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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Deadpool Flaunts Clichés, Breaks Fourth Wall


In the 1950s, superhero comics faced a decline. Following the Golden Age of Comics of the 1940s, Senate Subcommittee hearings arose that questioned the superheroes’s connection to juvenile delinquency and homosexuality. The genre quietly slipped away, giving way to serials that featured romances and westerns rather than neon tights.

Of course, the superhero genre didn’t entirely die out. To combat the genre’s association with juvenility and campiness, comic houses like Marvel began to introduce darker, more complex characters in the 1960s and 70s. This coincided with the emergence of big-budget superhero movies, beginning with 1978’s “Superman” and growing more successful, more respected and more adult with every passing decade. In the hands of directors like Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, these movies grew cinematic and dark. The colorful costumes and scenery that adorned the pages of the first DC and Marvel comics are hardly present in the Gotham City or Metropolis of 21st century film.

Last Friday, Feb. 12 I made it to a screening of “Deadpool,” the latest Marvel Comics release, at the Strand in downtown Grinnell. The viewing began with trailers for two other upcoming superhero movies: “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Captain America: Civil War.” Based on the previews alone, no child psychologist could ever accuse these films of being too juvenile or effeminate. They are coated in shadow, sonorous with gravelly voices and far more serious than fun.

“Deadpool,” however, is no stuffy dark superhero movie. This is a fact of which it’s well aware. In the “Deadpool” comic book series, Deadpool is characterized by his brazenness and knowledge that he is a comic book character. This cognizance was transferred thoroughly to the “Deadpool” film. Not only is Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool fully aware that he’s a movie character being portrayed by a washed-up Ryan Reynolds, but the “Deadpool” movie is aware it’s another title in a perpetual franchise. The movie is replete with satirical references to the superhero franchise and fourth wall breaks. It’s also dedicated to incorporating as much humor as possible. Sometimes this takes the form of poignant quips on Marvel Comics’ monopoly on the film industry. Most of the time, though, it’s arbitrary and rash obscenities about sex or bodily processes. The audience of college students at the nine o’clock screening evidently couldn’t get enough of these jokes, but I found them mostly forced and witless.

The basic plot of “Deadpool” is simple enough. Mercenary Wade Wilson falls in love with escort Vanessa but is stricken with terminal cancer immediately following their engagement. He is approached by a special agent, who offers him the opportunity to engage in a procedure that will not only cure him of his cancer but also grant him superpowers. Eventually, Wilson gives in. In the dingy underground laboratory, he meets Ajax, the movie’s British villain who represents the super villain archetype. Ajax subjects Wilson to torture, which eventually unlocks Wilson’s superhuman abilities but also leaves him disfigured. Insecure about his appearance, Wilson finds himself unable to return to Vanessa. In revenge, Wilson adopts the identity of anti-hero Deadpool and vows revenge on Ajax.

This main point of conflict was far from compelling. In the words of Deadpool’s friend Weasel, “You look like an avocado had sex with an older, more disgusting avocado.” Still, Deadpool is graced with Ryan Reynolds’ suavity and butt muscles. It was difficult to sympathize with Deadpool’s mission, especially since it was based in his own shallow insecurity. But perhaps compelling conflict isn’t the point of “Deadpool.”

Then again, what is the point of “Deadpool”? Yes, it has a very clear (sometimes overwrought) objective of satirizing the dour superhero genre. In its pointed attempt to defy the genre, though, “Deadpool” seems ultimately unsure of what it is. Although the movie is grounded in humor, it sometimes slips into melodramatic action movie clichés. Deadpool’s ultimate conflict is not dripped in the same blatant satire as the rest of the film’s material, suggesting that the audience is supposed to take these struggles seriously. Thus the movie devolves into the same banalities it claims to mock.

Moreover, groundbreaking elements of the “Deadpool” comic books are gone from the film adaptation. Namely, Deadpool’s pansexuality, which drew many liberal arts students like myself to the film, is entirely absent. Despite claims that Deadpool is a progressive character, he and his film remain armed with aggressive masculinity and heteronormative depictions of relationships.

Perhaps by so adamantly refuting the dark superhero gimmick, “Deadpool” becomes a gimmick itself. Its jokes are unoriginal, its plot predictable and its focus so intent on ridiculing the superhero genre that it loses sight of what it actually is. But while I can’t relate to Deadpool’s superhuman powers or chromium comrades, I can relate to his sarcasm, his realness and his attempt to make sense of a word that’s simultaneously somber and ludicrous. “Deadpool” hasn’t revolutionized the superhero genre, but it has taken a critical first step in re-evaluating it. With a record-breaking 132.7 million-dollar opening weekend for an R-rated movie, “Deadpool” proves that audiences are looking for something new, too.

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