Have we reached peak superhero? Are we oversaturated? Might we in fact have too many superhero media adaptations? Given that the four movie posters at the entrance of my local theater right now are for Captain America: Civil War, Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, and X-Men: Apocalypse, one can certainly be forgiven for thinking we might just be a wee bit oversaturated.
I for one love this state of affairs. It means I can pick and choose what to watch and still get my superhero fix. I didn’t actually feel a need to see last year’s reviled Fantastic Four reboot, and that was wonderful. You see, I remember the 1990s drought where if we wanted a live-action superhero movie we had to put up with Schumacher’s Batman, plastic nipples and all. We hated those things but we went to see them anyway because if we wanted a big-screen superhero movie we didn’t have a choice. Those were dark days, my children.
So now we have choice. This is good. Moreover, oversaturation invites pushback. It invites variety and experimentation. It means we can have the ultra-dark Jessica Jones and Daredevil at the same time we have the ultra-sunny Supergirl and ebullient Flash. It means superhero-whatever doesn’t have to mean just one thing. I’d also argue that a film like Birdman couldn’t exist without superhero oversaturation. While not itself a superhero movie, it’s steeped in commentary about an entertainment world dominated by superheroes. Plus, it gives us the delightfully meta moment of Michael Keaton declaring that none of this would have been possible without him.
Oversaturation invites commentary and satire. Enter: Deadpool.
Deadpool is a Marvel character created in the 1990s best known for crassness, amorality, and breaking the fourth wall. He’s aware he’s a fictional character, and he wants the audience to know it. This isn’t really summary so much as it is an ethos and an explanation for why the movie is the way it is. In many ways, the film tries to be subversive. Its language is off the rails, a raunchy sexuality is on full display, the sly references fly by too fast to spot them all. However, and oddly enough, in terms of plot there’s nothing here that will surprise anyone. Our protagonist Wade Wilson gets superpowers, angsts about his powers and the price he pays for them, goes after bad guys, rescues his beloved girlfriend, roll credits.
This movie gives fans exactly what it says on the tin, and the fans will be ecstatic about it. But this really is a solidly familiar superhero movie, despite the grown-up trappings that might fool one into thinking otherwise.
The film won me over in its opening credits, as films sometimes do if they’re particularly pretty and thoughtful. Deadpool opens with the heartfelt strains of Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” playing over one of those gorgeous CGI-manipulated montages that we’ve gotten used to seeing at the closing credits of Marvel movies. Only this time instead of showing us details of our heroes’ armor and weapons, the camera plays lovingly over a frozen-in-moment time of that horrific gun battle/car wreck we saw in the previews. A burning cigarette lighter tumbles past. Blood sprays from a henchvillain’s mouth. And the credits appear: Produced by Assholes. Some Douchebag’s Film. The entire string of credits is a self-aware, self-mocking run-down of Hollywood’s pervasive clichés, and maybe a sly acknowledgement that this movie is participating fully in them. Then we get this:
Written By The Real Heroes Here.
Dear Reader, I cheered. Tears streamed down my face. My friends had to hold me down to keep me from doing a little dance right there in the theater.
Okay, maybe I just cheered. Moving on.
Much has been said about the film’s R rating. Whether comic-book inspired movies ought to be rated R at all (coming from people who still aren’t convinced that adults should be into this sort of thing in the first place), and what to tell kids who know and love the character from video games and cosplay who might now be barred from seeing it. The character isn’t necessarily, inherently a rated-R character. But the feeling in fandom seems to be that with the heavier rating, the character could stretch into his full potential without the worry that one more drop of blood or f-bomb might be too much. It’s an interesting discussion, since the whole rating system often seems to be out of whack. I personally thought The Dark Knight should have been rated R — the film is a meditation on senseless violence, but despite its ridiculous body count and impressions of pencils stabbed through skulls, it didn’t actually depict sprays of blood and didn’t have a whole lot of swearing, so it’s somehow instantly okay for thirteen year olds? I’m not sure that follows.
This is what an oversaturation of superhero movies gives us: an opportunity. There are plenty of PG-13 superhero movies for kids to watch. The upcoming Batman v Superman, for example, for all its ultra-gloom and promise of epic beatdowns is still PG-13. Let’s see what one of these babies can do when you open the throttle, and this was a great character to make that choice for.
