“It wasn’t overly bad. And I have to tell you the woman shouted and shouted and I said okay I’m gonna do it — it was like a retweet, so I would never say a word like that.”
— Donald Trump (New York Post 9 February 2016)
Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is an anti-hero superhero. This much you know already, before you might see the Marvel franchise movie named for him, the one that you surely know opened last weekend in the US. He’s a wise-ass and a bully, a romantic and a self-parody, crude and yet sensitive. In a word, Deadpool is a superhero for his moment, or maybe for our moment, which is to say — and you hate to say it — Donald Trump’s moment.
Deadpool arrives on screens in a fit of streaming self-consciousness, the opening credits delivering to fans’ expectations. Here’s a movie that knows what it is and knows you know it, too. It sees its clichés and raises them (“Some douchebag’s movie,” you read in a comic-booky crawl, with a “Hot Chick” and a “British Villain”). It’s cynical and foul-mouthed, an R-rated ride that’s just a little rowdier than Guardians of the Galaxy, deploying the same fundamentals, the snappy retorts and the clever visual jokes, the extra-textual references and plainly political jibes that are part earnest and part sarcastic. This movie is familiar but also not, the same but different.
Such tensions can be productive, but they can also be reductive. As much as Deadpool in comics might rail against origin stories, the movie gives you one, via the usual flashbacks and featuring a costume development montage, no less. Deadpool, affectionately known as the Merc with the Mouth, used to be Wade Wilson, reportedly former Special Ops with killer experience in Mogadishu, Baghdad, and Jacksonville. When he’s suddenly found to have cancer in pretty much every part of his body, he’s in mid-love-story, with a stripper named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin).
Feeling he has lots to lose, Wade agrees to a preposterous proposal by an odious guy in a suit (“We can give you abilities most men only dream of, make you a superhero”), though with a condition that lets you know he knows the proposal is preposterous: “Just promise me you’ll do right by me, so I can do right by someone else. And don’t make the suit green. Or animated.”
Subjected to a grotesque ” gene therapy”, Wade suffers mightily at the hands of the British Villain, named Francis but calling himself Ajax (Ed Skrein). Ajax explains that to beat the cancer Wade’s genes — and every other aspect of his body — must be traumatized. Strapped down in a tube, Wade is tormented until his body mutates and his skin boils and burns, so that he’s dreadfully scarred. Throughout this business, Wade belittles his tormenter Francis and his assistant, Angel Dust (played by the ever excellent Gina Carano, still consigned to sidekick parts following her terrific starring turn in Haywire), whom Wade calls “a less angry Rosie O’Donnell”.
Of course this is a coincidence, but it’s a coincidence that underlines how perfectly Deadpool aligns with the current pop-cultural-political moment. Repeatedly he and his movie have their cake and eat it too, calling out torpid formulas while deploying them, mocking a list of easy targets (Ikea, teenage girls, broccoli, the Hulk), Deadpool, once damaged, invites viewers to share his rage. Seeking revenge, he makes loud, lewd fun of anyone who gets in his way. Sure, his best friend can ridicule his new, post-burned look (“You are haunting, you look like an avocado had sex with an older avocado”).
Deadpool can take aim at those whiney X-Men, too, cracking wise about Wolverine’s nether region (a sort of reference to the fact that the comic book Deadpool has more expansive sexual tastes than the movie version), and also Professor X (“He’s a creepy old bald Heaven’s Gate-looking motherfucker”). Yet he also finds uses for a couple of X-Men, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), providing kick-ass support during the big showdown.
That showdown doesn’t clean up all loose ends, leaving room for the sequel already in motion. He’s still got Vanessa, and he’s got a black mother-ish figure, having moved in with Blind Al (Leslie Uggams). Since she’s oblivious to his ugly face and the unpleasant process by which his dismembered body parts grow back, she’s always good for a sight gag, as he makes fun of what she can’t see and you can see what she doesn’t see. Blind Al serves as the sign of Deadpool’s lingering nice-guyness despite his efforts to seem so mean and bitter.
As predictable as its plotting may be, as much as it rehearses comic book movie conventions while acting like it’s above that fray, too smart by half, Deadpool benefits from Ryan Reynolds’ snarky comic performance. Reminding you of why you like The Amityville Horror, Reynolds seems the ideal Deadpool, a guy who looks like he’s playing by his own rules even when he’s not.
Loud and vulgar, insufferable and pitiful, he may or may not be in control of his seeming out of control-ness. It’s a symptom of what’s wrong with comic book movies, but who cares? In this, he mirrors the politician who’s not a politician, the schoolyard bully who claims not to call people names when he does. Contradictory and unapologetic, Deadpool doesn’t have to do anything new, he only has to say he’s doing something new.