Magazine | March 14, 2016, Issue

In the Cartoons

Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool (Joe Lederer/20th Century Fox Film Corporation)

Here is the pitch. Deadpool is unlike any other superhero movie that you’ve ever seen. It’s savage, profane, darkly comic, and subversive. It’s a hard “R” for sex and violence — and kinky sex, at that. Its hero is actually an anti-hero: not just a brooder like Batman but a genuine jerk who doesn’t really grow or learn or sacrifice himself for the greater good of Gotham or Metropolis or Planet Earth. So if you want something genuinely unusual — if you’re tired of all the carbon-copy caped crusaders, bored with the 17-odd Avengers movies and the endless Spidey reboots, and dreading the lugubrious Zack Snyder take on “Batman vs. Superman” — well, then, Deadpool is definitely the superhero movie you’ve been waiting for.

Here is the reality. All of this might be true, but only so long as “you” are about 15 years old and male. Of course a 15-year-old isn’t technically allowed to see Deadpool, thanks to that “R” rating I just mentioned. But given that the movie’s extraordinary box office (it made a ridiculous $134 million in its opening weekend) skewed heavily toward men under the age of 25, I’m willing to bet that more than a few of them were MPAA scofflaws, and young enough to experience the movie the way it was meant to be experienced: in the hormonally crazed, sarcasm-besotted state, all sexual anxiety and chest-hair envy, in which so many young men spend the first few years of puberty. (Not me, of course. I’m just thinking about, um, my friends at that age. Poor guys, it sure was tough for them.)

I do not begrudge those teenagers their joy. For what it is, Deadpool is moderately entertaining. It hands Ryan Reynolds, whose career was all but destroyed by his turn as the Green Lantern, a superhero role that fits his distinctive talent for embodying untrustworthy snark addicts. It has a script that adequately, if not brilliantly, deploys various inside jokes (a few of them at the expense of Reynolds himself) and makes sport of various rival superheroes. Morena Baccarin, playing Reynolds’s love interest, is really hawt in a way that not only teenagers can appreciate. The first big action scene is well choreographed. There’s a nice insult-comic patter to the hero’s obnoxiousness. I wasn’t bored; sometimes I laughed.

But as Marco Rubio might say, let’s dispel with the idea that there’s something boldly original here. Like President Obama, Deadpool knows exactly what it’s doing — and what it’s doing is giving us something we’ve seen many times before, but with just enough kink and gore and knowing cynicism to flog our flagging appetite for men in tights.

A plot summary should suffice to make this clear. Reynolds’s Deadpool starts out as Wade Wilson, a former special-ops soldier who now works as some sort of mercenary-cum-hitman, though the only “hit” we see him carry out involves scaring a teenage stalker straight. He falls in love with Baccarin’s Vanessa, a hooker with a heart of gold (really), and they’re about to live happily ever after when he’s hit with an unexpected cancer diagnosis. With months to live, he’s approached by a shadowy group headed by a sinister Brit (Ed Skrein), which offers him a cure that promises to turn him into, basically, an X-Man, by expressing his latent mutant genes.

Except that they actually intend to transform him and enslave him, and the process makes him look like a hideous burn victim in addition to granting him super strength and instant regenerative power. So after he escapes, he dons a mask and suit to hide his scars, hooks up with some superbuddies (two of the lesser-known X-Folks) and a comic-relief sidekick, and sets out to get revenge and reclaim the woman he loves.

Is there anything that’s genuinely bold or shocking in here? Does anything genuinely unexpected happen in between the bare breasts and curse words and smart-aleck monologuing? For instance, does our supposed anti-hero actually kill anyone who doesn’t seem to deserve it? Are there any actual shades of gray between the good guys and the bad?

The answers are no and no, and indeed the movie is literally upfront about its predictability. Instead of cast and crew, its opening credits just list the clichés that Deadpool will repurpose: “a British villain,” “a hot chick,” “a gratuitous cameo,” and “an entirely CGI character.” (Reynolds, the star, is billed as “God’s perfect idiot,” the producers are given an unprintable description, and the writers are billed as “the real heroes here.”)

This preemptive self-deprecation is charming, but by the time the movie reaches its tedious, thumping, airless climax, that charm has worn a little thin. Deadpool is a coarse little trifle, a diversion for the teenaged of body and spirit, and if you grade it on that (admittedly morally problematic) curve it’s not so bad.

But the “bold, daring, and dark” pitch that’s earned it a bazillion dollars is just nonsense, and the fact that both audiences and critics seem to think there’s something truly fresh here is a sign of just how totalitarian the reign of superheroes has become: Even our imagination seems unable to conceive of a genuine and meaningful escape.

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