Six Feet from the Edge
If you had no idea who Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) was two months ago, chances are you've at least seen him by now. It's hard to miss all the billboards, TV commercials, and irreverent viral videos the costumed antihero has turned up in. He drinks, swears, screws, and rattles off just as many one-liners as bullets while spinning through the air in slow motion. The inclusion of Colossus from The X-Men series might lead you to think that Marvel has made a bold step in shaking up comic-book movies, that Deadpool will herald a more "grown-up" era of hard-core, R-rated genre fun.
God, I hope not. The last things we need are more artificially outrageous, non-sensical versions of every other mainstream superhero origin story.
The first fifteen minutes are terrific, beginning with a suitably sarcastic voice-over, juvenile title cards, and a breathtaking mega-slow-mo panoramic of Deadpool fighting thugs in a truck as it sails through the air. These goons work for a mad scientist named Ajax (Ed Skrein), who transformed Deadpool from a cancer-ridden ex-Special Forces operative named Wade Wilson into an invincible, immortal mutant. The torturous process left Wilson scarred and even crazier than he was before. It also made him unable to face his hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold fiancée, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), for fear she'd be repulsed by his looks. He stalks her silently, hiding his horrible disfigurement in a hoodie when he's not wearing a stylish mask. Deadpool works his way up the underworld to find and kill Ajax, all the while being soft-recruited to the light side by do-gooder Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and a cranky trainee named Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand).
Deadpool constructs an Inception-style Jenga tower of flashbacks-within-flashbacks-within-flashbacks, in an effort to distract us from just how conventional its plot is. Despite some wry meta-touches (like referring to Reynolds' non-starter of a Green Lantern franchise, and a couple nods to Hugh Jackman and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine), most of the "jokes" amount to little more than profane Mad Libs targeted at 40-year-old men:
"Hey, [80s TV Personality], why don't you [Profane Verb] my [Profane Noun] like [90s Reference]?"
This struck me as odd, until I remembered that Deadpool's DNA is the early 90s. Created in 1991 by artist Rob Liefeld and writer Fabian Nicieza, Deadpool came onto the scene as Marvel Comics' "Merc with a Mouth", a kind of wise-cracking, morally ambiguous Spider-Man whose raison d'etre was being a badass.
Liefeld left Marvel to form Image Comics in 1992, helping launch dozens of would-be franchises starring a hundred Deadpool-like characters: tough-talking, brightly costumed vigilantes toting impossibly large guns and swords and superfluous leather pouches adorning half-a-dozen oddly placed belts. Within a year, Image largely abandoned the Marvel/DC model of actually telling stories, and became fixated on splash pages, with whole issues being comprised of double-page spreads wherein titans would punch, kick, and blast each other into oblivion--leaving just enough connective tissue at the end to suggest a continuation of the "narrative" the following month. It didn't take long for other publishers to catch on, rendering mainstream comics unreadable for half a decade.*
Image Comics also published Spawn in '92, and a big-screen adaptation followed five years later. In it, a Special Ops mercenary makes a deal with the devil and gains invincibility and immortality; the process leaves him horribly disfigured. Unable to face his beloved wife for fear that she'll be repulsed by his looks, he stalks her silently, hiding his horribly disfigured face in a hood when he's not wearing a stylish mask.
In 1993 (bear with me), the film True Romance came out. In it, a down-on-his-luck comic-book-store employee falls for a prostitute after an evening of great sex and better conversation. Deadpool's screenwriters hang their entire premise on replicating the Clarence/Alabama dynamic, since their love story drives Wade Wilson's crusade for revenge (sort of). The problem is, Reynolds and Baccarin's natural charisma gets lost in artifice, drowned out by a script that's more interested in time-jumping and cute voice-over than in helping us understand who these characters are, why they love each other, and why we should care that they do. Reynolds gets sufficiently scruffy and pulls off the Smarmy Idiot thing well, but Baccarin plays the prostitute-in-a-dive-bar role as if she were Jean Grey from the X-Men, studying for a kinky role-play date with Scott Summers.
The only bit of edge in Deadpool is Ed Skrein's Ajax, who may just be the best (and most criminally misused) villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.** We've seen his ilk before, in the X-Men films, but always as military men who cloak their twisted mutant experiments in nth-degree nationalism. Ajax is just a monster, himself a victim of science gone dark, who compensates for his lack of emotion and functioning nerve endings by toying with other poor saps' genetics. Skrein's scenes with Reynolds are terrifying, and give us a glimpse of the outrageousness Deadpool could have had, instead of just claiming to have.
Of course, Ajax won't be in the sequel. Of course, Deadpool takes him out after a long fight that takes place at great heights, against a backdrop of crashing, flaming CGI scrap metal. We end with just enough of a "narrative" hook to get us into a sequel--which Deadpool himself promises during a post-credits homage to Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Again, with the references. For all its politically incorrect whimsy, Deadpool feels calculated to within an inch of its snarky, celluloid life. As I mentioned earlier, Reynolds appeared as a version of the character before, in the much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine. An early cut of that film famously leaked onto the Internet and allegedly undercut its box office. We'll never know if the leak alone contributed to the movie's poor performance, or if the bad word-of-mouth ultimately scuttled the would-be Origins franchise. But I could easily see Fox executives hedging their bets against "Content Should Be Free" Millennials, focusing all their demographic humor on middle-aged comics fans, who may be more likely to go out and see a movie in the theatre, as opposed to simply streaming it. If you doubt this theory, ask the nearest twenty-five-year-old who Meredith Baxter Birney is.
Take out Deadpool's "extreme" violence, language, and sexuality, and you're left with another predictable story about an unconventional good guy in a red suit, fighting a bald, power-enhanced bad guy (see also Ant-Man, if you must). For much better examples of how to do R-rated Marvel anti-heroes properly, check out Punisher: War Zone and Kick-Ass. These are fun yet genuinely disturbing, black-humored adult stories that deal with the real-world implications of maniacs donning costumes to thwart (and perpetrate) crimes. Deadpool isn't a kids' movie by any stretch, but it was definitely made for man-children.
*This coming from a reader who consumed voraciously between 1987 and 2010.
**Yes, I know this is a pocket universe, and will remain so until Disney wrestles the last few Marvel properties from Fox.