4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“Did I leave the stove on?” — Deadpool

Deadpool first appeared as a somewhat irreverent mercenary sent to kill Cable in New Mutants #98, the same 1991 issue that introduced Gideon and Domino. His design, created by artist Rob Liefeld, looked like a cross between DC’s Deathstroke and Marvel’s Spider-Man. His personality was crafted by Fabian Nicieza, who scripted the book over Liefeld’s plots. His snark in that initial appearance was only a fraction of what we’ve come to expect from the “merc with a mouth,” but it was enough to make people want to see more of the character.

Over the years, the snark kept getting turned up and up and up with each subsequent appearance, and eventually, in his ongoing series by Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness that launched in 1997, the goofy got turned up to eleven and he started breaking the fourth wall. That’s the version of Deadpool that most folks think of, and when his popularity truly took off—and what Ryan Reynolds wanted to portray on film. 

Originally, Artisan Entertainment was going to make a film starring Deadpool, with Reynolds in the title role, Reynolds himself having wanted to play the character since learning that Deadpool described himself in Cable & Deadpool #2 as looking “like Ryan Reynolds crossed with a shar-pei.” (At one point in this movie, Deadpool says he looks like he was bitten by a radioactive shar-pei, thus bringing the joke full circle.) However, it butted up against 20th Century Fox’s rights to the X-Men characters, which included Deadpool. As a make-good, Reynolds was cast as a version of Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Part of Deadpool’s backstory was that he was also in the Weapon X program that created Wolverine, and they used that for the 2009 movie.

Reynolds was strong enough in the role that a post-credits scene was added late in the process showing that Wade Wilson survived his fight with Wolverine, thus leaving things open for Fox to do a Deadpool movie. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were hired to write the script, working with Reynolds, whom Reese and Wernick credit with keeping them on-brand, as it were. All three agreed to ignore the X-Men Origins version of the character and go with the fourth-wall-breaking loony that Kelly and McGuinness pioneered and which Christopher Priest and later Gail Simone settled as the status quo for the character in his ongoing series that ran from 1997-2002. Various directors were attached at different times, including Robert Rodriguez, before they settled on Tim Miller.

Unfortunately, the big giant flop that was Green Lantern in 2011 ground production on Deadpool to a halt, as Reynolds was tarred with a big green failure brush. Miller created some test footage to try to change Fox’s minds, and while it didn’t work at first, the test footage leaking online in 2014 to great acclaim led to Fox reluctantly going ahead and green-lighting it, with X-film producer Simon Kinberg now involved as a producer.

In addition to Reynolds in the title role, the movie features Morena Baccarin as Deadpol’s fiancée Vanessa (a non-powered version of the comics character Copycat), T.J. Miller as Deadpool’s best friend Weasel, Leslie Uggams as Deadpool’s roommate Blind Al, and Karan Soni as Deadpool’s favorite taxi driver Dopinder. Ed Skrein plays Francis, a.k.a. Ajax, the main bad guy, with Gina Carano as Angel Dust. Tying this into the greater X-film-verse are Stefan Kapičić as the voice of a CGI-rendered Colossus (replacing Daniel Cudmore, who played the role in X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, and X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Brianna Hildebrand as Negasonic Teenage Warhead. The filmmakers wanted to change the latter’s powers to something more closely resembling her codename (in the comics, she’s a telepathic precognitive). In an amusing example of film-rights horse-trading, Marvel agreed to the change only if Fox would give up the rights to Ego the Living Planet (a Fantastic Four antagonist, and therefore covered under Fox’s license for the FF) for Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

Released in February, the traditional dumping spot for movies that studios don’t care about, Fox had no expectations for the movie, and barely a budget, but it became one of the biggest hits of 2016. Realizing they had a phenomenon on their hands, Fox quickly green-lit a sequel, for which actors Reynolds, Baccarin, Miller, Uggams, Soni, Kapičić, and Hildebrand and writers Reese and Wernick all returned, It was released in 2018, and we’ll cover it next week.

 

“A fourth-wall break inside a fourth-wall break? That’s, like, sixteen walls!”

Deadpool
Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Directed by Tim Miller
Produced by Simon Kinberg, Ryan Reynolds, & Lauren Shuler Donner
Original release date: February 12, 2016

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

We open in mid-battle, as Deadpool is facing off against a bunch of guys with guns on a major highway.

Then we cut to just before the fight, as Deadpool is riding in a cab driven by a young man named Dopinder. They make small talk, then Deadpool is dropped off in the spot where the bad guys are going to be.

