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Deconstructing ‘Deadpool’: The Good and Bad of This Year’s Surprise Hit

Deconstructing 'Deadpool': The Good and Bad of This Year's Surprise Hit

Editor’s Note: With “Deadpool” surprising everyone as a big box office success this past weekend, Indiewire’s chief film critic Eric Kohn and managing editor Kate Erbland traded some thoughts on the unorthodox superhero movie and whether its popularity signaled a shift in viewers’ relationship to superhero movies.

ERIC: Kate, we should probably be using this space for something other than a superhero movie. Maybe we should remind people that “The Witch” is one of the best-directed horror movies in years, or perhaps to explore the gorgeous portrait of Amazonian identity in the Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent.” Both are opening this week to considerably less fanfare than the enthusiasm that greeted “Deadpool” over the last few days, when it grossed $260 million worldwide. But here’s the thing: I caught up with “Deadpool” this past weekend just to stay in the conversation, and found myself utterly smitten with its demented attitude. This is a commercial product fully aware of its status and just as eager to burn the house down.

With its gleefully vulgar superhero and playful meta-narrative that sends up virtually every cliché indulged by the Marvel movie craze, “Deadpool” isn’t just crude for crude’s sake. While not every joke lands, the mixture of satire and anarchic violence that characterizes virtually every scene makes it one of the most cynical Hollywood productions in years. Deadpool breaks the fourth wall, and makes fun of the fourth wall, while acknowledging the capitalist machine behind his existence. There’s some amazing — if crass — truth-talking in those first-person addresses. Deadpool mocks the studio for not being able to afford more X-Men roles. He mocks the “Taken” franchise — released in the United States, like “Deadpool,” by 20th Century Fox—for repeating the same conundrum over and over again. He jokes about tropes like “The Superhero Drop” (when a character of extraordinary abilities falls an impossible distance and leaves a giant cavern behind — you know the drill). He even calls out the wide shot of the movie’s finale. No familiar beat escapes unscathed. Much of the humor is pretty sophomoric, but just as exceedingly well-timed. I felt like I was watching some unholy marriage of the Zucker brothers and Jean-Luc Godard stuffed into the Marvel universe.

Of course, this is how they get you. I realize “Deadpool” is designed for mass appeal, and its twisted-humor-plus-action formula represents an extremely canny calculation. But I’ll take a goofy satire in superhero clothing over a superhero retread any day.

Then there’s the star power: As you point out in your review, Ryan Reynolds brings a striking degree of levity to a character type usually reduced to formula. He’s certainly the most memorable loudmouth in the Marvel cinematic canon since Iron Man. This is the ultimate penance for “The Green Lantern,” and following up on 2014’s Doctor Doolittle-meets-Psycho whatsit “The Voices,” makes him one of the most intriguing male stars working today.

But we differ on the extent to which Reynolds takes cues from the material. The hilariously referential opening credits call the writers “the real heroes here,” and that’s no exaggeration. “Deadpool” may be a moneymaking scheme, but it’s also a subversive statement on what can happen to pop culture storytelling once it’s been exploited to death.

KATE: It’s true that even as the specialty box office is filled with plenty of alternatives (you neglected to mention “A War”), the success of “Deadpool” is heartening to our sensibilities. Here’s a movie that was essentially willed into being by a dedicated creative team and a passionate fanbase. Reynolds himself has been honest about the response to his first turn as Deadpool in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and the disappointment felt by hardcore Deadpool devotees who didn’t go for his take on the material. He’s spent entire years honing his Deadpool skills to fit into the wacked-out world occupied by the merc with the mouth.

It’s clear how much fun Reynolds is having in the role — a hard thing to really qualify, as it’s very much a “you know it when you see it” type of thing — and it doesn’t require one to know much about the long, winding road the film had to the big screen to see that. It can’t hurt to have some familiarity with the backstory, but it’s not essential to get the feeling that everyone involved in the making of the film is uniquely into their creation and that they have a big sense of humor about it.

I think where you and I diverge on our opinion is when it comes to just how much “Deadpool” pokes fun at its genre and disassembles the kind of tropes that are so prevalent within it. Although the film cracks plenty of jokes about the superhero world — pretty much anything with the X-Men is just aces — by the time we get to Wade Wilson’s mutant origin story, it feels like, well, a mutant origin story. It’s all very familiar, even as the film seems to revel in how “different” it is from the rest of its brethren. The entire “hey, you’re a mutant now” section feels like something we’ve seen a million times before, even if the hero’s more amusing. Frankly, I’m glad that part of this story is out of the way, and that we don’t need to go through yet another origin story in subsequent “Deadpool” chapters.

ERIC: Of course the mold of this story has been done and redone countless times. But I would argue that the origin plot works better in this case because Wade’s there with us the whole way through, narrating the erratic shifts in tone — most notably when he calls out the jump from “romance” to “horror.” If there are aspects of a familiar ride here, “Deadpool” indulges in them with a self-conscious framework that freshens up the usual turns.

