Let’s be clear and upfront, right from the off here: I’m not a gigantic Deadpool fan. I find the character a one-note piece of drudgery, whose appeal lasts a few pages before rapidly becoming irritating: the kind of diversionary side-player best used as a brief comedic break and nothing more (essentially the exact way he was used, to great effect, in the otherwise awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine). This was the reason I avoided Deadpool’s movie adaptation when it hit theatres on Valentine’s Day, in no way finding my assessment of the character changed by the trailers.
Since then, I’ve listened to hordes of film critics and close friends sing Deadpool’s praises, calling it one of the best comic book adaptations they have ever seen with abandon. With Deadpool now available via streaming options, I decided that my curiosity could be better sated with the price of an iTunes rental instead of a theatre ticket, and decided to give Tim Miller’s red-bedecked offering a look earlier this week. So, was Deadpool good enough to get past my innate aversion to the character, or was it everything I feared and expected it would be.
Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) drifts through life, using his special forces background and unconventional sense of humour for his work as a mercenary, only finding direction when he begins a relationship with similarly minded Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Wilson takes a longshot on an extreme treatment, meted out by the sadistic Ajax (Ed Skrein), which turns Wilson into a hideously disfigured mutant with immense regenerative powers. Unable to face Vanessa and feeling betrayed, Wilson adopts a red suit and goes looking for revenge. A bloody-filled, profanity laden revenge.
Well, Deadpool didn’t let me down. I went into it convinced that the titular characters’ antics would start to grate very quickly, and convinced that the failure of said antics would expose the rest of the film. And that’s exactly what happened. Deadpool fans, look away: this wasn’t a film I particularly enjoyed. Shocker, I know.
There is a very fine line between parody and laziness I find, and Deadpool is a film that hops back and forth between the two, content to eviscerate the superhero/action genre with every pithy comment and self-referential criticism while following the set formula to an utterly rigid extent, with the origin, the cackling villain, the love interest, the kooky sidekick, the “fun and games” montage, the final battle in a cool location that blows up by the end. Deadpool and its production team seem to think that pointing out this reality liberally, along with a never ending assortment of dick jokes, will excuse it. I’m not biting. This is Deadpool: the special forces assassin whose superpowers include the ability to break the fourth wall and generally be a force outside of the established universe rules. There are more interesting and unique things you can do with that character than have him set off on a revenge plot while pining over his lost love.
I mean, Miller and company do grasp the Deadpool character of the comics very well. Every crude joke, every shot across the bows of the X-Men (who are, for some reason, desperate for Deadpool to join them), every sexual hang-up and reference, and every razor sharp insult or threat, this is Deadpool as he is in the mind of every Deadpool fan: the ‘Merc with a Mouth’, brought to life in a way that even I didn’t expect them to go. It helps that Ryan Reynolds’ lengthy quest to play the character on the big-screen properly means that the actor embodies Wilson so well. Reynolds, while never likely to be considered among Hollywood’s elite, is playing a role here he has clearly been thinking about and perfecting for a long time, and whenever the film works, it’s largely down to his sheer enthusiasm for a part that would fall to pieces if it were played by someone else. It’s been a while since Reynolds’ dud take on the Green Lantern character – that he takes the time to mock that here, in another of the film’s constant lantern hanging (geddit?) – and he does a lot better now, that is if Wilson is the kind of character you can actually stand for more than ten minutes.
But while Reynolds is fun enough to follow around at times, and even the most cynical people will find the odd thing to laugh about in Deadpool’s capers, there’s too much wrong with Deadpool to class it in even the middle tier of the genre. The flaws and deficiencies add up and up as you go along, not least that bog standard narrative, almost straight out of the Blake Snyder beat sheet, replete with in medias reis opening. The jokes flow non-stop – a personal favourite being Deadpool wondering out loud which Professor Xavier, Stewart or McAvoy, he is being dragged to meet by Colossus, or Wilson’s initial idea for a superhero name: “Captain Deadpool” – but the scribes of Zombieland can’t keep it going, and what is presented as subversive rapidly becomes anything but, simply a repeated pattern of mentioning something the members of the “community” will know about in a sneering tone and moving along.
I tend to enjoy superhero origin stories more than other films of the genre, and the bits where Deadpool sucked me in the most were the actual origin, largely told in an extended flashback scene, where the film cut down on the cartoonish elements and focused on the damaged special forces vet Wade Wilson, who chases off stalkers and then gives the money to charity, who finds something worth living for in the Vanessa character, and decides to take a very serious risk in order to be with her. That part has lots going for it: the visceral horror of Wilson’s forced mutation, the steely eyed and creepy Ajax being introduced as the films’ antagonist, and a pretty decent fight scene in a flaming building to cap it all off.
