It would be incredibly easy to dismiss Deadpool as an incredibly juvenile and borderline stupid movie. Make no mistake; the humour in the movie really is incredibly juvenile and crass more often than not (but hilariously juvenile and crass). Some might say what makes Deadpool successful and enjoyable is that ‘it doesn’t try to be more than it is.’ Well, I take issue with that kind of assessment. For starters, what does that even mean? Does it mean that comic book movies don’t have the capacity to have deeper nuanced stories? Does it mean that a story with a protagonist that makes dick and fart jokes on the regular can’t be smart? Saying Deadpool ‘doesn’t try to be more than it is’ is an incredibly one-dimensional assessment of a movie that I believe is doing the exact opposite: Deadpool is trying to be everything that it can be. Deadpool does absolutely nothing new; it plays with expectations for comedic effect, it undermines and questions what being a hero means, and it has (at minimum) three masturbation jokes (comedic gold, am I right!?). But what it also has is a story that uses subtlety and incredible writing to make you question (and encourages you to look past) all of the superficial layers to the deeper emotional core of the movie.
Very near the beginning of the movie Deadpool informs us that his movie is a love story. He says this while skewering a guy through the chest with two swords and lifting him off the ground. Classic. But he’s not lying to us; at its heart (pun intended) Deadpool is a love story and it’s an incredibly well done love story. We are shown the relationship between Wade Wilson (AKA Deadpool) and Vanessa (a hooker he meets in a bar) over the course of the one year until Wade discovers he has advanced cancerous growths in most of his major organs. The film probably dedicates less than fifteen minutes to showing us their relationship during the year before they find out about Wade’s cancer and the time immediately after but it is all incredibly effective. Crisp and clever dialogue perfectly illustrates their compatibility. Short clips of them having sex through the major holidays shows their physical attraction to each other and one notable holiday shows the softer and almost more intimate elements of their relationship. Now, the movie opens with Deadpool reigning destruction and death down on some thugs on a freeway, including some of that trademark crass and juvenile humour. So, it makes the tender moment of Wade trying to memorize every details of Vanessa’s face after he hears his diagnoses all the more powerful. Deadpool is not some one-dimensional character. Later, after being offered an opportunity to have his cancer cured (and be given super-powers to boot) Vanessa catches him crying in the dark of their apartment (which he brushes off). These tender and vulnerable moments for Wade Wilson could easily be forgotten amidst the jokes and action of the opening scene on the freeway. But the writers have strategically placed these moments not only to develop Wade and Vanessa but also to demonstrate the emotional depth of their love story. Thus, you become invested. But you also understand Wade’s fear about returning to Vanessa after his mutation manifests and his physical appearance becomes deformed. He might be unkillable but he isn't without the anxieties and vulnerability of regular human beings. This leads directly to Deadpool’s internal struggle, which eventually meets up with his external struggle in the form of Ajax/Francis, regarding the fact that he can’t see beyond the superficiality of his own character.
One of the great things about Deadpool as a character is the fact that he breaks the fourth wall. He is aware that he is in a movie, that there is an audience watching, and that he is played by Ryan Reynolds. There are several jokes to this effect throughout the movie, including a moment where Deadpool argues “Looks ARE everything […] you think Ryan Reynold’s got this far on a superior acting method?” While this is funny it is also demonstrative of the internal struggle Deadpool is facing. His vendetta against the man who triggered his mutation is fuelled by the belief that he can’t return to Vanessa and the love they had looking the way that he does. He cannot see beyond the superficiality of his own appearance. But the movie is all about looking beyond the superficial, starting with the tender and vulnerable moments Wade demonstrates before his mutation. For example, after taking out most of the thugs on the freeway Deadpool has a scene with Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (yeah! That’s her actual name!) where he cracks jokes, makes light of the destruction he’s caused, and playfully throws things at his nemesis’ head. Superficial he seems to be a funny and upbeat character devoid of seriousness. But then we flashback to how he acquired his powers in what may be one of the darkest backstories for any superhero movie thus far released. Wade is taken to a filthy laboratory where he is subjected to numerous around-the-clock tortures culminating in one final horrific torture that triggers his mutation. Wade befriends another patient in the mutant workshop only to watch the man be burned and buried alive, along with all the other patients, when the workshop is destroyed in his failed attempt to subdue Francis. What is significant about all of this is that Wade never talks about the torture or the friend he watched die but the audience knows he carries that with him throughout the rest of the movie. On the surface he is making money-shot jokes and talking about touching himself. But all we need to know about what is happening below the surface is summed up in one exchange he has with the man who recruited him for the mutant workshop. “Mr. Wilson? You’re alive?” the man asks. And Deadpool replies “Only on the outside.” The movie does not belabour the point but relies on us as the viewer to see below the surface. Wade’s battle against this form of self-loathing, in believing himself to have nothing to offer Vanessa without his good looks, in this fear of rejection, is a struggle to find a sense of self-worth. He must learn to find his value through his actions and motivations instead of his appearance. He must find a way to be himself and still be a person of worth, to be the thing he fears he cannot be: a hero.
