Saturday, February 20, 2016
On the Big Screen: DEADPOOL (2016)
The superhero genre is bringing out its big guns this year. No, I don't mean Batman fighting Superman or Iron Man fighting Captain America. War is coming, true, but Marvel Studios doesn't have a dog in this fight. They gave theirs away to Twentieth Century-Fox a long time ago, at a time when they probably didn't have an idea of what they were giving away. To understand what I'm talking about, go to any media store. Go to one of those places where tie-in toys take up an ever-increasing amount of floor space as the stocks of CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays dwindle. At one of our local media stores you can see what I'm talking about pretty clearly. Probably all such places will have two big display stands stocked with red-clad figures. There will be more of these two, probably, than any other comic book character. You'll have guessed already that one of these is Deadpool, the "merc with a mouth" whose movie rights belong to Fox by virtue of the character's association with Marvel's mutant books, who gets a reboot in Tim Miller's new film after a disastrous debut in the disastrous spinoff X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The other shoe drops in August, when Harley Quinn makes her big-screen live-action debut in the Suicide Squad movie. These two characters are the crimson monsters of tie-in merchandising, while their movies promise an irreverent alternative to the often-oppressive solemnity of superhero films, which is likely to hit new highs (or lows) with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War. While both Deadpool and Harley embody black humor, their vibrant redness also promises anarchic relief from the drab darkness required by comic-book fans desperate to keep everything "cool." Arguably they achieve another level of cool where you don't care how stupid you may look while indulging your every destructive whim or saying anything that pops into your head, while many comics fans (or comics-movie fans) remain afraid of looking stupid and thus insist on their fantasies being taken with the utmost seriousness on screen.
Something like Deadpool might have been reviled as camp had it not targeted some "uncool" conventions of superhero cinema for parody. Its most sharply satiric moment comes when our hero (Ryan Reynolds, returning bravely after the Origins debacle while mocking his other debacle in the genre, Green Lantern) has an enemy at his mercy, pointing a gun at his head. Along comes Colossus, a stalwart, steel-skinned X-Man, to give the standard speech that comes at this point in a superhero movie when someone has to be talked down from killing someone else. You heard it most recently in X-Men: Days of Future Past when Professor X convinces Mystique not to kill Senator Kelly. A true hero spares the lives of beaten enemies, Colossus says, but in mid-sentence Deadpool pulls the trigger. This is as good an example of any of how Deadpool is often funny, but rarely is as funny as it could be. The filmmakers go for the obvious punch line of Deadpool not taking the boilerplate speech seriously, but what I was expecting, and what I still think would have been more funny, was for the villain to ask Deadpool to shoot him and end his misery by sparing him the rest of the speech. Almost unerringly, Deadpool goes for the easy jokes, the cheap cultural references -- all too typically slightly anachronistic -- the in-jokes about the X-Men movie franchise, Marvel movies in general and Ryan Reynolds himself, and dirty talk for its own sake in celebration of the film's unprecedented R rating. Deadpool wants to be a masked Marx brother but more often ends up a monkey flinging poo, which is probably the smart play for modern comedy fans.
For all that it wants to mock its own genre, Deadpool succeeds best on the genre's terms, as an action film. That only makes sense, since the filmmakers want to eat their cake and have it, too. They strike a tone of self-aware, satiric irreverence, yet still want us to empathize with poor Wade W. Wilson, the ex-Special Forces soldier who meets his perfect mate (Morena Baccarin) only to fall victim suddenly to late-stage cancer. His only hope for a cure is a dodgy experimental procedure touted by Francis "Ajax" Freeman (Ed Skrein) which could make him into a superhero. Freeman aims to awaken latent mutations and transform patients into "super slaves" for hire. His tortures of Wilson trigger a healing factor that makes the patient practically indestructible but also disfigures him, pocking his face, while retaining the chiseled Ryan Reynolds facial structure, in a way that reminds some of avocados reproducing in unnatural fashion. In one respect Deadpool is different from many comedies; it highlights one of its worst lines in the advertising, but I suppose they had to pick something without swear words. In any event, Wilson feels cheated somewhat, while Freeman, impatient with his patient's complaining, impales him and leaves him in a burning basement. Wilson survives, of course, and becomes Deadpool (he briefly considers adding a "Captain" to that) in order to find Freeman and compel him to cure his disfigurement, as he fears his beloved will no longer love a face that looks like a Deadpool has given another Deadpool a Cleveland Steamer, or something along those lines. So it comes to a climax a lot like every other climax, except that the large object -- it sure looks like a SHIELD helicarrier to me, although those shouldn't exist in Fox films -- had already fallen some time ago. The damsel's in distress, the hero has to save her (despite getting a knife driven into his brain), and somebody makes a speech about not killing people. You see what I did there: I got back to the point in time I flash-forwarded to in the last paragraph after a long flashback, which goes to show I can write reviews the way some people write movies.
Deadpool isn't as funny as it thinks it is, and isn't even as irreverent as it thinks it is -- true irreverence requires a more respectable target than the superhero genre -- but it delivers the goods in its action scenes. Oddly, though, I was more impressed by the slobberknocker side fight between Colossus and Ajax's super-strong enforcer Angel Dust (Gina Carano) than by the main character's aerial antics and gun-fu. The Colossus-Angel Dust battle is pure primal fisticuffs, with humongously powerful people punching one another great distances and Carano's MMA skills thrown in for extra measure. That core fantasy of strength is not upstaged by all of Deadpool's shooting, stabbing and slashing, though all of that is fairly well executed. In his second attempt at Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds may be forgiven his previous sins against comic-book characters, but he's still pretty much his same smug self, which this time just happens to work in his favor. I never really came to care for the character, but for all their bids for empathy I don't think the filmmakers really needed or wanted anyone to care that way. They got what they wanted, which was a big opening weekend and a film that obviously could have been much worse than it actually is. And if it doesn't inspire me to buy Deadpool comic books, then only Marvel Comics loses, which probably makes Fox's success that much sweeter smelling, like an air freshener raping another air freshener or something.