You may still understandably be caught up in all the hoopla surrounding Avengers: Infinity War. It’s got all the classic Disney/Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) ingredients: Tony Stark charmingly snarks; Thor continues to ride his recent hot streak; and Thanos makes a bold claim for MVP. All the while, both you and the kids in your life can enjoy this non-threatening comic book movie goodness together.
20th Century Fox likes to think of itself on the opposite end of this spectrum and, in a way, it is. The studio has painted Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool franchise as the anti-MCU, the superhero movie for grown-ups. There’s blood and violence, and they use the “F” word—a formula that Reynolds and company are doubling down on for this weekend’s Deadpool 2.
Honestly, I love this formula.
I thought Deadpool was one of the best superhero films of 2016, and I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel tonight. But it’s a flat-out lie for Fox to paint the series as the genre-subverting counter-programming that they fancy it.
In the first trailer for the original Deadpool, the studio attempted to invert the classic Uncle Ben Spider-Man adage to let audiences know that this comic book movie isn’t playing by the same rules.
But the truth is if you look beyond the rough edges, his big screen iteration is the same as every other superhero.
Forbes‘ Scott Mendelson said it well in his review two years ago, when he wrote, “Deadpool isn’t nearly as clever, subversive, or challenging as it thinks it is. There is nothing remotely subversive or challenging about a mainstream studio product that is pitched squarely at adult men who still have the mentality of a teenage boy (there is a lecherous scene in a strip club that only exists so that there can be a scene set in a strip club).”
Deadpool’s Origins Aren’t All That Original
The origin of the Deadpool character was the amalgamation of a few different characters.
Writer Fabian Nicieza and artist/writer Rob Liefeld first introduced Deadpool in Marvel’s The New Mutants #98 (February 1991). As you can see below, Wade Wilson’s superhero alter-ego Deadpool bears a striking resemblance to DC’s Deathstroke, real name: Slade Wilson, who was first introduced in The New Teen Titans #2 a decade earlier.
Most Marvel fans would argue that there’s also a lot of Spider-Man DNA in his character, you know, if Peter Parker had been raised by sexually liberated hippies who experimented with a whole mess of psychotropic drugs during his formative years.
Gerry Duggan, who has written the character since 2012, once said that he “considered Deadpool to be a creation that had many parents. Like a less-horrible Freddy Krueger origin.”
“Gail Simone, Rick Remender, Joe Kelly, Mark Waid, Jimmy Palmiotti, Dan Way and so many more creators left Deadpool better than when they found him,” he added. “I inherited a character that was already on the way to being a moonshot.”
Long-story short: Deadpool didn’t just arrive on the scene as this fully-formed unconventional fourth-wall-breaking anti-superhero creation. Fox’s live-action version is following suit as Deadpool entertains but hardly ever shocks.
Though Liefeld claims they never had anything to do with one another, it’s hard not to see Deadpool as something of a gonzo reaction to DC’s popular Deathstroke assassin and an inversion of Marvel’s other popular titles.
As such, the character likely owes aspects of its inception to others. His very existence is rooted in homage and references, and he has yet to really make good on the promise of counter-programming the MCU’s base formula.
Not even Deadpool director Tim Miller thinks it’s all that revolutionary:
“Even when I read the Deadpool script, at no moment did I feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’m breaking new cinematic ground here,'” he told THR. “I just felt like: I like this script, and it’s funny, and we’re going to make a movie out of it. It didn’t occur to me, the meta part of it. It was funny to me, but I didn’t know why it was special to everybody else.
Deadpool‘s Empty Promises
The uber-violent meta-action comedy took great pleasure in poking (stabbing?) fun at familiar tropes in the superhero landscape.
Oh, your superhero story has a boy-girl meet-cute like Clark Kent and Lois Lane bantering about their office problems? Well, Deadpool slings our hero and his love interest together with a raucous game of “Guess Who Was Abused More During Childhood!”
And it is glorious.
But it’s also hypocritical.
Strip away the R-rated violence and the hilarious vulgarity (but please don’t strip away that mask because Wade Wilson is indeed hideous), and you’re left with a standard superhero origin story masquerading as satire; Deadpool was basically small budget fan service.
Don’t forget, this iteration of Deadpool is itself a reboot of the disastrous path Fox took with the character in 2009’s ill-advised X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which fans rightly labeled as bloody murder. We’re already on the 2.0 version.
The 2016 movie’s opening credits—in which the top cast and crew names are replaced with genre cliches such as “hot chick” and “British villain”—are rightly celebrated. It’s a hilarious way to introduce your “different” superhero and announce your intentions. But when you call attention to the stereotypes of the genre, you must follow that appetizer with a dish that doesn’t remotely resemble the audience’s expectation.
In that sense, Deadpool failed as it served more traditional fare, just dressed up with spicy seasonings.
The movie builds off the opening credits with a more-or-less conventional love story, traditional capes-and-cowls adventure and a similar sense of world-building and sequel teasing (the post-credits scene isn’t shy about its Ferris Bueller connection).
In other words: it has a generic superhero structure.
So while Fox is busy trying to convince you through its relentless marketing campaign that features David Beckham and Celine Dion that Deadpool 2 is the continuation of the genre’s first-ever self-burn, don’t buy it. We shouldn’t be duped into thinking that the series, thus far, is anything different than what it is: a really fun R-rated but par-for-the-course superhero flick.
We’ve Seen This Before in Entertainment
Overly-violent, self-aware superheroes are not anything new.