After all that, Deadpool didn’t earn its R rating just for violence. The violence here is standard Hollywood fare. On the graphic and bloody side for sure, but nowhere near the levels of violence and gore in, say, a Tarantino movie. But you still don’t want to be taking your 8 year old to see this unless you really feel like explaining to them what a strap-on is. I imagine some really uncomfortable conversations—or perhaps some long, uncomfortable silences—are happening in some families who didn’t believe a comic book movie could be that bad. Oh, dear. So violent, yes. But the language and raunchiness top that. I’m sure there’s an innuendo-laden joke I could make here, if I thought about it long enough.
I’m curious now to see if some rated-R floodgate is going to open. Rated R comic book movies aren’t a new thing. The brilliant and underrated Dredd (2012) used its R-rated levels of violence to good effect, determined not to sugar-coat the kind of world that requires the Judges not so much to keep order as to hold back chaos. But now, for the first time, an R-rated comic book movie is making boatloads of money. And I cringe imagining the movies that will come out thinking they have to top Deadpool. I think the question will come down to whether or not filmmakers understand why they’re going after that R rating, or if they’re just throwing blood packs against the wall for effect. Dredd needed its R. So does Deadpool. I hope filmmakers seriously consider why Deadpool would need an R rating, and why a character like Spider-Man really really doesn’t.
Some of the film’s subversions are subtle, which seems like an odd thing to say given its in-your-face nature. But think on this: Wade has a moment of full-frontal nudity. Girlfriend Vanessa does not. She gets close. We actually had to discuss this after the film. (We were at Village Inn eating pie while “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” played on the PA, a moment that made me feel like the movie hadn’t actually ended but had somehow spilled into the real world, and that someone was about to get thrown through that plate glass window in front.) “Wasn’t she naked in that one scene?” “No, there were strategically placed hands. She was wearing Ryan Reynolds.” So, there you go. This is a good place to mention that Vanessa is played by fan favorite Morena Baccarin. Yes, an almost naked Morena Baccarin in a role that I have to call the anti-Inara. Vanessa is just as raunchy as Wade. They’re made for each other, really, in what is strangely one of the sweetest, healthiest romances I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.
(“It’s like I made you on my computer!” Wade exclaims to her. And I’m thinking, “Holy shit, he just made a Weird Science reference.” This movie, with all its ’80s pop culture references and ’70s and ’80s music made me realize that right now, at this moment, I am the target audience for movies like this and I’d better enjoy it while it lasts. I figure I have another five years before Lady Gaga starts getting played for nostalgia and I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore.)
As usual with male full-frontal nudity in mainstream film and cable TV, this isn’t played for sex appeal but to demonstrate vulnerability and weakness—newly-mutated Wade is in the process of escaping the torture chamber of his captors. He’s injured, on fire, and pretty much at rock bottom. And completely naked. So, while giving us male nudity, the movie still toes the line of how such nudity gets handled in mainstream entertainment. So, as my feeling was throughout, the movie is cosmetically subversive. Structurally, not so much.
Deadpool pushes boundaries in content, language, crassness, and flat-out raunchy sexuality. It does some wonderful work with flashbacks and pacing, successfully spreading a single action sequence across half the movie by interlacing it with other bits of story. But it’s still a superhero movie. Wade Wilson fights for selfish reasons—for revenge and to try to get his old life back—but structurally, the plot and the battles look the same.
When you get right down it, plot-wise Deadpool is a basic, standard superhero movie. It won me over with the opening credits, but it nearly lost me when it became clear that the climactic third act was going to be a bog-standard rescue-the-girlfriend sequence. Like, I’m talking Gwen Stacy dangling off a bridge standard. Fortunately, the film knew what it was doing and overturned that expectation when Vanessa handily rescues herself and then runs the villain Ajax (or Francis if you prefer) through with a sword. That was nice. (Spoiler: this does not actually kill the villain. Protip: if both your villain and your hero have super healing powers, they can spend the whole movie beating the ever-loving shit out of each other. Over and over and over and over and over . . . )
I can’t help but wonder what a subversive structure would look like in a superhero movie. Like, a superhero movie where no one gets kidnapped and needs rescuing, that doesn’t involve an origin story of scientific misadventure, that doesn’t include all the big action set pieces exactly where we expect them. Or if pushing the envelope that far means the movie wouldn’t be a superhero movie anymore. I don’t know if, even with the current oversaturation of these movies, we’ll ever find out. We keep seeing the same formula because the formula is working, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Over and over and over and over . . .
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