The Dead Pool is the fifth and final film to star Clint Eastwood as Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan, SFPD. It came out in 1988, so it’s as much of a self-conscious product of the late-80s as any of the high-numbered Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street flicks – films it specifically parodies. Well received in its time, it’s since dropped off most radars. In my circles, it’s most well-known as “the movie that so pissed off the comic book writer Frank Miller that he immediately went home and started cranking out his first Sin City story, The Yellow Bastard, which began life as what he felt would be a superior version of The Final Mission of Harry Callahan.” Because the entire middle period of Frank Miller’s career consists of him getting pissed off at movies and going, “Shit, I could do better than that!” See also: 300 and its spiritual source material, 1962’s The Three Hundred Spartans.
Evil Me: *ahem*
Alright fine. Deadpool is also an X-Men villain created by Rob Liefeld, and is therefore fruit of one of the most poisonous trees in modern comics. Liefeld and writer Fabien Nicienza came up with Deadpool in 1990 or 91, when they needed an antagonist for their X-Men spin-off title, New Mutants. I don’t often reference Epic Rap Battles of history – most of their shit is whack, yo – but they really nailed Original Recipe Deadpool in their episode that squared him off against Boba Fett. Combining Spider-Man’s leotard with Wolverine’s powers and Deathstroke’s weapons of choice, Deadpool spent about ten years being little more than a stock mercenary and walking, talking list of A Few of Rob Liefeld’s Favorite Things. Honestly, all he’s missing are the shoulder pads…and his old nemesis, and fellow Liefeld creation, Cable, already had those.
You’ll find out all about Cable if his solo film ever gets made. In *this* wacky, parallel dimension, we got a Deadpool film first. That’s because, as the 90s ground down to their depressing end and almost everyone stopped paying attention, actually good writers like Joe Kelly, Christopher Priest, and Gail Simone transformed Deadpool into something…more. Over the course of about five years and dozens (if not hundreds) of pages, they turned Deadpool from a walking punchline into a self-referential parody of the very comic book conventions that spawned him. Almost alone in all the Marvel Universes, Deadpool is aware of his existence as a comic book character. He frequently breaks the fourth wall and self-consciously plays to us, the audience. And since he’s always been a madman-maniac, all the serious heroes and villains of his home dimension just kinda take it in stride. In a world of comedic dead wood, the banana man is king. It’s similar to what happened to the Joker before Jack Nicholson.
It was well past time the Merc with the Mouth got a movie – though having him join the mainline Marvel Movie Universe is impossible. His status as an X-Men villain means he falls within the blanket X-deal Marvel made with 20th Century Fox in the late-90s, back when the comic book company was a hollow shell, crawling its way out of bankruptcy. And we already saw the results of treating Deadpool like any other random X-villain in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. You remember? The worst X-Men movie? The one that leaked online before the special effects were done and everyone went, “Jesus Christ, this movie sucks.” And Fox said, “That’s not fair – the special effects aren’t done!” Then it hit theaters and somehow managed to suck even more.
On top of everything else, Deadpool fans were driven to arms by their favorite character’s literal mutilation in X-MOW’s third act. Especially since his brief appearance in the first act, as a member of Col. Stryker’s mutant hit squad, teased them with the promise that this adaptation would be spot-on. One-time Green Lantern Ryan Rynolds seemed to have finally found a superpowered role that suited him – not as a standard issue modern hero with the full suite of daddy issues and world-saving destiny – but as a cynical motormouth with super-kinesthesia and total disrespect for everything around him. Then they sowed his mouth shut and everyone cried “They sowed his mouth shut! What kind of asshole does that? Would you take away Spider-Man’s webs? Or Wolverine’s claws? Or Captain America’s shield?” It reminded me of that one joke every writer used to make when they wanted to be snarky and dismissive about the Flash. “Yeah, I’d just break his legs, or stick him in a wheelchair.” And they’d all say it like they were the first genius to ever come up with this idea, and we were all supposed to stand in awe of their vast, contrarian genius.
So after seven years of waiting and hoping and rumor-mongering, a quote-unquote “real” Deadpool became the Valentines Day counter-programing of 2016. A film charged with the dual roles of satisfying Deadpool’s core fanbase introducing Deadpool to an oh-so-lucrative wider audience. Does it succeed…? Well…kinda. Sorta. I guess. Problem is, self-aware comedic characters can easily become one-joke characters, and no matter how funny it is, one joke can get old pretty fast. Unless and until someone takes it to its logical conclusion, the way Collon Bunn and Dalibor Talajic did with their self-explanatorily-titled miniseries, Deadpool Kills The Marvel Universe.
