The two biggest movie releases of Summer 2016 are both going to be overwrought action movies cut with brief interludes of Men Breathing Heavily Through Their Noses With Emotion, and they are both going to pull in a small nation’s GDP worth of box office receipts. Take your pick: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or X-Men: Apocalypse. The former features the ultimate Fist Fight while the latter has a ragtag gang of heroes basically fighting god himself. Both movies were cooked up in labs years ago and play into a decades-long commitment to the extended comic universes and the money that comes with it.
Naturally, the hyper-serialization of cape bros will keep accelerating as long as this is an America where Transformers: Age Of Extinction is a billion dollar movie, and even Josh Trank’s mangled Fantastic 4 can make $50 million in theaters. In this particular moment in capitalism, nothing beats a dialogue boiled down to it’s “[Character]: [grit-words]” basics as a surefire profitability bet. Hell, we have only recently seen the trailers for Suicide Squad, which has been coming out for three years and will suck butt, and already know that it will be a blockbuster. There are too many goddamn superhero movies. Deadpool takes aim at the Superhero Craze all while helping to advance it.
Ryan Reynolds plays the titular character, a gimp, suit-wearing, cuss-mouthed, horny-as-hell superhero guy. Before his powers, Reynolds was Wade Wilson, a mercenary who contracted terminal cancer. Desperate to save his wife from the emotional drag of watching him waste away, he signs up for some mysterious, experimental cancer treatment, which cures him, powers him up, but leaves him with a hopelessly scarred and burnt body. This sets into motion his movie-long pursuit of the sadistic doctor (Game Of Thrones’ Ed Skrein as Hulked Out Jude Law, basically) who molded him into Deadpool. It’s a pretty simply plotted revenge flick, without the grandiose stakes of an apocalypse or the destruction of a city that most superhero movies lean on.
For all the emotional scar-tissue and newfound power he’s dealing with, Deadpool’s greatest asset is his sense of humor: The guy winks at the camera about as many times as he gorily stabs or shoots bad guys. The fourth wall gets broken so often they should just stop putting walls there to begin with, and one scene uses a moment of similar destruction for Reynolds jokes about breaking his sixteenth wall. Self-referentialism and meta-humor lays on thick, with the punchline of a good number of jokes merely relying on the fact that they’re being told at all.
The line between effective satire and onanistic cuteness is thin here, and Deadpool treads it admirably. It’s not all winking at the camera and having gag title cards (which are perfectly fine, and funny in their own right). The movie mixes up its stunts, and the writing doesn’t linger on chuckles like when Reynolds insisting that his suit not be green, or the camera cutting to Colossus right as the “stainless steel” line from “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” drops. You get the joke, and the movie knows you do.
Deadpool’s other defining tweak is that it’s a dirty movie. I’d bet that no other Marvel movie will feature one of the most handsome actors in Hollywood getting pegged, or have that same actor jerking off to a stuffed unicorn. This superhero flick earned its R rating and gleefully revels in its freedom to take advantage of that. The bad guys that Deadpool kills don’t die sanitary deaths like they do in PG-13 superhero movies—they splatter onto billboards and crunch between cars, with their guts and brains spilling out of their bodies. There’s a scene where our man decapitates a henchman, then scissor-kicks his domepiece into another henchman. The—I dunno, probably?—big reveal of Ryan Reynolds’ dong only comes when his skin’s been burned all over and he’s left to die in a fire, impaled on a twisted beam of rebar. It ain’t a tender moment.
Amid all this gore, Deadpool gets a pair of X-Men as both sidekicks and foils. There’s the aforementioned Colossus, whose power is being a big metal guy, as well as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, who is cool as shit and can turn herself into an explosion or something. Their roles in the movie are to serve as a simulacrum for the expectations of the real life moviegoing public—they attempt to convince Deadpool to stop being such a dang murderous rascal and join the X-Men to kill people PG-13 style. This doesn’t go over well, and our hero—who insists over and over again that he’s not a superhero—responds to Colossus’ most emotional overture by executing a bad guy right in front of him, covering Metal Hulk with frontal lobe juice. The message is brutally clear: Deadpool isn’t here to save humanity or anything nearly so lofty.
When he gets his powers, his torturer/empowerer notes that the procedure usually guts its patients of their sense of humor, and it’s not hard to see where that barb’s directed. The movie is chock full of jokes at the nominal expense of Marvel, and the opening credits call the producers rich, greedy assholes. In one scene at the X-Men mansion, Negasonic tells Deadpool that they only ever hang out in the foyer because it’s too expensive to shoot the rest of the house, and given 20th Century Fox’s hesitancy over the movie’s proposed budget, I’d believe it. The movie holds an invisible position of rebellion—if you’re sick of superheroes, well buddy, here’s the parody that tired genre deserves. In the meantime, the movie’s profit margin has already sent foreshocks through the Marvel Universe.
This doesn’t pull the rug out from under the movie’s credibility, or make any of its bomb-throwing jokes less funny. The tightly-wound story is a refreshing antidote to the operatic world-saving of every superhero movie. Deadpool wants to kill this guy because he fucked him up, so he does. It’s as simple as that, and doesn’t need to be much more. There’s no moral lesson the movie hits you over the head with. Comic book movies are supposed to be fun, and this one is.
While Deadpool is going to wildly further the ambitions of the very machine it lampooned, it also validates the new avenues a superhero movie can take. That they can be more than a niche of the “action” canon, and can resonate as well from a variety of angles. (Like, say, comedy!) The movie plays with the expectations and beats of it’s pre-relegated genre, all while marching along and fulfilling the base expectations of it. There wasn’t a superhero movie that did so with such filth, gore, or humor before.
It’s not clear whether the movie’s commercial and critical success improves the quality of the superhero factory or, as Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn warned, teaches Marvel the wrong lessons. But Batman v. Superman isn’t going to hinge its emotional climax on a joke about face-sitting, and Deadpool is all the better for taking that sort of leap.
Image via 20th Century Fox.