As a piece of film, Deadpool represents a fascinating dichotomy. One entirely legitimate reading is that of a film by fifteen-year-olds, for fifteen-year-olds — filled with sex jokes, explosions, scantily-clad women, arch comments, and ruptures of the fourth wall, sometimes verging into the offensive. Another, equally valid, reading is that of complicated metacommentary on the superhero genre, on film itself. It was a film ten years in the making, which must have been unimaginably frustrating to its creators, but the wait may have been worth it.
Deadpool’s foul-mouthed protagonist isn’t your usual earnest superhero with a dark past, or even your brooding lead with a dark past. He’s a man who had everything and then lost it again, but retained a dark, sardonic, mouthy humour throughout, turning into an amplified version of himself after acquiring mutant powers. Deadpool is raunchy, flinging forth increasingly creative and anatomically improbably insults in a narrative that runs backwards and forwards, sometimes presented plainly and sometimes through ruptures of the fourth wall that draw the audience into the story. Artistically, Deadpool is an intriguing film even as it’s challenging for audiences unaccustomed to the presentation of incredibly dark, savage humour. Deadpool makes many viewers uncomfortable, and it should, because it’s a bit of a bait and switch — the opening credits suggest a fun, lighthearted, shiny film with base humour and a satisfying amount of destruction, but then the film rapidly whips round, changing direction into something more resembling a skewering of sappy, trite superhero films and the kinds of narratives traditionally seen in Hollywood’s stories about antiheroes.
It’s unusual for an R-rated film to hit theatrical release in the US, let alone for one to do as well as Deadpool did: The film broke numerous records on its first weekend, including the highest box office ever for an R-rated movie, nearly double that of Fifty Shades of Grey, which was another standout release in a nation where most films are judiciously cut to achieve that elusive PG-13 rating, which curiously allows for an absolutely outstanding amount of violence as long as no naughty bits are visible.
Deadpool, of course, landed that rating through a number of quite explicit sex scenes between Wade Wilson/Deadpoool (Ryan Reynolds) and his love interest, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), which were made all the more horrific to puritan eyes by virtue of the fact that they weren’t exactly bog-standard vanilla heterosexual encounters. Thanks to attitudes about violence in film, the gore of the movie — which is quite considerable — likely didn’t raise an eyebrow in the face of a film that confronted sexuality quite openly (Deadpool even included sex workers, a taboo for the MPAA).
Deadpool’s relationship with the filmgoer is a complicated one
Deadpool’s filthy mouth and quest for vengeance, if read simplistically, just make for another action film with some added sauce, and it certainly could be interpreted that way — certainly the film is a big hit amongst heterosexual teenage boys, undoubtedly delighted by the titillation of breasts interspersed with delightfully large explosions and substantial gunfire. The deeply crude jokes might seem to substantiate that, but there’s something deeper and more complicated about Deadpool, a sense of self-awareness that goes beyond the acknowledgement of repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to viewers. In fact, it’s those very actions that suggest the film is much, much more than a superhero movie, and much, much more than an action movie.
Deadpool tells the viewer that this is a love story, following the classic path of love found, love lost, and revenge, which it is, but it’s also a deep queering of love stories and of traditional film narratives. The jokes that could read as simple crudery sound more like arch, reclamatory, inside jokes intended to strike at the heart of a particular kind of viewer: The sardonic and macabre people who are accustomed to dealing with their oppression through larger than life personas like Deadpool’s. When you cannot weep over your oppression, you laugh, and Deadpool cracks wise at the expense of everyone in a way that speaks to deep-seated frustration and bitterness, not a bid for cheap laughs.
It’s most definitely not a film for everyone’s tastes. Parents have been emphatically warned that it is not appropriate for children, and with good reason — not because of the explicit sexuality (though it is perhaps a bit much for young children) but because of the extremely intense violence and torture scenes. Moreover, children who aren’t accustomed to the complexity of metacommentary could come away from the film with damaging notions about boundaries and social attitudes, unthinkingly repeating the things that elicited giggles (‘cockgobbler’ and ‘bag of dicks’) without realising that these things are not intended to be mimicked, but rather explored, and challenged. That they are acts of defiance, not reinforcements of the norm.
It’s also, obviously, not going to be an enjoyable film for people who prefer not to view extreme violence and torture, an entirely legitimate concern. And it’s also probably not ideally suited to people who sometimes struggle with making decisions about whether a film has successfully tipped the scales between metacommentary and base appeals to Hollywood’s lowest common denominators, because Deadpool very carefully straddles that divide. What one viewer perceives as a piercing indictment of some of the worst parts of Hollywood, another viewer might see as yet another horribly exploitative film that makes cheap jokes at the expense of marginalised populations while saturating the screen in blood. These cautions are perhaps what strikingly illustrates Deadpool’s effectiveness: It’s a film that forces viewers into conversations about whether succeeded at what it was trying to do (if it was even trying to do it) and it spurs a larger discussion about the myriad ways to view films, and the Hollywood status quo.