There’s been a huge amount of hype by both the media and fans surrounding the fact that Deadpool is the first R rated comic book movie. That’s kind of weird, because it’s not true. Even Marvel – the comic book publisher that aims 95% of their movie adaptations at the youth market with the family friendlier PG-13 rating – has dabbled in R rated film versions of their properties. Both the Blade franchise and the Punisher movies are Marvel joints, and both went for the adult’s only rating. Deadpool definitely feels different, though.
The Blade and Punisher movies came before what’s known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe approach to gargantuan budget, franchise filmmaking, which was kicked into high gear by Marvel Studios with Iron Man in 2008. Deadpool is part of the X-Men Cinematic Universe, though, a separate entity that 20th Century Fox controls. That means you’ll never see Deadpool in an Avengers movie, or Iron Man in an X-Men movie, but you get the point. The idea for both is that the myriad characters from all the different movies interact with each other and cross over into interconnected storylines, just like the comic book versions have been doing since the 1940s. So far all of these movies have had the teenager safe PG-13 rating. Now, Deadpool crashes the party with enough foul-mouthed dialogue and graphic violence to make Quentin Tarantino blush.
Ok, not really, but it is a major departure from the strategy up to now. It makes sense. I’d venture a guess that the millions of dollars spent by fans at comic cons and on these movies every year come more from the mid-20s to early-40s crowd than from the under-20 set. The big question is, did the talent behind Deadpool pull off such a different approach successfully? The answer is a strong, if slightly qualified, yes.
To fans of the comic, Deadpool is known as the Merc with a Mouth. This movie gives us a version of his origin story, and offers a hint of his future connections to Fox’s X-Men universe. It’s worth mentioning Tarantino again, because the frenetic use of flash forward and flashback employed in Deadpool is as reminiscent of that director’s non-linear storytelling style as the fondness for foul language that peppers the script.
The movie begins with an opening title sequence unlike any I’ve ever seen. This sequence doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it detonates all the walls and even the roof with a nuclear bomb. No actual names appear during this credit sequence. Instead of the name Tim Miller under the word director, we see “An Overpaid Tool.” The star, Ryan Reynolds, is listed as “God’s Perfect Idiot.” If you don’t enjoy this kind of overzealous winking at the camera, avoid Deadpool at all costs. The movie is rife with inside jokes about the X-Men universe, and it’s destined to become exhibit one for any film studies class that focuses on the topic of meta-textual moviemaking. Most of the comedy mined from this conceit works wonderfully.
There are a few jokes that fall to the floor with a thud, like when Reynolds tells the audience in a fake Aussie accent that he had to give Wolverine a blow job in order to get his own movie. Australian actor Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine in the X-Men movies, sans his natural accent, so there are several layers to this meta joke. It gets extra points for degree of difficulty, but it feels like the writers are trying too hard here. It’s an exception, though, in a movie filled with hilarious self-referential one-liners.
Deadpool is far from the first movie to use this approach. Even in the Marvel universe, a precursor can be seen in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, another movie that successfully played with the conventions of comic book movies by giving knowing nudges and winks to the audience. What is unprecedented about Deadpool is the level of commitment to the concept. When one character mentions the head of the X-Men academy, Professor X, Reynolds’ Deadpool asks, “You mean Stewart or McAvoy? These timelines are getting so hard to follow.” It’s a joke referencing two actors who have played the same character in the X-Men Universe, and it’s a brilliant moment of taking the piss out of the more serious aspects of the franchise. Deadpool also successfully sidesteps the superhero convention of dwindling dramatic stakes because our hero is practically invincible.
One of the least appealing aspects of these kinds of movies is that most of the battles are between characters that can’t be seriously hurt or killed. Deadpool is one of these characters. Before he took that moniker, he was Wade Wilson, a former Special Forces operative who turns to mercenary work helping those who can’t help themselves. Things are going great for Wade – business is good, and he’s met the love of his life, Vanessa – when he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. In order to beat the cancer so he can have more time with Vanessa, Wade accepts the offer of a shadowy group who promise they can cure him. The group turns out to be nefarious in nature, putting him through years of torture in order to activate a mutant gene they suspect Wade possesses. The end result horribly disfigures Wilson, but the upside is he gains superhuman strength and the ability to regenerate damaged tissue incredibly fast. Anything from a minor cut to a chopped-off hand is repaired like new in a short time. He’s Wolverine with a sense of humor and without the metal skeleton.
Any battle with a big bad becomes rather boring when there are no stakes of death involved, and I worried that would be the case in Deadpool. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick wisely choose to tie the dramatic stakes to the love affair between Deadpool and Vanessa. He leaves for the cancer treatment without saying goodbye, and after Deadpool escapes, he can’t bring himself to contact Vanessa, fearing that his disfigured body will repulse her. The chemistry between Reynolds and Morena Baccarin (of Firefly fame) crackles on the screen, and the relationship between Deadpool and Vanessa was strong enough to give me a rooting interest in the outcome of their story. There is an effective scene where Deadpool walks the city without his mask and he is emotionally devastated by the horrified stares of passersby. Those looks make him even more apprehensive about reaching out to Vanessa.
Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool walks a fine line between acerbic sarcasm and the earnestness required for the emotional scenes, giving the picture its surprisingly strong dramatic punch. One downside is that the actor doesn’t always show the restraint needed in those comedic bits. His characterization of Deadpool at times swings into a sort of Jim Carrey circa Ace Ventura/The Mask place that doesn’t work at all, but those instances are few and far between. The few lame jokes, and Reynolds’ brief moments of overacting aside, Deadpool is a violent, profane, hilarious good time.
It really doesn’t matter what I say either way though, because if Deadpool read this, he’d undoubtedly call me a cock-thistle and tell me to fuck off.
Why it got 4 stars:
- I'll be the first to admit I suffer from what I call Comic Book Movie Fatigue Syndrome. It hits really strong every Summer, when it seems as if 90% of new releases are adaptations of superhero comic book characters. So, I struggle to give every new movie in the genre a fair shake. Deadpool was a pleasant surprise. Like I said in the review, it was the focus on the love story that was able to hook me in, and make me care about modern day demigods thrashing one another on screen for two hours.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I need to give a special shout out this week to my editor, Rob. He is much more well versed in the world of comics than I am (even as a kid, I never really got into them), and he set me straight about the difference between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and 20th Century Fox's X-Men Cinematic Universe. It's all owned by Marvel, but about 20 years ago, Marvel sold the movie rights to the X-Men stories to Fox, before Marvel decided to get into the movie making business with their own specialty studio. That's why never the twain shall meet. If not for Rob's expert council, I would have looked very ignorant on the topic. Thanks, Rob!