Deadpool makes numerous cracks at other super hero franchises, specifically within the Marvel repertoire. Both the X-Men franchise and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are known to Deadpool in that fourth wall breaking way of his. He asks Colossus which Dr. Xavier he is being taken to, McAvoy or Stewart, since he can’t keep the whole timelines thing straight. Twice he makes fun of Ryan Reynold’s past depictions of super-heroes, both in Green Lantern and Wolverine. And when he leaves Vanessa without telling her where he's going he comments sardonically "because that's what hero's do, right?" All of this is in service of questioning this notion that there is only one way to be a hero. Colossus acts as a kind of big brother and the ideal superhero example in the film. He is noble, attempting to teach Deadpool and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (still amazing) the righteous code and way of the true hero. But Deadpool wants nothing to do with the definition of hero that Colossus pedals, this kind of hero that Captain America or Spider-Man or any number of other heroes choose to be. Meanwhile, Negasonic Teenage Warhead is the stereotypical sullen teenager; a stereotype Deadpool pegs her as very quickly. But it is obvious she is as irritated by Colossus’ views on being a hero as Deadpool is but is convinced there is no other game in town. And Colossus’ is irritable. He’s annoying because of how noble he tries to be in a movie where villains torture people until they either die or mutate. In fact, during the end fight, Colossus’ dedication to propriety and nobility almost gets him killed. Deadpool doesn’t want to be a hero by Colossus’ definition because that would mean trying to be something he’s not. But he’s not a villain either and he doesn’t consider himself one. Neither does Colossus, in fact. He simply believes Deadpool’s methodology is juvenile and irresponsible. But Deadpool is simply a man trying, as he puts it, “to do right by someone else.” Deadpool isn’t a movie about someone trying to be everyone’s hero, to be an idol. He’s only trying to be one person’s hero, and there is something incredibly noble and romantic about that as well.
There is a reason that Deadpool has achieved such rapid mainstream success and it’s not because the movie is stupid and caters to the lowest common denominator with its #driveby fart jokes and sex jokes. Really, it’s for the exact opposite reason. The movie doesn’t talk down to its audience or believe that they’re too slow witted to pick up on the nuances of the plot and characters. It trusts that people will look beyond the superficiality of the movie, but also readily admits that you can also enjoy all that the superficiality has to offer. I mean, let’s be honest, the fart and sex jokes are funny. The movie begins by taking a shot at pretty much everyone involved in making the film and all the cliché’s involved in writing it. Nevertheless, when it comes time to name the writers they are simply described as “Written by The Real Heroes Here.” And without a doubt this is true. Not everyone could write Deadpool in a way that has the kind of emotional depth that they were able to create. It is dismissive and a little benighted to say that the script was simply ‘written by a twelve-year-old’ as I have heard it described. From crisp dialogue to subtle exposures of their core characters, the writers of Deadpool have crafted a winning origin story to what will no doubt become a new franchise. And this was achieved not through laziness and stupidity but through maximum effort.
Deadpool. Dir. Tim Miller. Perf. Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, and Ed Skrein. 20th Century Fox, 2016. Film.