Before we go on, though, there’s a built-in defense for everything about I’m about to say. Something along the lines of
Evil Me: It’s a comedy! Why take it seriously enough to submit it to critical analysis? Must you be a fun-hating misanthrope who derives his sole source of joy from raining on other people’s parades? Turn your brain off and have fun.
And a fine “Obey, Consume, Submit” to you, too. Yes, this is a comedy. And I’m all-for corporate superhero movies branching out of the sci-fi action/adventure ghetto. It’s the ghetto I grew up in and still call home to this day, but genre diversity has always been one of the format’s most underrated strengths. We haven’t had a real, honest-to-the-Stooges comedy comic book movie since…what? The Mask? I’m not counting Son of the Mask, but what about Ghost World? Fuck it, I’m counting Ghost World. And since this movie “only” cost $58 million (a hundred and fifty million less than the previous X-film and sixty-two million less than both Wolverine’s 2013 solo outing and Fant4stic) one could reasonably expect it to take more chances with the material than it’s more expensive counterparts.
So imagine my disappointment when Deadpool unspooled before me, presenting yet another boilerplate superhero origin story, straight out of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man mold. Oh, wait – you don’t have to imagine it. I’m about to tell you right now. It tries to disguise this with a non-linear narrative structure, but I’m a Catwoman fan. I know all the signs when I see them, and brothers and sisters, they’re all floating down here. Guess I’m supposed to just be happy Deadpool’s real name is still Wade Wilson, and he still has a BFF named Weasel and, hell, even Hydra Bob pops up for one scene, though he’s just Bob here. The real problem is years of crushing disappointment have trained us all to accept baseline levels of competence as a the Next Best Thing Ev-Arh.
Why shouldn’t I take this movie seriously when it goes out of its way to try and make me do so? Yes, this Wade Wilson is still an ex-special forces dude slumming it as a mercenary. But is he the kind of globe-trotting , CIA-agent bodyguarding type of merc who might actually challenge my capacity for empathy? No – that would require us to film in Malta and/or have Wade sell arms to Daesh, which would both increase the budget and paint our protagonist as the villain he still really is, no matter how charmingly irreverent he’s become. Instead, this Wade’s a merc who works what seem to be exclusively local, small-time jobs out of a Weasel’s dive-bar in Generic Unnamed Comic Book City (We’re Not Toronto, We Swear). Wherein he meets the love of his life – Vanessa. A character who bares about as much resemblance to her comic book counterpart as tertiary supporting character, Negasonic Teenage Warhead.
Side-note: you have a protagonist known for his habit of breaking the fourth wall meet a character explicitly named after a rock song and you don’t do a single Monster Magnet joke? That’s what I call “a massive missed opportunity.” In the same vein, this movie’s villain names himself Ajax and they don’t do a single sheep-killing joke, either. Though he does get impaled with swords on several occasions…see previous comments about the years of crushing disappointment.
So Vanessa – not yet Copycat, so far, just Vanessa – is an escort who begins a whirlwind romance with Our Anti-Hero that’s first presented to us as…a montage. At least that’s more than Hal Jordan got, right? They are cute together, and they compliment each other so well Wade even jokes about how he could’ve made her with a computer, like the protagonists of Weird Science. And yet, in a movie so bloody postmodern its protagonist wipes crap off the camera lens in the first five minutes, this star-crossed romance is the one thing we’re meant to take 110% seriously. Olivia Munn was originally up for this role, but wound up turned it down because she didn’t want to play “the girlfriend.” Which, of course, forced Morena Baccarin, to go out of her way to say Vanessa was not just “the girlfriend”: she’s feisty and not superficial and a Strong Independent Woman, and definitely not “just” a damsel in distress…even though she winds up as bait for a deathtrap in the third act, like almost every single one of Batman’s girlfriends.
We’re also meant to take the plight of Wade Wilson seriously – less seriously than the Power of Love, which is literally the first thing our protagonist talks about – but still. As this version of his origin story tells it, Wade’s a fun-loving goofball with a heart of gold who just happens to kill/intimidate people for money. He meets the girl of his dreams, and all is sunshine and roses until he passes out on the night he proposes to her…from what’s revealed to be terminal cancer. With hope for the future draining, Wade takes a long shot on a creepy dude at the bar who gave him a black card with a generic phone number and all kinds of pie-in-the-sky promises. Because Wade’s such a narcissistic prick he can’t recognize true love, even when it’s readying up to go through chemo with him, he walks out on Vanessa in the middle of the night to go join the Circus of Mad Science.