But it all comes falling down, not unlike the burning lab that collapses around Wilson. The cartoonish elements of the Deadpool character – the fourth wall breaking, the constant sexual innuendo, the too cool for school profanity at every turn, the casual approach to bloodshed – mean any attempts to take things in a more serious direction are stillborn almost as soon as they start, because why should I care when the main character doesn’t? Ajax, played ably enough by the thuggish Ed Skrein, never evolves beyond being a back story-less goon with a name, and it’s hard to get engaged with the revenge plot because of that, and Deadpool’s general nonchalantness to everything. And the resulting fight scenes, a heady mixture of Wilson slaughtering people for fun mixed with some questionable CGI, don’t do enough to distinguish Deadpool from other, less comedic, offerings in the superhero genre.
And the character problems go beyond Ajax. Vanessa, no matter what Morena Baccarin says at convention panels, is a damsel in distress archetype, a prize for Wade Wilson to win once he fulfils his own character journey, it’s just the film tries to cover it up the same way it does with the main character: profanity, sex and violence. But that doesn’t make a strong female character, and Vanessa isn’t one, even if Baccarin does her utmost with some vapid material, that amounts to making Vanessa as weird as Wilson is. The love plot moves wildly from serious drama to over the top sex romp, and you can’t have that cake and eat it too. The counter-cry seems to be that the film is positive in its portrayal of a woman enjoying and wanting sex, which goes only so far: it’s still a film where only the female part of the connection is required to bear all, not-withstanding a brief look at Reynold’s mutated buttocks later on, and, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, it’s for titillation purposes, not liberation.
The rest of the supporting players are extremely limited: TJ Miller’s best friend character has some alright comedic interludes (again, liberally given away in trailers), but Stefan Kapičić as (the voice of) Colossus is wasted with a ridiculous attitude (including an odd tolerance of Deadpool’s casual murdering) and some awful CGI, while Brianna Hildebrand as “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” is a walking cliché, matched by Gina Carano’s Angel Dust, who barely has any lines at all. The women react to everything Wilson does and have no agency of his own, while everyone else is just sort of there to bounce off him too. And be afraid those who worry about minority representation in comic book movies: here we have a blind cokehead played by a black actress, and an Indian taxi driver, and nobody else.
Miller’s direction consists mostly of keeping things tight on his main character and moving everything around him: the action scenes are workmanlike without being anything special, dragged down by the apparent necessity of having a crude remark every five seconds. There are a few moments of genius here and there: the bullet countdown when Deadpool finds himself with just one clip, the fire filled first combat between Wilson and Ajax, a sex scene montage early on, and a few other moments here and there.
But it’s ultimately a far cry from the visual panache of Days Of Future Past, or the more colourful and interesting The Wolverine, to name a few recent X-Men efforts, perhaps due to those special effects, which to my looked rather dire on a smaller screen than they were perhaps meant for. In the end, there’s little to catch the eye in such much of Deadpool: for example, the film spends so long on the overpass action scene, liberally spoiled in trailers, that’s nothing but concrete and gun metal grey. The sub-standard nature of the production details continues into Junkie XL’s forgettable score, a far cry from the wasteland, with Deadpool propping itself up musically with frequent recourse to gangster rap.
But hey, this is Deadpool. It’s a film made with total confidence in itself, that’s clear, with a post-credits scene already talking details for the inevitable sequel. Much like Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s a film that neither desires nor cares about my criticism, appealing to a very different mind-set and age group than my own. This is a film trying to be more like Kingsman: The Secret Service, or a raunchier version of Guardians Of The Galaxy, aiming to be a sort of counter-culture offering in a genre long threatened with staleness.
But in so doing, it instead becomes a film that I feel is aiming very directly to the kind of audience that doesn’t want strong female characters, that doesn’t want minorities to play a prominent role and doesn’t want to be bothered with decent arcs, deep themes or characters dealing heavily with the problems they face. No, Deadpool is a film that I feel is aimed directly at those who want blood, breasts, profanity and want them in such a manner that they don’t feel bad about getting them. It is, in essence, a film for 14-year-old boys, and others who want to pretend that they are still 14-year-old boys for an hour and a half. But for as funny or outrageous as it occasionally is, it is a bad film that does nothing for the progression of either this genre or film in general. It is instead, a regression, one that I hope is more of a raging against the dying of the light than a sign of how this kind of film is going to be packaged in the future.
I fully admit that this film was not aimed at me. I throw up my hands and honestly state that I pretty much knew I wouldn’t like the movie, and watched it out of a sense of curiosity more than anything else. Take my verdict with all of that in mind. I found Deadpool to be a below-average attempt to satirise the superhero genre that ended up failing far more than even the most middling efforts of Marvel and DC, due to its inconsistent tone, poor supporting characters, over-emphasis on sex, profanity and violence, awful treatment of women and minorities, and average direction. This isn’t a film I would recommend to anyone other than the most firm-hearted Deadpool fan. More than likely, they have already seen it. You shouldn’t.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).