Provocative and Pioneering: ‘Deadpool’ Sets the Stage for a New Kind of Hero

Minor shortcomings are easily overlooked because of this landmark film's sharp wit, clever meta-commentary, and undeniable humor.

As an unprecedentedly successful R-rated superhero film, Deadpool is a pioneering project in many ways, with astute critiques of the flourishing genre, bold moral and cultural commentary, and admirable if tentative representations of feminine strength. Despite some minor shortcomings, the theatrical release lived up to the hype built up by its exceptional viral marketing strategies.

Continuing that trend, spots resembling commercials for erectile dysfunction medications promised that the Blu-ray release “helps you be ready anytime”, advising you to “ask your doctor if your heart is healthy enough for Deadpool on Blu-ray.” If owning a copy of this pivotal and highly entertaining film wasn’t enough, the wealth of special features, which include many of these equally entertaining ads as well as multiple audio commentaries, deleted and extended scenes, gag reels, and behind-the-scenes footage, together make this a must-buy for any fan.

Ironic self-awareness, quickfire pop culture references, characteristic fourth-wall breaks, and sarcastic, witty meta jokes constitute the comedic essence of this film. While the crude humor, overt sexuality, and ruthless violence of this decidedly un-family-friendly film may not be everyone’s cup of tea, action lovers and even the newest newcomers to superhero fandom are sure to be enthralled by Deadpool and this unconventional hero’s antics. While actively rejecting the “hero” label even before acquiring superpowers, Wade Wilson’s drive to help the helpless is undeniable, despite the morally questionable nature of his methods, making him an appealingly endearing yet flawed protagonist.

Ryan Reynolds seems to have been destined for this role as the smart-mouthed and quick-witted special forces agent turned assassin with a darkly sarcastic demeanor and a mission of vengeance. In a last desperate attempt to cure his terminal cancer, Wilson agrees to undergo a mysterious procedure that promises to make him a “superhero”. By activating dormant genetic mutations through intensive torture, unlocking powers like those of the X-Men, Wilson gains limitless healing abilities, but the excessive tactics of his tormentor also lead to permanent disfigurement, preventing him from reuniting with his supportive and spunky fiancée Vanessa (Morena Baccarin).

As the bold, self-possessed, and frankly badass beauty Vanessa, unashamed of her career in the oldest profession and unafraid to speak her mind in the face of belittlement and physical harm, Baccarin gives voice to underrepresented feminine strength, confidence, and presence, leaving viewers wanting more. Her performance is heartfelt, cheeky, and as natural as can be expected for such a character, but by contrast, it seems that Reynolds’ comedic talents vastly overshadow his capacity for dramatic acting.

Yet even in this shortcoming, Deadpool is self-aware, even self-critical, enabling Reynolds himself to ask, “You think Ryan Reynolds got this far on his superior acting method?” His propensity for humor more than makes up for these weaknesses, though, having evolved nicely since earlier comedic endeavors such as Van Wilder. While not necessarily more “mature” in the conventional sense, the humor of Reynolds’s caffeinated, sardonic delivery consistently evokes genuine laughter.

By abandoning a more classical narrative style in favor of a format that further eschews tradition, cleverly cutting between the past and the present in a sometimes jarring but no less intelligible progression, the experience of watching Deadpool parallels the excitement of the unexpected that that the character embodies. This approach does perhaps over-exaggerate the stark contrast between Deadpool’s over-the-top energy, brash humor, and violence and the sensitivity of his sarcastic but more human precursor. Consequently, the love story between Wade and Vanessa and the agony of his illness’s impact on their relationship feel extremely poignant in the moment — particularly with such endearing and relatable lines as “Your crazy matches my crazy” — yet somehow oddly melodramatic and overwrought in hindsight.

Although decidedly within the realm of comedy, Deadpool also makes a valiant if somewhat unsuccessful attempt at genre-blending, with elements of horror, drama, and romance. In the action genre, however, this film soars, as evidenced by the opening sequence alone, a vignette of violence that offers a feast for the eyes and sets the stage for the beautiful slow-motion brawls, concussive clashes, and nimble knock-outs to come. Deadpool’s fighting style relies on hyper-awareness of his surroundings and employs creative use of unconventional weapons, resulting in varied fight sequences that sustain the audience’s attention without the interminable, plodding fist fights typical of on-screen superhero battles.