We now have (deep breath): three Blade movies, two Judge Dredd features, one Watchmen movie (and an HBO adaptation from Damon Lindelof in the works), two separate takes on Constantine, two Kick-Ass films, two Kingsman flicks, three Punisher movies and one Punisher Netflix (NFLX) series that all deal more or less in the same space.
The first Blade movie carried an R-rating… back in 1998, before it was cool for our heroes to drop the F-bomb on the big screen. Snipes’ vampire hunter spends the entire film cutting down the undead with all manner of deadly weapons, including a sword, upending Hollywood’s idea of the colorful and corny superhero tale in the process. The bloody violence, adult tone and pitch-perfect one-liners (Wesley Snipes’ utterance of “mother fucker” is up their with Samuel L. Jackson’s) that Deadpool relishes today owe its cinematic development to the first successful movie based on a Marvel property.
Ironically, without the Blade franchise, Reynolds would have never even discovered Deadpool. While on set for 2004’s Blade: Trinity, Reynolds was given a stack of Deadpool comics by someone with the studio, which put into motion the character’s arduous journey to live-action existence.
“I pored through the comics and realized that this character occupies a space in the comic-book universe that nobody else does,” Reynolds said. “I still feel that way… There are moments where we really just venture into the heart of darkness and stay there for a few beats, but then it also has this very humorous undertone. We can go places and do things with this that you couldn’t do with any other superhero property.”
How’s that for an origin story, Fox?
The Blade franchise has a far sulkier tone than Deadpool, while Watchmen is also self-serious and the Punisher experiments are all hard-R violence tacked onto a story of PTSD.
But they are all examples of how existing work helped pave the way for the Deadpool franchise and how it has borrowed bits and pieces of what worked from what came before it. (For the record, the Blade comics character made his first appearance way back in 1973.)
Why Not Shake Up The Genre For Real?
Reynolds’ Wade Wilson isn’t a new type of protagonist; he’s an anti-hero with the same basic motivations—save the girl, kill the bad guy—as everyone else. He’s the same after he becomes “super” as he was before: a violent-but-kind-of-morally-justified quipster. There’s no real change or mold-shattering there.
Isn’t this guy supposed to be pansexual and mentally ill in the comics? Now that would be game-changing.
According to the source material, Deadpool makes no distinction between genders or gender identity when it comes to his choice of partner. Nicieza has struggled to define the character’s fluid sexual preferences, tweeting back in 2015:
This is unheard of for a major mainstream big-screen franchise character.
While Deadpool director Tim Miller did tell Collider that the character would be “pansexual. I want that quoted. Pansexual Deadpool,” we don’t really get much evidence to support that in the film. He could be attracted to a variety of partners, but we only see him have sex with an amazingly beautiful woman… just like every other square-jawed hero hunk out there.
If Fox really wants to subvert the genre, they’ll play around in this wacky sexual sandbox. The closest we’ve gotten to a non-hetero franchise lead is John Cho’s Sulu in Star Trek: Beyond who, you know, isn’t the lead.
The source material also suggests that Deadpool suffers from mental disorders as a side-effect of his extreme healing abilities. These include: attention deficit hyperactive disorder, manic-depressive disorder and onset schizophrenia. He also has a heaping helping of anger issues that sprout up from time to time (he once stabbed his buddy for eating the last cheesy puff).
Including these aspects of his personality moving forward would address a wildly underserved demographic and really make the character stand out from his superhero contemporaries.
This is why Deadpool 2 has a unique opportunity to actualize its self-image.
How The Sequel Can Change the Narrative
Since the modern superhero boom began with Blade, we have seen more than 30 origin stories that show in excruciating detail how our protagonists obtained their powers, the lessons they learned along the way and what kind of super-powered individual they plan to be. It’s a trope that Deadpool spent too much of its second act on, and the truth is, at this point, we don’t really care all that much.
Now that we’ve gotten that throat-clearing necessity out of the way, we can delve deeper into some of the franchise’s more interesting sub-plots.
Hopefully, Deadpool 2 explores the relationship between Wade and Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) beyond one great intro scene and a whole lot of plot-shifting like the first film. Baccarin is simply too good to be used solely for cinematic window shopping.
Maybe we can have the endlessly charismatic Reynolds lob zingers at new characters, not just the villains who don’t give a shit or the periphery people already marching to the beat of Deadpool’s drum (like T.J. Miller’s Weasel).
Adding additional straight foils like Cable (Josh Brolin) and Domino (Zazie Beetz) can help even out the balance of the movie, much like Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) did the first time around (their dynamic was fantastic). Deadpool is the zaniest comics character we’ve got, why not mix it up a bit?
Franchise producer Simon Kinberg told THR that the self-referential humor was one way Deadpool stood out:
“That’s something superhero movies traditionally haven’t done and most movies don’t do,” he explained. “I think it’s part of why it’s so successful.”
But you’re not a game-changer if you’re pointing and laughing at story beats from other movies and then incorporating those same elements into your own film. The goth kids in South Park don’t call out the conformists and then go join the football team, ya know?
The franchise isn’t close to the ground-breaking piece of commentary it wants to be. We laud Deadpool’s fourth-wall Ha-Ha’s, but that trick isn’t anything new in filmmaking, especially for the comedy genre.
With maximum effort, Deadpool 2 could actually alter the superhero paradigm, but it will have to embrace the darker elements of the source material and be less concerned with catering to mass audiences to truly earn its place outside the genre.