Deadpool 2 did such a great thing with Vanessa, Wade’s soon-to-be baby mama!
Wait. I think it did? Maybe it didn’t. Hang on, I’m confused…
[Spoilers for Deadpool 2]
Ah, the action narrative. The superhero conundrum. The “fridging” thing. How do you solve a problem like the frequent death of female characters for the sake of catalyzing male action? How do we talk about this constructively? Deadpool 2 tried, fascinatingly enough. It made an attempt to have a conversation about the murder of fictional women, and its use as a plot device, and what it means when more than one genre of movie has been built on this foundation like there’s nothing remotely lazy or regressive or depressing as hell about it.
So to begin, Deadpool 2 did the worst thing it could think of: It fridged Vanessa Carlysle, Wade’s fiancée.
It’s telegraphed to high heaven, so you know it’s coming, which makes it worse. Some bad people follow Wade back to their apartment, she dies in Wade’s arms and it’s very emotional, and then Wade tries to kill himself and that’s very emotional, and then Wade proceeds to go on a long journey to give his life meaning again and it’s so emotional that by the end he’s got a family of super friends to form his new X-Force cadre. After all the fireworks fizzle out, Wade takes Cable’s dead time-travel device, gets it juiced up by Negasonic Teenage Warhead and her girlfriend Yukio, and does the unthinkable in the film’s mid-credits scene—
—he travels back in time and saves Vanessa.
Two things about this:
- It’s wonderful
- It’s a copout
Let’s start with number one.
Deadpool is a canny enough property to know they have to engage with the choice to murder Vanessa. (Or at least, it really should be, but it turns out that the writers have never even heard of fridging as a trope before. Great.) Never mind the number of superheroes with origins that approximate this; Deadpool’s close cousins the X-Men are always pulling this card. Magneto loses a wife and daughter who suddenly appear for the sake of this trope in X-Men: Apocalypse. It happens to Wolverine three. damn. times. over the course of these movies and to Cyclops as well (X2, Wolverine: Origins, The Wolverine). With the exception of Jean Grey (because she doesn’t actually die in X2), all of these instances are poorly written schlock that exist for a single reason—to make men feel. To give them sob-worthy emotions that can drive a revenge spree or an origin or a journey toward enlightenment. Sometimes these women are written as people who have their own lives to get on with before their untimely deaths, but more often they’re not. They exist to facilitate men’s stories.
This is not new. The website Women in Refrigerators exists for a reason. We talk about this tired trope all the time, and the ubiquity of its use. Cat Valente wrote a book of monologues for these women to finally give them their due. We’re sick of it. It’s boring and it’s sad and it means that women spend most of their time identifying with men and male pain because the person who they want to relate to is dead within the first half hour of any given movie.
So Deadpool 2 didn’t try to get away with it. Instead, it went the opposite route and roundly chastised every narrative that lives by this device. The point isn’t just that Wade saves Vanessa—the point is that saving her was easy. It was so easy, they tossed it away in a mid-credits sequence. Oh look. There she is. Screw that initial choice. How dare you make these deaths permanent in worlds full of time travel and heroism and magic? Snap your fingers and freaking fix it. You have infinite power and no excuses and we shouldn’t have to have this conversation one more time.
And it makes no sense whatsoever, don’t forget. Time travel paradox? What are those? How does Cable’s sliding device work? Uh… who cares? Does this mean the whole movie actually occurred differently, because when you change history it—blahblahblah leave it alone, friends. Again, the commentary isn’t about narrative soundness or plot cohesion. It’s about the fact that this is a stupid thing to do to women, and about how all these ridiculous power fantasy narratives could do right by them if they actually cared. It’s about saying Stop. Killing. Women. For No. Damn. Reason.
Yes. Thank you.
But that, unfortunately, brings me to part two.
Because, you know, this is still bullshit. It’s great that Vanessa makes it, and that they decided to undo a bad choice and stick it to every hero’s story that builds itself on the death of brilliant, bright, fierce human beings. And yet….
See, in making this choice, Deadpool 2 highlighted the second biggest problem with these stories: That they simply have no fucking clue what to do with their Vanessas in the first place.
Think about it. Over two films, what do we actually know about Wade’s fiancée? The broad stokes, the major pieces of her character. I can think of maybe three things? Four? Here they are in order:
- She adores Wade and wants to have a baby with him
- She had a shitty, abusive childhood
- Before she started dating Wade, she was a sex worker
- She likes Star Wars?
That’s it. That is all we know about Vanessa Carlysle. Not a word about how she got from here to there, her goals or interests, or anything that she feels aside from her love for Wade. And love is great! Love is wonderful. But it’s never the entirety of a person. And if someone only exists to be the love interest in an action movie, that’s basically the same as being a set piece or a costume or a really cool location, albeit one that can act well. (Then again, sometimes set pieces and costumes and locations also do a fair bit of acting, so it’s not that different after all.)
Wade’s entire arc in Deadpool 2 could have still happened without killing Vanessa off. The two are thinking about starting a family, and Deadpool showing up while Colossus and Negasonic are trying to calm down Russell at the Mutant Rehabilitation Center would still push all the same buttons—a kid is being abused and he’s in trouble, and Wade has been thinking a lot about kids lately and how he wants his own kid to have a better childhood than he had. Now another child needs him, and he tries to defend Russell against the X-Men’s wishes. Same end result. He could also be going through X-Men training, if they wanted to leave that bit. There are countless made up reasons why Deadpool would want to try it out for a while, if they still wanted that to be part of the narrative.
Here’s the problem: If Vanessa doesn’t die, the movie has to decide what she’s doing for the duration. It has to decide if she’s angry that Wade got himself sent to the Icebox to protect Russell, or if she’s proud of him. It has to decide if she tries to bust him out of that mutant prison and who she would go to for help. It has to decide how well she knows each of his friends, from Blind Al to Colossus. It has to decide if she wants to become a member of X-Force when they’re recruiting the team. It has to decide how Wade feels if she puts herself in danger to help him. It has to decide how she feels when Wade sacrifices himself to save Russell at the expense of their future together. It has to make a lot of big choices around a character who is really just meant to be the equivalent of a cool locale or a set piece.
What I am saying is that Deadpool 2 fridged Vanessa—however briefly—because it was easier to do that than it was to invest in her humanity and build her character. It was easier to kill a woman than to show her thinking and trying and moving and living.
And that should really give us pause.
So while it’s great that the film didn’t let her death last, it also shines a blinding spotlight on a much larger problem. Not murdering a woman shouldn’t be reason for applause because that’s literally the least you can do after decades of the same. It’s telling that Deadpool 2 is willing to call out lazy writing with meta commentary when it pertains to convenient narrative workarounds, but their laziest piece of writing was nowhere on their radar.
Please. For all our sakes. Just let women exist.