Let me start by making one thing clear: We here at Academic Exiles don’t dislike Deadpool (the movie or the character). While half of us may find Ryan Reynolds a little trying, we mostly enjoy the movie. It’s funny and violent, two things that go surprisingly great together. We are, however, a little underwhelmed by it and honestly, aren’t really sure why so many people seem to think it’s a refreshing break from standard superhero fair. With the sequel snarking its way into theaters Friday, we thought it might be a fruitful exercise to revisit Deadpool and figure out why it doesn’t exactly blow us away.
About 25% of the Jokes Fall Flat
By far Deadpool’s greatest sin is that a good chunk of the jokes range from so-so to just plain bad. There is also a weird datedness to them. I mean calling Angel “a less angry Rosie O’Donnell” and poking fun at the Taken movies were not very fresh takes in 2016. How long were the writers waiting to dust off those gems? Other jokes land just because they make the audience feel smart or cool for catching the reference. Don’t get me wrong. I’m 100 percent guilty of laughing along with some of the comic and movie references for no reason other than “I understood that reference,” and that brand of referential humor is important to the meta-ness of the film and character. Still, a reference or callout isn’t necessarily funny in and of itself; it has to work in context.
He’s an Anti-Antihero … Which Is Just A Hero
Wade Wilson is introduced protecting a girl from a stalker even though she can’t pay him. He then falls into a committed relationship, which he leaves because he doesn’t want to put his partner through the grueling experience of his battle with cancer. That’s a pretty decent guy. I mean, I’m struggling to find a moral grey area. I guess the stalker is a teenager, so Wade’s threats may be a little harsh, but still, you can pretty much agree with his choices. Even when he gets all stabby and shooty after becoming Deadpool, we as the audience still get it. The people he’s targeting are taking desperate individuals and putting them through hell, often killing them. Yet, the movie constantly tries to convince us that he’s not a hero but an antihero. Look at how he mouths off to Colossus and refuses to be an X-Man. Watch him kill Ajax.
You know who else has a pretty high body count and a bad attitude? Wolverine. Even before Logan, the cigar-chomping Canuck wasn’t afraid to kill a few enemies (although his claws remained literally bloodless because, you know, PG-13). Hell, we’re living in a world where Batman and Superman have killed people on the big screen. I can’t think of a hero who doesn’t have a body count (maybe Tom Holland’s Spider-Man?). A baby tree presumably killed people in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. A literal toddler! No one’s talking about what an edgy character Baby Groot is. No one is questioning Thor’s morality for killing Hela in Ragnarok. Does anybody think Captain America is morally bankrupt because he’s shot a few Nazis and killed some Hydra agents? Nope.
In fact, Amanda and I left Wonder Woman kinda rubbed the wrong way that she didn’t kill Doctor Poison. I mean she killed a bunch of German soldiers (just Germans, not even Nazis) but shows mercy to a character that is cartoonishly evil. What?! I understand that keeping main villains alive is a superhero trope because it allows series to continue into perpetuity, but that’s not really the case in the movies anymore. There are some notable exceptions (the Joker, Magneto, Thanos, Lex Luthor), but having the main villain die isn’t unusual.
Deadpool also goes out of it’s way to make Wade a sympathetic character. There’s the do-gooding and the cancer at the beginning, and then the longing for Vanessa (his lady love) from the shadows. We’ve never seen a superhero do that. Oh wait, Darkman, Spawn and Batman has to have done it, right? Are those too edgy to serve my purpose? Spider-Man, the Thing, the Hulk, Superman … My point is that for a character that refuses to be classified as a superhero, he sure acts exactly like a superhero.
The Meta Irreverence Is Window Dressing
Deadpool’s general heroism leads nicely into the fact that Deadpool is a generic origin story. The twist in the formula is that the character can break the fourth wall and makes a lot a jokes, some of which are racy or crude. Also, I guess a lot of violence happens. That’s fun, but the underlying structure is the same. Subversive may be a word that is thrown around a lot in connection with Deadpool, but I don’t think it’s really warranted. It’s about as subversive as Guardians of the Galaxy. Standard stories dressed up with humor and larger-than-life characters. Is it bad? Definitely not. But is it subversive? Also, definitely not.
Now, I think some of the Deadpool marketing is actually subversive of the superhero genre. The sorta-trailer for Deadpool 2 that ran before Logan is a great example of this.
Deadpool notices a crime, fails to stop it and steals the victim’s ice cream. Then a bunch of text about The Old Man and the Sea flashes on the screen. That’s funny and subversive! It takes your expectations of the superhero genre and does something completely different. Think Deadpool is going to save that man? Wrong! Think he’s going to feel bad about his death? Wrong again! How did you think this was going to end? I bet a book report on a Hemingway novella wasn’t even in your top ten possibilities!
Unfortunately, these aren’t the kind of beats the movie replicates on a larger scale. Instead, you get just what you expect from a superhero origin story. Hero is introduced. Hero undergoes transformation of some kind and also meets villain. Hero develops power and battles way to villain. Hero confronts villain and is victorious. Also, there’s a generic love plot. But, you know, all with more fourth wall breaks and jokes about masterbating with unicorns than you probably expected.
The T.J. Miller in the Room
I’ll admit this isn’t Deadpool’s fault in any way, but it is an issue that affects my enjoyment of the franchise. It’s amazing what a difference two years makes. Back in 2016, casting T.J. Miller in a movie was fine, maybe even welcome if we’re feeling generous. But fast forward to 2018, and Miller’s life is a mess of controversy and some really dumb scandals. Sexual assault allegations resurfaced from his college years. He was effectively booted from Silicon Valley for being a nightmare to work with. And then to cap it all off, he was arrested for calling in a bomb threat while drunk on a train. Oh, and we can’t forget The Emoji Movie happened. Thankfully, Weasel isn’t too much of presence in Deadpool since the Merc with the Mouth has numerous sidekicks to play off, but it still taints the viewing experience. I think I actually grimaced when Miller showed up in the Deadpool 2 trailer when I saw it post-bomb threat. Hopefully, Weasel’s role is even more reduced with the addition of Domino and other X-Force members in the sequel.
Will the Sequel Be Better?
Maybe? A lot of superhero franchises perk up with the second installment. They don’t have to labor under the origin story formula and are free to try different things. This could be a big benefit to Deadpool 2, and the movie could have the opportunity to be as subversive as it seems to want to be. Or it could just give us more standard story beats with some references to how Josh Brolin is an antagonist in two blockbusters this summer. The critical response has been mixed in terms of whether the sequel surpasses the original, but the reviews are definitely skewing towards positive. I guess we’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.
But whatever happens, Deadpool 2 will always have a truly epic theme song.