The “Deadpool” phenomenon is more fun to observe than “Deadpool” itself is to watch—although the movie’s not a terrible experience, either. It’s the one superhero movie I’ve seen that feels like a classic-era comic book. It’s insolent yet earnest, flashily inventive and brazenly aggressive, joining seemingly boundless male-adolescent bravado with primal fears and a nearly pious dream of higher purpose. The flagrantly filthy (though actually grounded and principled) dialogue as well as the gory (but actually pristinely abstracted) action makes a mockery of a movie-ratings system that holds today’s teen-agers to standards of innocence that haven’t held since “The Age of Innocence.” “Deadpool” is no artistic masterwork, but it’s an exemplary pop contrivance, and what spares it from the charge of cynicism is the sense that its makers actually believe in the formula that they’ve devised and realized.
Much has been made of the opening credit sequence, which uses titles to mock the superhero-genre clichés that the movie will nonetheless fulfill (“A Hot Chick . . . A British Villain”), as well as the industry that reliably fulfills them (“Produced by Asshats . . . Written by the Real Heroes Here . . . Directed by an Overpaid Tool”). But what got my attention were the images under those titles, a sort of ultra-slow-motion suspended animation of objects flying around in a closed space, and it had a mysterious, repressedly comical expressionistic tension that promised a visual cleverness that the movie then delivered.
It takes a long and ingenious series of flashbacks to resolve the mystery of those strange images, and the scene of that resolution is a breathtakingly elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque chain reaction of vehicular calamities and ballistic balletics that is as grisly as it is kinetic. Yet the bloodshed and the mutilations that mark that sequence and, for that matter, much of the movie are (in my experience, and I’m very squeamish) anodyne, mere signifiers of mayhem, pushed past the boundaries of experience and into abstraction—exactly where a movie about a superhero with absurd yet enticing powers belongs.
The protagonist, Wade Wilson, played by Ryan Reynolds, is a motormouth—a former Special Forces operative who’s now a mercenary, but a principled one, a freelance badass in good causes. He’s a romantic at heart whose sense of chivalrous love is one with his patriotic fervor. As a signifier of the paradoxes of male adolescence, he combines a nearly irrepressible aggression and defiance of authority with a self-aggrandizing sense of virtue, a seemingly strict and principled adherence to an authoritative sense of justice of his own making. He’s a self-fashioned bad boy who’s in no way evil.
He’s also a swaggering, hard-drinking hedonist-bro who’s nonetheless looking for love, and, in the sewer pit of a bar that he frequents, he finds it. Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin) is as tough-talking and single-minded as Wade is; their love is a soul-match, a meeting of the minds and a rugged wrangle of sexual bodies. But then he’s given a diagnosis of cancer that’s incurable and rapidly fatal. Desperate to live, he accepts an alternative treatment administered by one Ajax (Ed Skrein), which turns out to be a terrifying series of tortures. These agonies are intended to cure him, to endow him with superpowers (including that of automatic self-healing of wounds), and to render him submissive for inclusion in a private slave army. They also horrifically disfigure Wade, rendering him (he believes) unable to be loved by Vanessa; when he escapes from Ajax’s laboratory of horrors (and takes the pseudonym of Deadpool, derived from a sardonic barroom game), he nonetheless needs to find Ajax again in order to have his skin repaired, in order to be able to return to Vanessa.
As Wade/Deadpool, Reynolds, though not an especially funny actor, does a plausible impersonation of someone who’s naturally funny—namely, Jason Schwartzman. The director of “Deadpool,” Tim Miller, is a visual-effects artist who has worked more on video games than movies—but the one notable production in which he had a major hand, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” from 2010, co-stars Schwartzman, who is the modern specialist in high-concept masculine comic sass. In the title role in “Deadpool,” Ryan Reynolds seems to channel Schwartzman’s inflections into the sort of sharp-edged bravado that Humphrey Bogart raised to an art form.
The contours of Deadpool’s drama—maturing in love while maturing in allegiance—nudge against those of the classic Hollywood wartime loners exemplified by Bogart. Deadpool’s greatest sin is to walk out on a woman without a word; his greatest quest is to heal his looks in order to keep his love; his abiding code is to remain free of all institutional constraints (even a worthy one that’s offered to him), to stick his neck out for nobody.
Reynolds is no Bogart (who is?), but, in any case, the very nature of flamboyant sarcasm has changed—and, at least in one way, for the better. In Bogart’s time, the tough guy was epigrammatic, speaking in terse and tight-lipped aphorisms, leaving florid verbosity to the (usually affected, often European) villains. One great thing that hip-hop has done, over the past thirty or thirty-five years, is to create a bridge between intricate verbal intelligence and masculine strength, or, to put it differently, to make poetry streetwise and unleash it from its old-fashioned stereotype as feminine or effete. Pop-culture tough guys can be fast talkers now, and the rapid firing of Deadpool’s verbal synapses matches his infinitesimally fast calculations and adjustments in the heat of battle.
Miller keeps the movie moving at the pace of the chatter and delivers the action in a ricocheting round of winking asides. He’s a visual-effects wizard, which isn’t quite the same thing as a gifted director. Miller is, in effect, a great choreographer of impossible action, but he’s not a great composer of images that would raise those conceptual sequences to distinctive visual experiences. His action sequences tickle the mind but not the eye. The gargantuan catastrophe of the movie’s final showdown—pitting Deadpool and Vanessa, plus their superhero allies Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, against Ajax and his minions—is a set piece filled with awe-inspiring concepts and carefully crafted details that nonetheless offer nothing to look at. It comes off as a feat of graphic engineering but not of creation.
For all the potty-mouthed splashiness of the dialogue, for all the hectic violence of the action, for all the central couple’s blatant and sophisticated (but briefly shown) eroticism, “Deadpool” is a movie of crystalline purity, of redemptive virtue. (I’m reminded along the way of a high-budget, high-concept, high-energy version of “Clerks.”) Miller and his screenwriters, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, display an earnest faith in the realization of their idea: that American males want to be bad boys and good men. “Deadpool” is altogether innocuous—and that’s what’s wrong with it.
BLOG CREDIT/AUTHOR: THE NEW YORKER