The worst trend in modern moviegoing is not the proliferation or quality of superhero movies—there is just the right amount of those, and most of them are very good—but what happens to a theater when Stan Lee makes his way onscreen during one of these movies. I’d say around 2008, when the first Iron Man was released and the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched the first of what is now up to 19 installments, you would hear a few distinct chuckles as Lee showed up; it was a sort of audible nod, a nerd or two reveling in a payoff they’d come to expect. I know him, the sound told the crowd. By 2018, for the release of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, just about the whole theater was emitting deep, forced, guttural laughs when Lee wandered onscreen. Almost everyone has caught onto pop culture’s biggest inside joke by now, and they very much want to make you aware of this fact.
Lee has now appeared in almost every one of Marvel’s film adaptations (33!), starting in earnest at the turn of the millennium with X-Men and Spider-Man, the two movies that set all of this into motion; his cameos go even further back than that, to the made-for-TV The Trial of the Incredible Hulk in 1989. Stan Lee’s prolonged involvement has always suggested that Marvel adaptations were unafraid to press against the fourth wall in obvious ways. Deadpool proved Marvel would take a bulldozer to it, and then pelt jagged chunks of the rubble at viewers until they’re rendered unconscious.
Before we go any further, here is a list of some things that aren’t objectionable on their own: the word fuck, extreme vulgarity, nudity, graphic violence in movies, DMX song placements, ostentatiously meta shit, Rob Delaney, and fun dumb summer blockbusters. Deadpool, and we can probably presume also its sequel, which is out Friday, contains some combination of those elements in no moderation. This is fine, I suppose—the movie will make truckloads of money and please a lot of people over the weekend, and there’s no law requiring you or me or anyone else to see it or care about it. But also, fuuuuuuck Deadpool. Fuck it right to hell.
Deadpool sucks as badly as it does, which is extremely badly, for reasons that are both in and outside of its control. I’m told it’s faithful to the source material, which is something I don’t really care about when trying to enjoy any movie on its own terms. Ryan Reynolds, who’s always seemed like a relatively smug and self-satisfied guy, has finally brought his passion project to the screen. It was all sort of preordained, after Deadpool declared that he looked like Reynolds crossed with a Shar-Pei in an issue of the comic book. The struggle to bring Deadpool to theaters is well-documented and spanned nearly 16 years, and as such the goalposts were generously placed once the movie actually became a living breathing work. That it existed at all was, for people invested in it, a triumph in its own right.
That fundamental laziness—the smug certitude that simply Recognizably Being A Thing is enough—fits Deadpool’s style of comedy nicely. The Deadpool comedic approach is, in its way, the logical conclusion of all those Stan Lee cameos—a joke that isn’t really a joke so much as it is just Recognizably Being A Thing. That’s not the only obvious influence on the Deadpool style, of course—you’ve got a little bit of shitty Harambe meme vibes, some GEICO commercial moves, and to a lesser degree, a bite of the broader approach in Guardians of the Galaxy. All of the above offer a post-punchline approach to jokes, one that places far greater emphasis on the joke existing rather than its execution, delivery, or writing. They just kind of rapidly sputter out like nervous tics, and often at the expense of boring features like narrative coherence or rhythm. It doesn’t matter how Deadpool acknowledges Reynolds’ stint in the megaflop Green Lantern, the first movie’s relatively shoestring budget, that it only could afford D-list X-Men to aid his efforts, or how X-Men Origins: Wolverine mangled the character as long as all that is in there, and preferably sold with a cute enough wink to satisfy anyone who’s simply keeping up.
Everyone involved seems extremely proud of what they can get away with—look no further than Deadpool 2's original score, which giddily became the first film score to earn a Parental Advisory “badge of honor” on the back of song titles like “Holy Shit Balls” and “You Can’t Stop This Motherfucker.” For comic invention, the whole enterprise doesn’t amount to much more than a middle school chud who’s finally allowed to watch some R-movies and shouts the word “penis” at increasingly loud volumes in the cafeteria.
There is something appealing about a movie being able to own its studio and nearly everyone involved in making it, which Deadpool did pull off by way of its mildly amusing opening credits. It’s a minor achievement, since the studio will take no issue in fielding these barbs so long as the Deadpool franchise continues to rake in something like $800 million at the worldwide box office. I can also understand why Deadpool might have felt so refreshing in 2016, contrasted as it was with the gruff and tragically constipated DC heroes and the MCU’s general vibe of “enjoying a cold one with the boys while the entire universe hangs in the balance.” The stakes in the first Deadpool were admirably personal, even if director Tim Miller let the set pieces get away from him near the end.
Perhaps the best side effect of Deadpool, if there’s one to be had, is how it eased Marvel properties and thereby every other tentpole into embracing the R-rating. It’s not like this was revolutionary, really—The Matrix and 300 proved this to be possible in each of the last two decades—but it likely helped convince 20th Century Fox to take a chance on an R-rated Logan. Maybe someday Marvel will greenlight a more subversive gore-fest like Matthew Vaughn’s grimy, under-appreciated Kick Ass, which was slightly less impressed with itself than Deadpool.
Of course there were concerns that Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox might water down Deadpool for future installments, or force his integration into the Avengers universe, which is my true nightmare. But there’s nothing about the character, who is still as corny as a career theme park employee, that suggests he won’t be right at home in the Mouse House. He won’t have to dilute anything, which is probably for the best, since we’d just get an onslaught of jokes about why he can’t get the swears off. That’s the thrill of it all. The noticing.