Fans have been waiting for this Deadpool film for a long time. What began as just a twinkle in Ryan Reynolds’ eye (that got shelved eternally after the embarrassment that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine) has finally come to pass, and it gets a big thumbs up for making room in the current movie landscape for superheroes to be truly funny.
It also gets a big thumbs down for making the same mistakes that so many of these properties always make when it comes to estimating its audience.
In order to fully explain my cheers and quibbles, I have to go into some detail, so there will be spoilers in this review. (Do you really care that much about spoilers for a Deadpool movie? I doubt he does. He just wants you to smuggle some chimichangas into the theater so he can smell them through the screen.)
Starting with the good, Deadpool manages to tick all the comedic boxes that it needs to. The meta-humor is perfectly orchestrated in this film, going out of its way to inform us that Deadpool is aware of his tropes and cinematic surroundings, which is half of what makes the character enjoyable. The opening credits of this movie don’t even showcase anyone’s name, just a list of stereotypes and one-offs about what you can expect in a superhero film (“A British Villain,” “The Writers aka The Real Heroes Here”). It also parodies most Marvel closing credits sequences, with closeups on equipment, and costumes, and such. Hugh Jackman jokes abound. The asides that tie into the X-Men film series at large make up some of the best humor in the movie.
After the many wrong turns Ryan Reynolds has made in his career, Deadpool feels like his first true homecoming. He flirted with romcom leads and that brief, horrible stint as Green Lantern, and now he’s figured out where he belongs. Good for him. He’s excellent in the part, equal parts heart and self-protective sarcasm, and the cadence he uses as the character (particularly when he’s masked) is exactly right. As in “When I read the comics that’s the voice I’ve always heard in my head. How did he do that?” kind of right. The movie sets him firmly in the role of anti-hero, removing some of the more unsavory aspects of the character—which make sense, since those aspects haven’t really been in play for the more recent comic runs. Also, the CGI team deserves all the credit in the world for giving Deadpool’s mask a range of facial expression we normally only see on the page. It allows him to be funnier and adds another sheen of unreality, setting it apart from the other eight (there’s been eight!?) X-films even when it’s meant to play alongside their narrative.
The film’s extreme self-awareness helps it out when some of the less tasteful comedy comes into play. When Deadpool (at that point just Wade Wilson, mercenary) meets his soon-to-be girlfriend Vanessa Carlysle (played by the ever-sparkly-even-when-she’s-cursing-a-blue-streak Morena Baccarin), he pulls the weird Pick-Up Artist “how were you hurt as a child because there’s no way such a gorgeous woman would show up here otherwise” query. When Baccarin gives the rundown of her background, Wilson turns it into a competition over who had it worse growing up, turning a typically bad joke on its head—because ruined childhoods are not the sole purview of beautiful women in gross bars. This also happens during Deadpool’s run-ins with Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead; a role that might have simply harped on the “annoying teenage girl” stereotype is elevated by Brianna Hildebrand’s gothy aesthetic, and her general unwillingness to play along with any of Deadpool’s antics. (“You’re putting me in the box,” she says at one point when he tries to distill her reactions down to the two oft-used options of meanness or sarcasm.)
Because Deadpool is an origin story told primarily through flashback, there is very little, narrative-wise, to differentiate it from any other superhero story. The villains are unfortunately paper-thin and distressingly boring. (I’d expect it for Ed Skrein’s Ajax, but when you’ve got Gina Carano playing Angel Dust, for the love of every deity on earth, do something worthwhile with her. A couple good fight scenes are not enough.) Leslie Uggams gives a perfect—but tragically underused—turn as Blind Al, with a relationship to Wade that is far healthier than the one comics fans have seen on the page… and that’s saying something, because it’s not like they’re a pile of puppy cuddles here, either.
My problems with this film boil down to the same problem we have in the majority of superhero film-making. It seems that despite audience statistics, despite years of showing up, despite how often it’s repeated at conventions and in interviews and all over the internet, Hollywood (and most major corporations by and large) STILL DON’T UNDERSTAND THAT WOMEN LIKE THESE STORIES. Look, I’m a fan of Deadpool. I read the comics. I love the crossovers. I’m hooked on metafiction and meta-humor, which is the very thing Deadpool excels at. It’s worth noting that Harley Quinn—who has many of the same characteristics to recommend her—is insanely popular as well at this point in time. And she’s not popular with women simply because she’s female. It’s because women like all of this stuff, too.
So when this film—which is entirely irreverent as you’d expect, often to the point of distastefulness—makes all the same lame, tired jokes that are usually made at the expense of women, I get sad. When women are used in all the same ways that they’re normally used in these narratives, I get more sad. Deadpool frownyface sad:
When the film freeze-frames on Deadpool skewering a guy with two katanas and the voiceover has Wade cheerfully begin with, “I know what you’re thinking: ‘My boyfriend told me this was a superhero movie, but then why is this guy—’” I laugh because the meta part of the joke is funny… but I’m also rolling my eyes because yet again, the assumption is that every woman in the theater is there because some guy dragged her in. Did they think we wouldn’t come because of all the dick jokes in their advertising campaign? Because I have no problem with dick jokes. Judging by the amount of female laughter at the three-dozen-or-so penis-related-euphemisms in the film itself, I think it’s safe to say that very few ladies are going to be put off by a movie featuring a plethora of dick jokes. Literally all they had to do to make that line feel like less of a slap would be to change “boyfriend” to “girlfriend.” That’s it. Especially since, it’s not like every guy who walks into a theater to see this movie knows a thing about Deadpool either.
When Vanessa makes a Yoda joke as she curls up in bed with her boyfriend, and Wade’s reply is, “Star Wars joke… it’s like I made you in a lab!” I laugh because anyone who finds themselves in a good relationship frequently marvels at how they managed to locate another human being so well-suited to them. But I’m also cringing because that joke smacks far too much of geeky guys who still believe that the only way to find an attractive woman with similar interests is to build a damn android, à la Weird Science. (And I’m also cringing because Vanessa’s reply to Wade after that is scold him by saying “Empire!” and honestly who the hell makes that distinction, it’s all Star Wars. Come on, do your flipping homework at least.)
When the film actually makes a point of showing male nudity, I’m shocked and impressed. Then the film shows female nudity and I’m glowering at the screen. Because the male nudity comes in the context of action and also suffering—Wade Wilson is making a horrible bid for freedom and his nakedness is not the focal point of the scene, more a byproduct. And then we get the female nudity and it’s exactly where you’d expect it to be: a f*cking strip club. A reminder: you don’t just get points for equal opportunity, you have to think about the message you’re sending. The message here wound up being “sure, we’re willing to show a naked guy, but only when he’s doing hero things. If a woman is naked, it’s because she’s an object.”
So while I truly enjoyed a good portion of Deadpool, I’m holding out hope that it can be better. That the next time (because it seems like there will be a next time), they remember who goes to see these movies and give some extra thought to what they’re saying. You can be funny without alienating people, no matter what anyone says. And Deadpool is a superb testing ground for a new generation of superpowered comedy.