Consistent with his comic book origins, that awareness transcends the fictional realm and enters into the real world through his characteristic breaking of the fourth wall in direct addresses to the audience (“I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to them”), interactions with the camera (turning the frame away from brutal tactics, saying “You might want to look away for this…”), and explicit references to actual players in the production of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (responding to a remark about Professor Xavier, “McAvoy or Stewart? These timelines are so confusing.”). Beyond such nods to other actors, including several allusions to Deadpool’s affinity for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), another ferocious Marvel antihero whose mainstream representation has unfortunately been softened, not even industry politics are beyond reproach.

Reacting to the size of Xavier’s mansion yet encountering just two promising if somewhat one-dimensional X-Men, Deadpool quips, “it’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.” Even though Colossus (voiced Stefan Kapicic) and the awesomely-named Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) aren’t given much opportunity for complex development, not all supporting characters struggle to make an impact, and Karan Soni in particular shines as the unassuming taxi driver Dopinder.

Deadpool’s nemesis is, however, another regrettably one-dimensional character. While his inability to feel pain — or anything, for that matter – does give Ajax (Ed Skrein) the potential to be a particularly twisted and haunting villain, he is sadly lacking in much dimension, particularly when compared to the villains of other Marvel-inspired projects in recent memory, such as Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in The Avengers (2012) and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. Kingpin in the first season of Netflix’s Daredevil (2015). The sheer appeal of the protagonist carries the story, though, so this shortcoming is easily overlooked, although for a film that is otherwise pioneering for the superhero genre in its unabashed deconstruction of the hero/villain dichotomy through its conflicted and complex antihero, it is a bit disappointing that the same attention was not paid to his foe, who is instead reduced to a rather straightforward villain with shallow characterization beyond his hatred for his given name, abandoning the weak-sounding “Francis” for the more stately and powerful “Ajax” (an insecurity that Deadpool’s insults repeatedly target).

The rapid-fire jokes and witty banter are so pervasive that Deadpool is sure to provide continued laughs with every viewing, giving the film immense rewatch value. The script is packed with subtle jabs at the impracticality of superhero costumes (“Is the mask muffling my voice?”) and conduct (such as the “superhero landing” that is “really hard on your knees”), the politics of lucrative superhero franchises (“Whose balls did I have to fondle to get my very own movie?”), and even the industry’s struggle to represent strong female characters (“This is confusing! Is it sexist to hit you? Is it more sexist to not hit you?”), and its writers should be applauded for producing some of the most clever and sophisticated media commentary in recent years, especially for a blockbuster movie, now the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.

For superhero aficionados, Deadpool fills a long-anticipated need for mainstream representation of the more brutal, crude, and morally ambiguous characters that have existed in comics for some time and that have challenged and entertained adult readers. Hopefully this landmark success will blaze the trail for further investment in the adult appeal of similar characters such as the Punisher, Spawn, Hellboy, and even some versions of our favorite Dark Knight as depicted by writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. While the meta appeal of Deadpool may be lost on more casual viewers, Deadpool is still a refreshing diversion from the never-ending onslaught of more formulaic superhero movies, and the self-aware charm of the meta commentary on the genre’s clichés is still entertaining for less familiar audiences.

Overall, minor failings in the depth of characterization of supporting roles and in the naturalism of dramatic scenes do not negate Deadpool’s successes in challenging traditional conventions of superhero films and in paving the way for more adult-oriented representations that break out of the established mainstream norm that softens such characters. It’s refreshing to see the overwhelmingly positive public reaction to a film that embraces the questions of moral ambiguity and cultural commentary that comic book superheroes have long explored. Even with gratuitous violence and sexuality that some viewers might find objectionable, the humor and excitement of this landmark film are undeniable, and for those who can appreciate the value and impact of this movie and its paratexts, in the words of Deadpool himself, “if you experience an erection lasting longer than four hours… you’re welcome.”

RATING 8 / 10