It’s surprising how much I enjoyed Deadpool. Honestly, it’s surprising how legitimately enjoyable Deadpool is, especially considering that it shouldn’t really work at all and that large parts of it still don’t. It’s cheap and oddly-structured and a significant portion of the jokes don’t land. And yes, those jokes lean far too heavily against breaking the fourth wall and taking swipes at faded pop-culture touchstones, which I’ve complained about before and still don’t like. But let’s face it: that’s a large part of Deadpool’s shtick, and fans really, really like it – he’s one of Marvel’s best-selling solo characters, even though he’s largely a one-note comic-relief device and he’s much better served as part of a team-up than he is his own feature-length origin story.
And yet here we are. You’ve got Ryan Reynolds to thank for this. After a near-decade of tormenting studios into hoisting Deadpool off the ground, he finally got his way; an hour and forty minutes of Wade Wilson, for your viewing pleasure. Every frame of the movie that works does so because of him. If you’re aligned with the character at all (and it’s a tough sell), it’s because the guy playing him is. That’s where the fun exists. The movie can’t sustain its tone or the manic first-act steam it whips up with its opening action sequence, but it can sustain its attitude and sense of self. Pretty much all of that comes from Reynolds.
In a way you have to respect Deadpool for its brazen commitment to being a kind of anarchic, obnoxious superhero movie we haven’t really seen before. Not in the way you think, either. What’s supposed to be shocking is all the R-rated sex and violence, which there isn’t all that much of anyway and which Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass already provided. Okay, then. What about the self-referential satire? He knows he’s in a movie, ha ha ha. Well, some of that stuff is amusing, but most of it isn’t, and besides, Superhero Movie was nudging and winking way back in 2008. These things help Deadpool, in varying degrees, but none of it is uncharted territory. What feels fresh and distinct about this movie is how content it is to simply exist inside its own very narrow, specific parameters; doing its own thing however it feels like doing it, and mostly for its own amusement. It’s difficult to apply conventional criticism to something that seems so disinterested in conventional filmmaking. And you have to wonder if something like Deadpool might be immune to criticism anyway.
For one thing, the movie is just smart enough to apply that trademark self-awareness to its actual structure. We all saw the trailers, and we thought we knew what to expect: the suit, the guns, the sword, the meta jokes, all that classic Deadpool stuff, and we get that, but we only really get it in the one or two big action sequences which bookend the movie. The rest of the hour-and-47-minute running time is padded out by extended flashback sequences wherein the Merc with a Mouth gets his own origin story, and while on a narrative level this doesn’t exactly work, what it succeeds in doing is relegating Deadpool to the fringes of his own movie, while still ostensibly always being about him.
Written down that’s a structural decision which seems ludicrous, but in practice it allows Deadpool to be as much of a Deadpool movie as it needs to be without giving us chance to get sick of him. The tacit acknowledgement that Deadpool’s shtick is far too one-note to sustain an entire movie is, ironically, what makes his actual movie so palatable. Narratively, though, it really is a mess, and it’s a mess in a way that I suspect a lot of people won’t be able to overlook, especially if they’re not enamoured with the character.
We meet Wade Wilson as a wisecracking mercenary who promptly falls in love with the prostitute who services the clientele of his favourite mercenary bar. Morena Baccarin plays the hooker, Vanessa, and she’s very good, as is her chemistry with Reynolds, but their romance is interrupted by Wade’s cancer diagnosis. In an attempt to cure himself, Wade volunteers himself for an experiment which will, apparently, kickstart his latent mutant genes. Turns out the “experiment” is prolonged and creative torture, which succeeds in giving Wade his powers, but at the expense of his good looks. Now horribly disfigured, Wade sets out to find the guy who ruined his face (Ed Skrein) and force him to fix it before he can allow Vanessa to see him.
As far as setups go, this one is depth-averse but ultimately fine – or, at least, it would be, were it in a movie that wasn’t quite so consistently anarchic. The story’s detours into heartfelt romance and grim revenge don’t mesh, tonally, either with each other or the low-brow superhero subversion at the movie’s core. Which is a shame, because there are parts of Wade’s origin which feel perfect for this character and cast; Deadpool being horrendously disfigured, say, functions as a rather lovely meta-joke about Ryan Reynolds’ consistent typecasting as the generic leading man by virtue of him being too conventionally handsome for any other role. But every element like this that works is undermined by two or three more that don’t. The flashbacks themselves often feel redundant, both for how little difference there seems to be in Deadpool as a character pre- and post-experiment (he’s still meta when he’s Wade) and the artlessness with which they’re interspersed. Once the movie finally catches up to the present tense it feels as though it has exhausted a lot of its violence, silliness and, in many ways, imagination, but it seems to have much more to say once everything else has tapered off.
For instance, with Deadpool technically being an X-Men character, there must, of course, be X-Men tie-ins, mostly so that Deadpool can point out how tacked-on and unnecessary they are, and a lot of the movie’s best jokes live in that space. One of the X-Men is Colossus, a cheap-looking metal-skinned CGI giant who is relentlessly square – often to the point of trying to convince Deadpool to put aside the violence and swearing in favour of becoming a morally-righteous, “traditional” square-jawed superhero. The other (Deadpool jokes that Fox couldn’t afford more than two) is Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), a trainee who at first seems like an utterly worthless presence until you realize that her sullen disinterest is the joke – she’s the only character that understands Deadpool as a character but just doesn’t find him funny, and it’s a bold move to have the youngest character in the movie already be too mature for its jokes.
Some of Deadpool is like this, but most of it isn’t. That’s just the nature of this scattershot comedy style; the law of averages states that some of it has to stick, but the jokes are fired so relentlessly, and from so many angles, that even though someone is always laughing at something, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to remember what it was a few days (or hours, or minutes) later. All the same, though, you get the sense that Deadpool and anyone involved in it don’t really care either way. In one sense that’s admirable, but in another it’s kind of confusing. It’s often difficult to gauge how successful Deadpool really is as a grand deconstruction of the omnipresent superhero genre because it’s frankly so hit-and-miss so much of the time that figuring out what’s a deliberate riff and what’s a legitimate flaw is an exercise in guesswork, at best. That’s the kind of thing that will inevitably prevent Deadpool from achieving a reputation of greatness, even among those who really liked it, but there are far worse problems for a movie to have than whether it should be considered “great” or just “good”.
And, for better or worse, Deadpool is good, especially when you tune into the idea that it isn’t really trying to be anything more. As far as weightless, snarky fun goes, Deadpool provides just enough of it to feel like exactly the right antidote to the current superhero zeitgeist. It won’t be remembered as a classic, but it will be fondly looked back on as a welcome little curio that reminded everyone how valuable it is to occasionally just spend an hour or so being childish.
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