Stephen Greenblatt, in one of the seminal essays of new historicism, “Invisible Bullets,” argued that Shakespeare’s The Tempest engaged in a pattern of ‘subversion/containment’ regarding colonialism, both deconstructing its cultural imperatives and simultaneously re-constructing them. The play teases us with its transgressive possibilities, but ultimately affirms the status quo. If poststructuralism expresses, as Jean-Francois Lyotard put it, ‘an incredulity toward metanarratives,’ those same metanarratives nonetheless reemerge, if now tempered by irony. That incredulity itself may be healthy, can lead to reexamination and change, but it can also spend itself in ironic self-reflection. Or put another way, Deadpool may be the coolest, funniest superhero movie ever made. Deadpool himself may even be the first super-anti-hero. It makes fun of every narrative trope common to movies of its genre. It’s self-referentially meta whenever possible, and it’s nicely subversive. An apt movie for a political season characterized by the complete deconstruction of a major political party’s ruling metanarrative.
It’s still just a superhero movie.
The tone is set during the cheeky opening credits, in which the film is listed as starring ‘some douchebag,’ ‘a hot chick,’ ‘a British villain,’ ‘a CGI character,’ and so on. The director is ‘overpaid tool,’ while the writers are ‘the real heroes.’ I laughed out loud for that one. Of course, Deadpool himself offers metacinematic commentary on the fact that he, the character, is in a movie, and Ryan Reynolds jokes abound. Deadpool is played by Ryan Reynolds.
And it’s all R-rated. Very very definitely R-rated. R-rated for violence, for sexuality, for nudity, and for language. It’s not just that the characters cuss a lot; the movie feels R-rated. It’s grim, dark, grubby looking and cynical. Very un-Marvel in tone, with Stan Lee’s inevitable cameo in a strip club scene.
It’s also a superhero/origin story movie. Wade Wilson is a kind of vigilante/mercenary. He’s a bad guy who makes a living ripping off even worse guys. He’s got advanced military training, and he spends his free time in a bar run by his one friend, Weasel (T.J. Wilson), the bartender. The entire bar caters primarily to other purveyors of violence; hence a betting ‘dead pool,’ where you can gamble on who is going to die next. Wade meets a hooker, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), and they fall madly in love. They plan to marry. And then Wade is diagnosed with cancer. Terminal. No treatment possible.
Except maybe not. A Recruiter (Jed Rees, whose face you will remember from Galaxy Quest–just how intentionally meta is the casting?), says he can offer a medical procedure that will cure Wade’s cancer, make him invincible, and give him super powers. Wade bites. And meets the British Bad Guy, played by Ed Skrein, who asks to be called Ajax, but whose name is in fact Francis. (Being called that, turns out, enrages him). And Francis does indeed have a life saving/superpowers transforming medical procedure. It involves an injection, followed by a lengthy course of torture, to force a genetic transformation. If he survives.
See what I’m saying? It’s a normal superhero backstory movie, an origin story movie. But it’s also brutal and ugly and chock-fulla swears. And, in a sick kind of way, it’s funny. In fact, I laughed out loud, often, and so did the other dudes in the theater when I saw it. (Dudes only, btw; the male/female ratio in the house was 18-0).
When Wade’s medical treatment is over, he’s got the ability to heal from any wound, no matter how severe. He’s also hideous; his face and body look like he survived the worst house fire ever. A walking burn wound. So he thinks that Vanessa can never love him again; that no one can. Weasel helpfully suggests that he star in a series of horror movies. His other best friend, Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), an elderly blind women he moves in with, has never actually seen him, so he doesn’t believe her assertion that true love can overcome even the most hideous countenance.
So, now as Deadpool, he searches for Francis. He thinks that perhaps Francis (a medical genius, though of course, also a sociopath), can fix his face. He also wants to kill him. In other words, he’s conflicted.
The film is also a Marvel movie, and as such has to somehow connect to the larger Marvel metanarrative, which it does in the most unlikely and contrived possible way. See, two of the X-men, Russian accented Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapacic), and his emo teen sidekick, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) assign themselves to serve as his conscience, and also try to recruit him to join the other X-men. They’re both kind of ridiculous superheroes, which fits a movie in which Deadpool certainly has super powers, but tends not to use them heroically.
And yet, every element is there. Hero/Heroine/Comic Sidekick. A really bad bad guy villain, who has a sidekick of his own. Troo Luv. A mixture of comedy and seriousness. An origin story, combined with a ‘save the day’ climax. It makes fun of superhero movies. And it also is one. Subversion/containment. Deconstruction/reconstruction. Just like that other superhero narrative, The Tempest, by the Stan Lee of the 1600s, dude name of Shakespeare. Which is also, come to think of it, a pretty cool superhero handle.
If you want cartoon violence, PG-13 humor, and a redemptive hero, you probably should give Deadpool a pass. But if you want a funny and endlessly inventive movie infused with a darkly satirical, sexy and violent energy, Deadpool is amazing. Just don’t expect it to actually, you know, change anything.