Which leads to another, much bigger question: Does the success of this movie speak to a developing superhero fatigue? Could this character’s frank admissions hit a secret moviegoer zeitgeist? As Deadline reports, even the studio didn’t expect this degree of popularity, projecting almost 50% less box office success in the days leading up to the release. They didn’t realize what they had: not just another wacky deconstructionist superhero movie like “Kick Ass,” but an actual middle finger to the age of superhero movie mania still in progress.

Before my screening this past weekend, audiences were treated to hordes of trailers for upcoming tales of men in tights. “Deadpool” may not belong to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it doesn’t really matter, because the overabundance of these projects creates the perception that they all live under one very crowded roof. After all, the “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” trailer was pitching itself to the same crowd.

And we’re being treated to these projects for the next…what? Half decade? The second part of the “Avengers” Civil War plot line is set to come out in 2019. No matter how expertly directed it might be, the whole idea of another epic CGI battle with the usual dense assemblage of costumed figures already feels like a retread. Am I just too much of a purist or is it possible that a whole lot of people would prefer more outrageous “Deadpool”-like gambles over further reconfigurations of the same old thing?

KATE: I’ll never forget seeing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on opening night in a crowded Upper East Side movie theater that was positively packed with Star Wars fans of all stripes — a wide variety of ages and genders, families and couples, the whole enchilada (chimichanga?). These people were pumped, but when the trailer for “Batman v Superman” came on, no one made a peep. It went over like a lead balloon. There was more of a response to the “Angry Birds” trailer that played before it. It was the best example I’ve seen of superhero fatigue so far, and it was striking.

I think that audiences are getting sick of seeing the same old story told over and over again — not just the same big, bloated battles, but actual stories literally retold, as we seem to be in for with the third (yes, third) crack at the “Spider-Man” franchise, coming up soon — while also being stuck in the franchise trap of needing to see movie after movie to stay up on what’s going on with their favorite superheroes. There’s no question that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a tremendous success, but it is starting to feel unwieldy, and when you look at plans that have movies mapped out well into the next decade, it can be pretty daunting. It’s never going to end, and while there’s plenty more fun to be had, there’s also going to be a lot more repeats. 

I’m not a huge comic book geek, but even I’m aware that there are plenty of heroes and stories to mine that don’t involve playing musical chairs with the same characters in slightly different situations. “Deadpool” is proof that this stuff can work even when it moves a little bit out of the box. If we’re going to have more superhero movies, why not have more superhero movies that take actual risks?

ERIC: Or, better yet, public awareness could shift to actual risk-taking that extends far beyond the superhero terrain. Part of the reason we’re still talking about “Mad Max: Fury Road” so long after it first came out is that the movie offered a shockingly sophisticated approach to the action genre loaded with originality. The assumption that we somehow need familiar costumed figures to scratch some collective cultural itch is a bit of a misnomer. Companies that own these franchises need to exploit them. But audiences respond better to surprises than the same old routine even if they often claim otherwise. And if they keep embracing fresh ideas outside of the superhero terrain, while the more familiar material runs out of steam, there’s a real chance that the paradigm could shift.

But shift towards what? I think the answer lies in an illusion of formula that’s actually trying something fresh. That’s what “Deadpool” does so well. James Gunn, a Troma Films alumnus who brilliantly injected his “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie with constant energy and wit, took issue this week with Deadline’s anonymous quote from a studio executive attributing the success of “Deadpool” to its self-deprecating tone. According to Gunn, this claim amounts to little more than industrial amnesia, as it has been applied to both his own “Guardians” and the “Iron Man” movies. But even Gunn misses the point. The movies he cites have fun with formula, but “Deadpool” shatters it with a brash attitude and rebellious air. That experience has more in common with Gunn’s own subversive superhero movie “Super” than anything in the Marvel arena. Audiences are hip to to that approach because it challenges conventions; capitalizing on that enthusiasm, filmmakers have more room for creativity.

KATE: I was also struck by Gunn’s remarks. When I first saw headlines about them, I assumed he would be referencing “Super” more than “Guardians,” but I guess even Gunn has forgotten just how subversive he got with that film, instead turning to the delightful friskiness of “Guardians” instead — but I think it speaks to the lack of interest in full superhero deconstruction that seems to have be prevalent. Instead, it now seems clear that audiences want offerings like “Deadpool,” movies that play around with film form while still delivering an actual, well, superhero movie.

Maybe that’s the key element that appeals to both of us, and what’s actually most interesting about “Deadpool”: It’s a true superhero movie that still finds room to play around with its tropes. While I think it’s sometimes less successful at that — it’s so self-reflective that it often ends up just looking at itself — it shows the possibility that huge audiences can really enjoy and champion a film that so very much wants to go against the grain.

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