Even if I didn’t realize it at ten years old, comic books taught me that sticking to a “definitive” arc or structure is bullshit. A one-shot like Superman: King of the World, for example: the Man of Steel going full heel and nearly strangling Lois Lane to death was always a more intriguing concept than his goody-goody humanism. I didn’t devour every issue of Spider-Man, but I took the death of Peter Parker at face value (still do, actually). I was even a little disappointed to find that after this issue of Legends of the Dark Knight, Batman was not a hallucinatory delusion created by Bruce Wayne’s insane ego. I’ve only been a casual comics fan, nowadays seduced by glossy fan-fiction like Afterlife With Archie or authorized continuations of Big Trouble in Little China. Comic panels aren’t restrictive, and neither are movies. There’s no definitive Max Rockatansky or Snake Plissken. When we didn’t have reboots, we had Hammer films. Conservatism can fuck off. That’s why we have Deadpool.
Admittedly, I’m no authority on Deadpool. With the help of some all-knowing buddies, I’ve heeded crash courses on the fella: etched by anatomically-dyslexic Rob Liefield, Pool’s been leveled with accusations of plagiarism (namesake ripped from DC’s Deathstroke; Spidey-esque spandex; Wolverine-level tolerance for pain), all of which has been embraced and repurposed by writers Joe Kelly, Daniel Way, Brian Posehn, and Gerry Duggan. He’s a D-list superwhatsit; too obnoxious and prickly for heroism. While battling lower-tier villains, he’ll recall what Marvel comic they were in. He demolishes fourth walls and criticizes the corporate overlords with Simpsonian irreverence. He’s the mouthpiece for the frustrated devotee, pointing out gaping plot-holes and frayed seams. He’s an agent of chaos in a boundless universe that will never stop hiccupping. Deadpool diffuses the frustration so that mouth-breaths are replaced by belly-laughs. Creativity is imperfect, and to constantly demand thorough consistency is no fun. Which makes reviewing a film like Tim Miller’s Deadpool, whose tumbles and loose foundations will be lost on those unfamiliar with the comics, a difficult task.
I turned to our own Pat Beane’s essay on soft-reboot culture for guidance. Last year, Beane poses, “we watched self-aware blockbusters pander to their built-in bases with allusionary plots.” Said detail-oriented bases “defend a studio’s decision-making on a brand level, integrating an industrial and historical understanding of the property into their fandom.” Deadpool is 2016’s first self-aware blockbuster, this time with an industrial and historical understanding of the property voiced by its protagonist, just like the comics that inspired it. Thus far, the Marvel films, especially the Disney ones, have emphasized populist, rather than cultist, appeal. Arguably, the last time Marvel considered cults over the mainstream was 2008’s Punisher: War Zone a bomb that effectively buried Lexi Alexander’s chances as a marquee director, to which Deadpool owes a great debt. War Zone pulls no punches in its ultraviolence and jet-black humor perpetrated by a vengeful agent of chaos. Deadpool has all of that, plus a lot of fart hashtags and aggressively heteronormative machismo, which, dare I say, is why it was given a better chance. We are also at a time where Marvel oversaturation is a thing. We can see Deadpool not strictly as an adaptation of comics, but as a reaction to the oversaturation and its effects as well. After a flood of films in which we’re engineered to applaud complex but ultimately righteous mutants, Deadpool provides little reason to agree with our protagonist’s moral compass. Good.
As much as Miller owes the faithfully anarchic tone and structure to the comics, just as much he recalls the fratty comedies that made star Ryan Reynolds who joined the film on the basis of a single panel. Thus, another lens of judgement can be considered. Mostly underneath CGI-inflicted spandex, his voice comprises 90% of the airtime for this film, and if you find him unbearable already, you’re unlikely to be seduced. It’s a return to form of sorts, having sought “legitimacy” in films like Buried or Mississippi Grind. Scatological bro-fests are his element, and that’s not a putdown; I dislikeWaiting…, but he makes “toxic masculinity” bearable and oddly charming. Here, he delivers the foul Bugs Bunny asides with pace and pitch. His type of comedy is hit upon at the onset, as we open on a suspended moment of what-the-fuckery: glass flying, crotches in faces, Reynolds-adorned tabloid covers, and deep wounds in foreheads. Credits for “A Hot Chick” and “A Tool” (the writers are “The Real Heroes”) flash onscreen, while Juice Newton’s “Morning Angel” plays overhead. This is Deadpool in a nutshell: a smarty-pants overload (cue dick joke) of irony and slapdash directed at the teenager within. Though it can be overwhelming and grating at times, it’s a lot of fun.
Fun, especially when it comes to potentially #problematic entertainments, can be used as a diversion. It wants you to forgive the aggressively unabashed heteronormativity and male-targeting with the crass set-pieces — as sustaining as they are, they can’t beat the opening highway massacre, which explains why they keep returning to it throughout the film. Having only dealt with short films, Miller adapts to opposing odds — shaved budgets, which can be blamed for the limp noodle of a finale or the lack of adequate supporting characters (which is referenced and winked at constantly) — with frenetic tableau building. It’s sporting a knowingly clichéd plot, and as much as it’s rationalized or punctuated with rug-pulling visual gags, it still detracts. The underuse of fan-favorite Blind Al (Leslie Uggams) or X-novice Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), plus the shallowness of Pool’s relationship with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), basically himself in female skin, strikes an uneven balance. When the jokes get lazily dated — a henchwoman with utmost strength must surely be gay, right? — they transport the film back to an era when Seth MacFarlane was embraced by countless progressive liberals. Maybe the most unforgivable point comes with the blandness of its villain, Ajax (Ed Skrein). Marvel movies have a rocky history with producing adequate villains, Ian McKellen being a high bar to reach. With that vapid conflict, the narrative becomes less than compelling. Still, there’s a purposeful energy here that seems cathartic; after several years of development hell and previously inadequate depictions of Deadpool, Miller delivers a refreshingly obnoxious asshole of a movie with the funniest post-credits sequence in recent memory. Now, if Hollywood could just greenlight a full-length Brown Widow musical, I may one day believe in harmony.