It seems only fitting that after the most ambitious superhero crossover we get a Deadpool movie. The perfect contrast: a small-scale solo venture and an R-rated satire with other superhero IPs in his crosshairs including himself. It’s also the perfect antidote. Genres tend to go unchecked as studios blindingly chase where the money’s at. With Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and now Black Panther hitting it big, this ensures more of their comic book brethren to follow, meaning more origin stories, crossovers, more tropes done to death if it means a shot at a billion dollars. Deadpool, fortunately (or unfortunately), is the superhero genre’s own system of checks and balances.
The sole guarantee of Hollywood is that if something makes massive amounts of money they’ll keep doing it whether anyone asked or cared. That’s how we’re 5 Transformers movies deep and how other cinematic universes have sprung up only to go out with a whimper. The superhero genre (if you don’t think it’s a genre by now, you’re in denial) is guaranteed to outlive us all. Because if one superhero doesn’t make it big, don’t worry, there’s another one queued up. And another. And another. And–
We know the routine. Characters get their introduction by way of a solo movie ensuring their addition to the larger team ensemble due out next year. It’s what gave birth to the MCU, and, to a lesser extent, the DCEU. It’s hard to ape on a formula when said formula more or less works. The only problem I have is the frequency of what is basically the same movie. (Which Marvel Studios had to come to grips with on the way to Phase Three.) We are so bombarded with the genre and its tropes that we can practically frame our own lives by way of the superhero narrative.
We are fluent in superhero-speak, painfully self-aware, as the movies themselves can sometimes be. The hero laughs at the central name or concept only to embrace the superhero identity wholeheartedly. This scene from X-Men when Professor X drops the mythology on Logan (practically doing newbies a solid), causing the skeptical Logan to chuckle at the entire conceit. This has been done again, and again. Self-mockery is a keen disarming device. It’s as if the filmmakers are nudging us in the theater, acknowledging the ludicrousness of the whole enterprise (“We think it’s outrageous too!”) Revisiting these scenes and the pop culture atmosphere of the time, you can feel like the screenwriters were trying to say something about the genre but didn’t quite have it in them.
Where others might’ve been timid, Deadpool is gleefully unashamed, much to Fox’s detriment. The X-Men franchise was the main recipient of Deadpool’s digs. It needed to be put in check; running rampant with its own skewered timelines, making sense of a rebooted cast, and a franchise future that was, well, uncertain. When Negasonic quips about the Xavier Mansion that “blows up every few years,” that’s peak meta. X-Men: Apocalypse’s only show-stopping scene is when Quicksilver saves everyone from a fiery destruction. Deadpool plays a lot like a Comedy Central Roast of the X-Men franchise, shaming it to reconfigure itself. It’s no wonder there hasn’t been an X-Men film since 2016. (It did give us Logan, which I am immeasurably grateful for.)
Breaking the fourth wall requires winsome wise-assery and sandpaper-dry sarcasm, both of which Ryan Reynolds has in spades. Deadpool even handicaps itself by mucking up its star’s appearance, leaving his voice to do the meta heavy lifting. Wade’s ghastly appearance speaks to how utterly warped the genre has become. Satire often points out how a thing has lost its way, distorted to the point that it’s unrecognizable. It’s the critique of a phenomena that has invariably reached its apex, it’s tropes exposed to the point of overbearing self-reference.
Meta nonsense has been Reynolds’ thing since Blade: Trinity. His role as Hannibal King is an early precursor to his Deadpool. When he comes to the rescue of an incapacitated Blade while bearing the name tag “Fuck you” and laying on the line, “Evening, ladies,” he may as well say it directly into camera. He’s also the narrator, piling on Dracula’s self-serious exposition with his jocular, nonchalant tone that Trinity is borderline a parody of the franchise.
Reynolds’ 11-year odyssey to get Deadpool made is profoundly infuriating considering he’s got the chops for it. X-Men Origins showed a startling sign of life in the fan favorite character only to have him go careening way off canon. If Origins failed the character, it at least signaled his seamless ability to tap into the Merc’s mouth-running quips. (He improvised most of his lines.) It was Green Lantern that failed both Reynolds and the character – a film that Warner Bros. would rather pretend never happened. WB has quite a few of those.
Deadpool is a sendup of all of the above – including Blade – but the film takes on a surprisingly earnest hue about halfway when the newly disfigured Wade can’t muster the courage to approach Vanessa. It plays a lot like Reynolds struggling to find acceptance in the very genre that didn’t know what to do with him. Of course, he finds a way back to her by relying on their twisted comic-comparisons. That’s exactly Reynolds’ ticket in.
When Colossus drags the indisposed Merc to meet the Professor, Deadpool asks, “McAvoy or Stewart?” He may as well say “Bale or Affleck,” or worse, “Maguire, Garfield, or Holland.” Franchises used to work itself toward a necessary generational handoff. When Pierce Brosnan reached tenure, 007 was then handed off to Daniel Craig. In comic book films, we get newer, younger Daniel Craigs sooner than we’re ready for. There was hardly enough time to transition from Christian Bale to Ben Affleck. We didn’t even get an ending chapter for Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man. (Notice, too, how there’s been significant talk of the next Wolverine as opposed to the passing of the baton to Laura.) Deadpool hardly bats an eye. It’s one big, callous money-making machine.
Deadpool’s own lack of money gave way to a clever advantage. Whereas a limited budget was the disadvantage for the doomed Fantastic Four reboot, Deadpool turned it into a running gag. Spectacle is too often the name of the superhero game. Deadpool serves up its own over-the-top finale with a set piece that literally topples over. The decommissioned helicarrier is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, which is the double-edged sword of satire. It’ll sound like nonsense for the uninitiated. For those on Deadpool’s blatantly self-referential frequency, these visual gags pay off tremendously.
For all of its lampooning, Deadpool can’t quite kill the mythology. Because he is a superhero. The character walks a very tricky tightrope along parody and satire. He can send up other actors, franchises and movies (the fucker even mentions Liam Neeson’s Taken), call out what the genre has morphed into, but he needs the setup, the tropes, the narrative beats all the same. He needs the mythology as much as he needs an audience on the receiving end. Deadpool is the lucky little prick who gets to have his cake and eat it too. Because he’s mocking himself as fast as he’s mocking everyone else. (“You think Ryan Reynolds got this far on his superior acting method?”) Great jokes often come at the expense of the storyteller, which suits Deadpool just fine.
In the rubble of the helicarrier, the superhero genre has to reconstruct itself once more, albeit carefully this time. Some ideas are clearly outdated, misguided, otherwise need confronting before the next Jenga-collapse. I can’t think of a better arbiter of that destruction. Deadpool 2’s trailer alone had some playful but necessary digs to keep this ever-expanding superhero craze in check. Acknowledging that the same actor is playing another character in a different Marvel universe? Check. Calling out the dour and grim agenda that caused the DCEU to collapse on itself? Check. Satire has a way of putting things into perspective. “We need to be put in check,” Tony Stark boldly proclaimed in Civil War, the MCU’s own deconstructionist fable, a mantra that addresses the entire superhero shindig. I don’t think he had Deadpool in mind, which came out that same year. Whether anyone realizes it, we need Deadpool as much as he needs us.