Review: ‘Deadpool’ Expertly Straddles The Line Between Charming And Obnoxious

If this thing were any more self-aware it'd qualify as a person.

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Currently, the superhero genre is in a recursive predicament. Each new film has to do something new, but remains trapped within familiar tropes.  Scientific hubris. Physical metamorphosis. Cool costumes of leather, spandex and Kevlar. Psychosexual torment. Intense bravado. Misanthropic vengeance and vigilantism. Reluctant teamwork. Wholesale urban destruction. Altruistic mercy and self-sacrifice.

It’s flattering when a film invites us to deconstruct these tropes. But self-awareness of superhero tropes is itself a superhero trope. It’s tropes all the way downDeadpool has decided that the best offense is a good defense. As if taking script notes from snarky live-tweets and forum threads, it makes every possible joke about itself before anyone else can. Pretty much nothing in it is left un-lampshaded.

I honestly couldn’t decide whether it was witty or obnoxious. But given how feebly some superhero films struggle under their own weight – last year’s Fantastic Four, or 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2Deadpool is impressively nimble. And it pulls off its relentless self-reference with a confidence that’s solidly entertaining, even if it isn’t always endearing.

Where Is It On The Grim-Zing Spectrum?

Superhero comics were invented for children. And the modern industry’s insistence on marketing them to adults is the reason why the Hollywood superhero genre occupies a tonal continuum of earnestness, ranging from grim and gritty to flippant and zingy. Whether it’s to woo audiences who don’t take comic books seriously, older fans who want their childhood favourites to ‘mature’ with them, or fans of the newer ‘edgy’ comics, superhero films can chase ‘adult appeal’ by seriously exploring issues of trauma and morality, and by using visual and verbal play that’s often explicitly genre-savvy.

Some films, such as Man of Steel (2013) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), are almost entirely humourless, while others, such as The Green Hornet (2011) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), are almost entirely playful. And some that try to play grim instead tip over into bathos – including Daredevil (2003) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

At various points on the Grim-Zing Spectrum, you’ll find enthusiastic action-fantasy romps such as Blade (1998), Hellboy (2004) and Iron Man (2008); gothic antiheroes like The Crow (1994) and Constantine (2005); and pulpy B-movies including The Punisher (2004) and Dredd (2012). There are bleakly satirical vigilantes without powers, as in Defendor (2009), Kick-Ass (2010) and Super (2010); and genre plays about super-powered protagonists in the ‘real world’, such as Unbreakable (2000), Chronicle (2012) and Hancock (2008). Meanwhile, superhero team movies can encompass historical cynicism (Watchmen, 2009), historical nostalgia (X-Men: First Class, 2011), glossy zinger-fests (The Avengers, 2012) and outright parody (Mystery Men, 1999).

In his 1990s comic-book heyday, Deadpool embodied the macho, self-reflexive Dark Age of comics with his cruelty, snark and direct address to readers. At least in part, he was an experiment in how mean an antihero could be. In this film, mercenary and Special Forces veteran Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) insists he’s no hero, and that this isn’t a superhero movie.

Wilson has just got engaged to sassy stripper Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) when he’s diagnosed with late-stage cancer. He can’t resist an offer of a black-market cure… at a chop shop for mutants run by pain-immune Ajax (Ed Skrein) and his super-strong sidekick Angel Dust (Gina Carano). They’re torturing random superpowers into people, then selling them as super-slaves. Wilson ends up with infinite self-healing powers, but is hideously disfigured in the process.

Although he can literally heal butthurt (“Ooh, right up Main Street!”), Wilson’s full of rage at the mad doctor who turned him into a monster. Now the disagreeable housemate of a blind old woman (Leslie Uggams), he plots a bog-standard costumed revenge… followed by a predictable rescue mission when Ajax and Angel Dust kidnap Vanessa.

Reynolds has shown his dramatic talent in films including Buried (2010) and Mississippi Grind (2015), but here he expertly deploys his Van Wilder: Party Liaison (2002) comic smarm. It’s serendipitous that he doesn’t have his pretty face for much of the film, because he’s so good with vocal and physical comedy.

Deadpool is crude and raunchy, but it lets its female characters in on the jokes, saving most of its objectification for Wilson’s body. And while it plays its extensive gore for laughs, it doesn’t succumb to the kind of fascistic nerd power fantasies that made Kick-Ass – and especially its sequel – so unsettling. The humour never feels sadistic. Instead, Reynolds has a Bugs Bunny-like “ain’t I a stinker?” cheekiness. But he does get a few serious moments that suggest human vulnerability beneath his costume of quips.

A Fourth-Wall Break Inside A Fourth-Wall Break

Deadpool signals its self-awareness right from the slo-mo opening credits, which introduce director Tim Miller as “an overpaid tool” and offer “some God’s gift idiot”, “a hot chick”, “a British villain”, “a moody teen”, “a CGI character” and “a gratuitous cameo”. The writers – Zombieland’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick – are billed as “the real heroes here”. And they deliver every single cliché with great relish.

Deadpool jokes about everything. Some fall flat and others zip past too quickly to register. Some’90s-centric jokes reveal the screenwriters as Gen Xers, and others are just bewilderingly dated; Wilson calling his blind housemate Al “Mrs Magoo” met with stony silence in my screening. But the constant patter is broadly entertaining – as are the frames stuffed with visual Easter eggs that will probably be better appreciated when Deadpool hits home media.

Deadpool occupies the cinematic universe of the X-Men, who become fodder for genre jokes. Metallic, CGI-rendered Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapcic) is there to be mocked as a square because he subscribes to old-fashioned superheroic altruism. And Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), a surly goth, parodies the metaphorical association between superpowers and adolescent angst.

But Deadpool also has one foot in our universe, in which X-Men is a fictional film franchise starring Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman – all of whom get skewered – and Ryan Reynolds is an embittered veteran of many failed superhero roles.

As well as a weird and shitty version of Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), Reynolds appeared in the woeful Blade: Trinity (2004) and starred, disastrously, in the embarrassing Green Lantern (2011). And you’d best believe Deadpool jokes about all these.

The film appears comprehensively self-aware, gleefully lampooning its story, its creative personnel and conditions of production, and its place within pop culture. But its nonlinear flashback structure and nested fourth-wall breaks are a little too clever, a little too busy. Take them away, and Deadpool tells a completely generic and rather unambitious superhero story. Weasel and Al, both key sidekicks in the Deadpool comics, feel desultory. And having explicitly said she isn’t a damsel in distress, Vanessa ends up as one.

Still, in biting the hand that funds it, Deadpool is about as subversive as studio superhero blockbusters are permitted to get. And Reynolds completely redeems his former stumbles. Frequently hilarious and always watchable, he gives broad appeal to a character that was once considered too unpleasant to carry his own movie.

Deadpool is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk.