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Film Review: Deadpool

Deadpool (2016; Directed by Tim Miller)

Deadpool might never be better than in its opening credits sequence, and the scene tells you all that you really need to know about this raunchy, irreverent, hyper-self-aware new Marvel Studios/20th Century Fox superhero film. Backed by a soundtrack of ironic, retro AM radio pop, director Tim Miller runs a CG-assisted slow-motion pan of a scene of mayhem and violence, as the titular red-and-black-suited wisecracking antihero (played by Ryan Reynolds, whose People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive cover floats jokingly past) athletically beats down and/or humiliates a few thugs in a SUV in mid-air freeway flip-over (one shot lingers on his gloved hand, gripping his enemy’s briefs for an action wedgie). Meanwhile, the onscreen credits snarkily acknowledge the collection of genre archetypes that make up the cast (“The Hot Chick”; “A British Villain”; “Comic Relief”) and insult the top-line production crew (“Produced by Asshats”; “Directed by An Overpaid Tool”).

The superhero blockbuster genre is a terribly overinflated balloon in terms of creative self-importance, mythic grandeur, and commercial hegemony at the moment, ripe for puncturing. Deadpool doesn’t so much take a pin to this balloon as a Bowie knife, redolent of its surfeit of hard-R violence. Its raucous humour, mostly of the crude (yet not necessarily unfunny) adult sort common to American big-screen comedy, also tips over into meta-commentary and in-joke referentiality, mostly at the expense of superhero franchises (especially Fox’s X-Men series, of which Deadpool is ostensibly a tangential part) and frequently at its own expense, too. But its satire flutters and jabs at the surface only, slapping a “Kick Me” sign on the back of the genre rather than dissecting it and deconstructing its prevailing tropes and assumptions, which it generally reproduces and relies upon to move itself forward.

This is not to say that Deadpool is not appealing or even innovative with its South Park-ification of the superhero movie (its pitch-perfect marketing campaign certainly has been). Quite often hilarious in its mock-everything approach, Miller’s film is structured for its first half around the aforementioned SUV rollover fight, part of a larger action sequence on an elevated freeway into which flashbacks detailing the backstory of Deadpool are intercut. Before the superpowers and the suit, Wade Wilson was a snide mercenary for hire with a sneaky heart of gold operating out of a shady underworld bar operated by his buddy Weasel (T.J. Miller). There he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), as edgy and wild as he. The whirlwind romance between these misfits appears headed for a happily-ever-after ending until a terminal cancer diagnosis drives Wade to accept a mysterious offer to cure him and save his life, but at a great cost. After a torturous extended round of experimentation at the hands of that British villain, Ajax, a.k.a. Francis (Ed Skrein), Wade becomes Deadpool, superfast and superstrong and able to heal from nearly any wound but also horribly disfigured and cut off from the woman he loves. Hence the freeway pursuit: the climax of a long vendetta of vengeance against Francis, whose abilities mirror his own.

What’s clear right away from this brief synopsis is that for all of its self-convinced unconventionality and aggressive impertinence about the genre, Deadpool still dutifully checks the major boxes of the superhero origin movie and runs on highly conventional narrative engines: love and revenge. It’s too invested in the very tropes that it points knowingly at in the brilliant credits jokes to really subvert them when it might have mattered, but Deadpool‘s relentless irony in the face of those very predictable tropes invests it with a verve and energy that superhero flicks rarely muster in their ponderous decadent stage.

Ryan Reynolds, an acquired taste that I’ve never really acquired, is the buzzing electron here, a real sharp-tongued firecracker. Reynolds nails the very quick and difficult comedic timing of the character, his mix of dark-cloud cynicism and silver-lining romantic righteousness, and his frequent pop-culture references and fourth-wall breakings, including a breaking of the fourth wall inside another breaking of the fourth wall that is a bit of cleverness that the movie can’t help patting itself on the back over (to the detriment of the moment). He’s been nipping around the superhero genre for awhile, as DC’s failed Green Lantern in 2011 and as a much-altered version of Deadpool in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine (both characters are on the receiving end of punchy jokes here), but he appears to have found his solid gig.

That gig will clearly overlap with the continuing X-Men franchise in this more haphazardly-built side of the Marvel cinematic shared universe, whose trappings suffuse Deadpool and even provide it with a couple of settings and characters, namely Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, Deadpool’s rigidly metallic and sincere Russian foil Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and sullen but powerful teenaged mutant Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), seemingly chosen for inclusion in the film simply so that Deadpool can make fun of her hero name. The protagonist’s ceaseless wisecracking often falls hard on the X-Men movies with meta-dimensions: there are jibes about Wolverine actor Hugh Jackman’s Australian accent, and when Colossus vows to drag Wade back to the X-Mansion to see the Professor, he asks, “Stewart or McAvoy?”

This is all to say that while Deadpool considers itself to be a merciless ginsu knife of satire, carving up the superhero movie with irreverent acumen, it leaves its supposed target not only intact but leaner and more effective as a mechanism of weaponized entertainment. Deadpool can’t deconstruct the genre without fundamentally resigning its own unquestionable membership in the club, which it cannot really do while staying true to its comic book source (Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a fine piece of work in many ways, had the same basic issue). Hilarious, imbued with momentum, and efficiently fun, Deadpool nonetheless leans heavily on genre conventions in a way that is vaguely disingenuous. It presents itself as a brash new breed of superhero movie, but what it really does is whittle away many of the growing pretentions of the genre through mockery. I certainly didn’t love Deadpool, but this movie will do brisk business that I haven’t much real cause to begrudge it. Added bonus: Wade Wilson and I own the exact same bathrobe. Critical hair-splitting aside, that must count for something.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. June 2, 2016 at 2:58 pm

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