I’m reminded of the first episode of the 1990s Adjective-less X-Men cartoon, where Rogue asks Beast, where do mutants come from? He very much does not say, “Warehouses redecorated by legendary interior designers Josef Mengele, and the men of Unit 731, of course. There, British Villains and their side-chicks inject people with weird serums and torture them until something happens, or they die.” Said British Villain being Ajax, who’s real name is Francis, because of course it is. Francis – presumably thanks his own mad science – has Darkman’s immunity to pain and occasional super-strength, but that don’t pay the bills. The manufacture sand sale of humanoid weapons is where all the PHAT cash is in this, and most other comic book universes.
Here we enter the Torture Porn section of Deadpool’s origin story – but since this movie saves its “R” rating for the it’s action scenes, the porn’s not nearly torturous enough. Jigsaw would have these pikers begging to mutate in five minutes, including all the rank amateurs in charge. The highest high-tech torture device at Francis’ disposal seems to be his evil hyperbolic chamber – which will, of course, return up as the aformentioned, Vanessa-baited deathtrap in the third act.
And hey, fair’s fair, it works – permanently marring Wade’s Ryan Reynolds-esque good looks while gifting him the healing factor and super-kinesthesia that will keep him trucking. So let’s see – a protagonist contrives a way to blow up the evil lab that gifted him with his superpowers, only to emerge, defiantly alive, from its ashes, after his “creators” leave him for dead. The only verdict is “vengeance,” – a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain. For the value and veracity of such shall, one day, vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous. Especially since Wade too shook to go back to the woman he abandoned, for fear she’ll run away from his new, ugly mug. This is what they mean when they say, “oh, she’s not superficial.”
Let’s compare-contrast for a second. This is Darkman’s ugly mug, from 1990. This is Seth Brundle’s ugly mug, from the end of David Chronenberg’s Fly remake, four years earlier. These are faces to run from, screaming, the horror of them made all the more horrifying the fact we know what Liam Neeson and Jeff Golblum look like without their make-up, and spend a decent chunk of their movies staring at them. Don’t even make me mention Harvey Dent – he got CGI assistance. My go-to examples were both 100% practical, latex-and-paint jobs, as Deadpool’s face is here. And I can’t help noticing a definite decline in lead actor’s willingness to let the make-up department fuck with their good looks. Is Ron Pearlman the last, as he was the first?
Regardless, we see now why this movie went for the non-linear structure – cutting up and inserting bits of its opening action scene throughout the first hour. Otherwise, it would reveal itself to be the big budget Crow sequel we never got after City of Angels – the Darkman remake we deserve as punishment for our sins. A straight-up superhero origin/revenge movie that could’ve emerged out of the 90s. If it had, its self-aware protagonist’s satirical commentary on his own genre might’ve still smelled new, instead of twenty-year-old fish.
Nowadays, it’s standard anti-hero boilerplate. “I may be super,” his voice over says, “but I’m no hero.” What-the-fuck-ever, Wade – I’m about to watch you save your girl from your arch-nemesis with a massive climactic battle in a scenic (but decorously abandoned) locale. Good thing I get all hot and bothered when you lie. “They’re all lame-ass teacher’s pets,” he says, and fucking please, what year is this? 1971? (I did just see Gwen Stacey die again so, hell, maybe.) Last I checked, a certain incredibly popular mutant who’s name rhymes with “Pull-verine” still solved 90% of his problems through stabbin’ fools, to the acclaim of all his fans, and even some of his anti-fans, like me. Daredevil can’t get a reboot without hemming and hawing and trying to justifying every single one of his justifiable homicides – to the Punisher, of all people. Talk about “bringing coal to Newcastle.” And we’ve already discussed the dubious moral standing of all the Avengers in our Age of Ultron review. At least Jessica Jones just snaps necks and washes her hands – with whiskey.
Hell – these days, a superhero’s fan base counts themselves lucky if the villains kill each other before their hero can get around to it. A truly satirical anti-hero might make at least one joke about how he only started breaking the forth wall in the first place to differentiate himself from the armies of bloodthirsty guntoaters all around him, with more spawning every year. The Dark Age never ended, folks – it just got darker. And every year, everybody thinks “This is as dark as it gets…” to the point where yesterday’s bland, conventional wisdom becomes today’s deft, cutting satire.
