic universes’, but – outside of a jab at the suspicious absence of any other (more expensive) X-Men – their inclusion seems to be there as an unironic reminder to audiences that Fox has the rights to those superheroes, too.
Maybe my expectations are too high. Maybe it’s just impossible, nowadays, to really subvert the superhero movie. After all, subversion is baked into the contemporary form. Robert Downey Jr’s snide sense of humour has meant that – outside of DC’s grim, dark darkness – very few superhero movies from the last decade take themselves entirely seriously. The Avengers – the highest-grossing superhero movie thus far – managed to find time for Agent Coulson fanboying over “near mint” collectors cards and concluded with the gang sitting down for shawarma. Reynolds finding time to mock his work in Green Lantern, Blade III and X-Men Origins: Wolverine is cute, but let’s not forget that last year’s Best Picture winner was built, in large part, on an actor grappling with his history as a superhero.
Maybe superhero movies are just too big to successfully subvert nowadays. The few films that have succeeded – Mystery Men’s dopey parody, Super’s disturbing violence – tend to exist on the margins (comparatively speaking). By the time you muster a substantial budget, you get Chris Pratt replacing Rainn Wilson and dance-offs replacing assault with a blunt weapon. When you’ve got that much money on the line, you can promise something different, but you’re generally not actually allowed to deliver it. And that’s without acknowledging the failed attempts to comment on the genre; think Kick-Ass, which ended up embracing the kind of sickening undercurrent of masculinity it seemed to be trying to satirise.
Deadpool is a good time at the movies, and it does a lot right. But I suspect the audience its pitched at – comic book fans and teenage boys, mostly – will go away amused but not especially edified. When Deadpool blasts some anonymous bad guy’s brains all over the road and laughs about it, it should serve as a reminder that there’s a dark undercurrent to the commercial celebration of violence found in these kind of films. Instead, it’s probably just going to prompt a pump of the fist; that’s mass media culture for you.