It’s a signpost of any trend’s maturity when it becomes unshackled by the genre conventions that previously came to define it.
Hip-hop has gone through this plenty of times… hip-hop started as party music, created by DJs who played beat breaks over and over and amused the crowd with rhyming chants, then it turned into a rallying cry, an explicitly political form of truth-telling counter-resistance. Then, sometime in the aughts, rappers started becoming introspective, emotional, even vulnerable. Each new trend was received in part because of the contrast to what came prior.
The same thing happened with video games… they started as simple shoot-em-ups, then evolved into vehicles for detailed cinematic shoot-em-up storytelling, and eventually now you have games like the Playstation hit Flower that completely eschew violence in favor of serendipitous flights of fancy through picturesque countrysides. A long way from Space Invaders and Doom, no?
Now, it’s happening with superhero stories. At first they were mostly the domain of comic books, but over the past decade or so we’ve seen an explosion in the number of television series and features films based on comic book characters. And studios are no longer content to chase the fortune with big-tent blockbusters like the Avengers series or dark-and-gritty reboots like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. And now with the copious sex and violence in the Netflix-produced Marvel hit series Daredevil and Jessica Jones (and soon-to-come, Luke Cage, yaaaassssss), the very idea of a superhero story being a mostly-family-friendly affair has been stretched beyond recognition.
It is only in this context that one can truly appreciate the singular peculiarity of the latest Marvel vehicle, Ryan Reynold’ star-turn as the mercenary Deadpool. Astute viewers and Marvel comic fans know that Reynolds was darn near blackmailed into initially playing Deadpool against type in X-Men Origins: Wolverine back in 2009, and given how much a cult following the Marvel character Deadpool has amassed from the comic books, one would’ve thought that a Deadpool movie would’ve been in the works years ago.
Alas, it takes time for both studios and audiences to evolve. Case in point — the 2008 Will Smith vehicle Hancock covered similar ground with Smith playing a boozy antihero with super powers, but to decidedly mixed reception. In contrast, Deadpool takes a similar premise — Ryan plays a down-and-out mercenary with super powers out for revenge — and plays it up to the hilt, employing a series of over-the-top sight gags, profane exchanges and plenty of sexual innuendo.
And whereas Hancock removed some of its edgier content in order to get a PG-13 rating, with Deadpool, the principal creative team went for an R-rating. As a matter of fact, Deadpool’s writers took six years to bring their vision to life because they were committed to a violent, irreverent, graphic vision of Deadpool on the big screen, and it took them that long to get 20th Century Fox to sign off on their version of the film, which was initially considered to be too risky.
Which brings me to my thesis:
Deadpool is not for kids, unless they’re trapped in adult bodies. Your inner 14-year-old will love it, but your actual 14-year-old needs to wait a few years.
Not only do the F-words and the blood both fly like confetti, not only is the main love interest a prostitute whose most pivotal scene takes place in a strip club, but what makes it for adults only is the fact that kids can’t fully appreciate irony, which is Deadpool’s trademark. His character only works because it goes against everything we’ve become conditioned to see from superheroes. He is profane, self-loathing, he exults in murder, and only in brief, fleeting instances does he ever think about anything but himself. Thus, his behavior is funny not just because it’s bad but because it’s transgressive, it subverts our expectations of what a superhero should be. Not only have children not had enough life experience to properly contexualize this behavior as antiheroic, they haven’t seen enough superhero movies for the jokes and satire to land right. It’d be like trying to tell a great joke with no setup.
Not that there isn’t enough immaturity to drive the comedy. There’s a scene early on (no complaints about spoilers, it’s in the trailer) where Deadpool, an acrobatic display, shoots three guys with one bullet. What the trailer doesn’t show you is that he only had one bullet because he wanted to shoot another guy two more times, just for kicks (“worth it!” he jubilantly exclaims). Not since 2010’s Kick-Ass has there been so much violence employed with such expert comedic timing.
Deadpool certainly has its shortcomings. Even if you can get past the violence and nudity, the second act drags a little, the flashback narrative device is a bit shopworn, and Deadpool’s connection to his fellow X-Men (the Russian steel giant Colossus, and the perpetually jaded and hilariously named Negasonic Teenage Warhead) seems hastily tacked-on.
But there is a heart beating beneath the layers of blood and snark. Deadpool’s sarcastic persona is a coping mechanism for a loss that he spends the rest of the film trying to come to terms with. As such, the chemistry between Reynolds’s Wade Monica Baccarin’s character Vanessa felt very genuine and, dare I say, touching.
More than anything else, though, Deadpool knows what it is. It knows it’s a movie about a guy who loves creatively shooting and slicing people, and it treats the audience accordingly. Rather than gamely soldiering on in self-serious bluster, Reynolds in Deadpool takes an ironic stance to let you know that he knows you’re in on the joke. First time director Tim Miller should be applauded for knowing how to amp-up the crazy while staying faithful to an iconic character. (Here’s to hoping he can collaborate with Mel Brooks on the rumored Spaceballs sequel.)
Does the world need Deadpool more than Batman, Spider-Man or Superman? Nah. Too much wink-wink irony makes everyone cynical and hardened. But a little now and again can go a long way.