But I admit I’m trapped in a bubble. More than one, actually, and they’re too busy policing their own borders to talk to each other. Not that inter-community dialog would help shit – they barely share a common language. To one side of me, I’ve got the Merry Marvel Marching Society, who’d like nothing more than for Fox’s superhero movies to fail hard and fail often. That way the X-Men can rejoin the mainline, Disney-owned universe and maybe-probably-definitely fight/team-up with the Avengers – like Spider-Man already has. Because there’s no capitalism like monopoly capitalism. Not like *that’s* almost completely destroyed the comic book industry on several occasions…Then there are Deadpool’s fans, an eclectic and generally quite fun bunch, when they aren’t sniping me from across the map in an online shooter game and then tea bagging the air, like wheezing bags of dick-tips. They got burned harder than anyone this side of Green Lantern’s fanbase and they’re just happy to get something that explains itself to Group Three: the complete comic book illiterates. The people every one of these movies needs to reach if it wants to make almost $800 million. Or anywhere north of two.
And since Deadpool’s fans are probably already sharpening their digital knives and searching for my PSN ID, I better wrap this up on a high note. (But just so you know, I’ll be in Battlefield 1 for the foreseeable future. I’ll be the guy sneaking up behind you and stabbing you in the back, so watch for my Godzilla emblem.) I didn’t write the previous 3000 words just to be a contrarian asshole. I did it because of the relative paucity of genuine criticism this thing endured upon release. Believe me, I take no join in making common cause with Richard Fucking Roeper, but sometimes life leaves gives you shitty, sour, brown-speckled lemons. Reynolds is fun and even occasionally funny, especially when he’s playing off Brianna Hildebrand. Baccarin does a whole lot with not much, though Leslie Uggams gets the MVP Award for the thankless role of Blind Al. And I would be remiss if I didn’t tip the hat to director Tim Miller. You can tell he’s been a visual effects artist for forever just from the amount of stuff he managed to put on-screen, with two thirds to a fourth of the budget his colleagues usually have on hand. This movie’s title sequences is one of its highest high points.
Evil Me: A backhanded compliment if ever there was one.
Still a compliment, though. It tells you everything you need to know about this film, and everything this film should’ve been. As Juice Newton’s “Angel in the Morning” screams away at us, the camera takes us on a slow, panning, spinning tour of a car accident in progress. Packed with in-jokes and overlaid with credits that contain pretty much all my criticisms (in a blatant attempt to short-circuit them by winking at assholes like me), it could pass for a comic book panel from any number of more detail-oriented artists (i.e., anyone who isn’t Rob Liefeld). It’s the clearest way a film-making team’s found to say, “We are on a mission to bring one of your favorite comic books to life,” since Watchmen started putting out promotional photos. And I do thank the gods of Asgard this was met with a much more enthusiasm than the latter. It could’ve been a four-out-of-five with only a slight upgrade to its satirical cajones, but at the end of the day, it’s still a pretty high three…which is more than I ever expected out of Deadpool. But gods help us, it’s pretentious – a word I hate, because it’s become a catch-all for anything the speaker does not like.
Here I use it in the dictionary definition sense: Deadpool pretends to be a satire of the very type of film it ends up being, with absolutely none of the self-awareness it displayed in the first two acts. Because this is the kind of pretension people actually like. And I shouldn’t be surprised. Pretense is a vital part of modern society. Me, I wake up every morning and pretend to go to work by walking over to my desk and writing out scripts for videos like this one. But most people wake up, go to work, and spend their days pretending to be filled with something other than boiling contempt for everyone they meet and everything they’re forced to do by their chronic addictions to food, water, shelter, and the money you need to acquire all the above. You pretend to be interested in your vapid co-worker’s pointless lives, pretend to be kind and courteous to your clueless bosses, and bosses of bosses. Pretend to not notice your bosses and co-workers trying to get more work out of you by pretending to be nicer to you than you are to them. Pretend the handful of gristle McDonalds just sold you actually food as you choke it down on the edge of the employee parking lot, pretending the day’s already over and you’re already home, with the great porn machine set to Random.
Most vital of all is the pretense that none of this pretense actually exists. “Be true to yourself,” goes to cultural propaganda, though most of us recognize this is horrible advice the moment we try it, usually in early adolescence. In my day, the myth that we actually hate pretensions got me labeled a Future School Shooter of America. These days, I understand it still gets you that, plus a prescription for the kind of speed Hunter S. Thompson could only dream about back in the ’70s. Lucky bastards. Pretense allows us the psychic distance we need to finally make our superegos shut the fuck up. It allows us to enjoy things we’d crucify in a heartbeat if anyone were actually watching. Hence: Deadpool. Shit – hence: everything.
Evil Me: Are you done? Will you finally do what you swore you would do oh so many years ago?
Yes. Next time, the Superman films of Zack Snyder – both of them.