I miss irony. I really do.
It seems there was a time – about 20 to 25 years ago – when much of popular culture was devoted to self-deconstruction. In many children’s TV shows and in numerous movies, characters would address the fact that they were indeed part of a fiction. In Scream, the victims could recognize that they were involved in a horror movie type situation, and talked about horror movies more openly than ever before. Significantly, superheroes were being toppled left and right on TV shows like The Tick, Earthworm Jim, Freakazoid!, and The Ripping Friends. Sam & Max, Buster and Babs, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot would all address the audience directly. The popular narrative of the 1990s was that all stories were at an end, so we need to pick them apart.
Something shifted in the early 2000s, however, where irony became suspect, and a tone of defensive earnestness took its place. We now live in a world where a completely dunderheaded character like Thor, or a wet towel like Captain America, can star in multiple feature films apiece, and no one bats an eye. And Heaven help you if you point out how weak those characters are. You, sirs and ladies, invite a firestorm of internet ire from earnest fans with no sense of humor or self-awareness.
Which is why Tim Miller’s self-aware and utterly enjoyable Deadpool, a spinoff film from the X-Men film series, is surprisingly important and undeniably timely. Deadpool is a superhero film that flies, gently and winkingly, in the face of current ever-staling superhero conventions, by presenting us with something that is confrontationally ironic and refreshingly crass. The story leaves a lot to be desired, and the climax is as boring as any you’ve seen in a dozen movies previously, but any sort of attempt made by the superhero genre to take the piss out of itself is certainly welcome.
Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is a wisecracking mercenary who, in an attempt to cure his terminal cancer, is forcibly given immortality by a shadowy cabal of nondescript bad guys (represented by Ed Skrein). In the process, he is horribly disfigured and granted a special kind of madness that allows him to recognize his own presence in a superhero movie. As such, Deadpool often turns to the camera to address the audience directly, and point out how silly a lot of this stuff is. Example: When Colossus (CGI) announces that Deadpool is being taken to see the off-screen Professor X, he asks whether he’s going to meet Patrick Stewart or James McAvoy (the two actors to have played the professor in previous movies).
Even the opening credits are in on the fun. The film stars “God’s Perfect Asshole,” “British Villain,” and “Hot Chick.” The director is “An Overpaid Tool.” I feel like this was the film Guardians of the Galaxy longed to be; how do you make a superhero film with a talking raccoon and not fill its mouth with obscenities? Guardians wanted to be crass and self-aware and cheap, but was held back by a nagging sense of studio calculation; it’s hard to be daring when dealing with such a big budget. But there I go again, contradicting the pop consensus of a comic book movie (Guardians of the Galaxy is, in most circles, God’s perfect picture).
Whereas most superhero films have to stay carefully in the four-quadrant purview of the PG-13 rating, Deadpool playfully and proudly displays brutal violence, creatively foul language, some blood, some filth, and no small amount of dirty sex (there’s a scene wherein the hero is pegged by his girlfriend). Thanks to the ironic tone, however, these things are pleasantly palatable; the bullying meanness of Kick-Ass is mercifully absent. Although I could have done without the jokes at the expense of Deadpool’s blind, elderly roommate. Some of those were mean.
The story is where the film begins to falter a bit. After 15 solid years of the same sort of tale, audiences have become savvy to the tropes of a superhero origin story, and Deadpool doesn’t bother to rattle that part of itself. The filmmakers had a chance to really pull back, deconstruct and explode the usual movie structure, but eventually chickens out, and gives us yet another explosion-filled climax that could be cut-and-pasted from any recent superhero yarn. In a movie that is this self-aware, I would have appreciated a climax akin to Blazing Saddles, wherein the characters fight their way off of the set and onto the studio backlot, eventually landing in the very movie theater where Blazing Saddles in playing. Meta.
As such, Deadpool is a welcome change, if not the revolution it could have been. The character previously appeared in the fan-hated 2009 film X-Men Origins: Wolverine were he was altered drastically from the comic books. As an apologia, Deadpool works just fine. As a piss-taker, its welcome. As an entertainment, it’s pretty dandy.