The battle against the gun-wielding thugs is interspersed with flashbacks telling us how we got here. Wade Wilson is a mercenary, ex-Special Forces, now working for clients to take on scumbuckets. As an example, he threatens a stalker on behalf of a high-school student. He hangs out at a bar for mercenaries run by his best friend, Weasel. The bar has a “dead pool,” where people bet on which of the regulars will die next. Wilson is a bit nonplussed to see that Weasel has placed his wager in the dead pool on Wilson himself.

Wilson meets a woman named Vanessa and they start comparing awful childhoods in an exaggerated manner (pretty much a total riff on the Four Yorkshiremen sketch popularized on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, though it originated on At Last the 1948 Show), and then they play skeeball, and then they have sex in the rest room.

For the next year, their relationship solidifies, as they’re both pretty much nuts. (As Wilson puts it, his crazy fits her crazy.) And then Wilson collapses.

They go to the hospital and learn that he has terminal cancer, and it’s too far along and spread too far for him to survive it. At the bar, he’s approached by a skeevy recruiter, who proposes that he try a radical treatment that will not only cure him, but give him super-powers. Desperate, Wilson agrees, sneaking away without saying goodbye to Vanessa.

The “clinic” where the treatments take place is run by a Brit who calls himself Ajax, though Wilson later learns that his real name is Francis. He injects Wilson with a drug and then starts torturing him, as extreme physical pain and suffering is apparently what will combine with the drug to trigger any latent mutant genes Wilson might have.

Either that, or it’ll kill him.

Eventually, Wilson’s powers do kick in, which makes all his hair fall out and his skin shrivel, but now he can literally heal any damage. Ajax keeps him imprisoned in a hyperbaric chamber. However, at one point, Wilson headbutts Ajax’s assistant Angel Dust, who always has a match in her mouth. Wilson used the headbutt to grab the match in his teeth, and he then lights it near the oxygen, which makes it explode.

Ajax can’t feel pain, and he and Wilson fight, with Ajax getting the upper hand long enough to get out of the building before it explodes. However, thanks to his healing factor, Wilson survives the building’s destruction, unbeknownst to Ajax. He’s sufficiently hideous that he doesn’t want to get back together with Vanessa until he can be cured, so he needs to find Ajax.

To keep folks from seeing how ugly he is, he wears a hoodie and mask. He also names himself after the dead pool, which he now can never “win.” Initially, his disguise is white, but he regularly gets stabbed and shot, and the clothes are covered in blood. So he switches to red, eventually putting together his familiar outfit.

Eventually, he learns that Ajax will be part of a convoy going down the highway and he attacks it, bringing us to where we started. However, while he does pin Ajax to the guardrail with a sword, he’s stopped from going any further by two X-Men who saw the news reports on what was happening: Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. They distract Deadpool long enough to allow Ajax to get away, and Deadpool himself gets away from Colossus, who has handcuffed himself to Deadpool, by cutting off his own hand.

Deadpool returns home—he’s now living with a blind, semi-recovered cocaine addict named Blind Al. While waiting for his hand to grow back, Blind Al (after a disastrous attempt to assemble a bureau from Ikea) tries and fails to convince Deadpool to see Vanessa.

Ajax and Angel Dust go to Weasel’s bar, and while their attempt to physically threaten Weasel results in the bar’s entire clientele pointing guns at them, they also see the picture of Wilson and Vanessa behind the bar. Weasel calls Deadpool and tells him that Ajax is going after Vanessa. Deadpool reluctantly goes to warn Vanessa at the strip club where she’s working (and where the DJ looks just like Stan Lee). However, his fear of approaching her makes him hesitate long enough for Ajax and Angel Dust to kidnap her before he can give the warning (and also inform her that he’s still alive).

Deadpool, Weasel, and Blind Al gather up every gun they have (and then some), then Deadpool goes to the X-mansion to ask for Colossus and Negasonic to help him capture the guy they let get away. They ride in Dopinder’s cab for no compellingly good reason (seriously, Colossus flew the X-Men’s Blackbird to the highway earlier in the movie, why are they riding in a cab now?), and too late realize that they left the big bag o’ guns in the cab. (Deadpool tries calling Dopinder, but he gets in to an accident while fumbling for his phone and doesn’t answer.)

A big-ass fight ensues, with Angel Dust and Colossus beating the crap out of each other, Deadpool fighting Ajax while trying to rescue Vanessa, and Negasonic taking on the various thugs in Ajax’s employ.

Eventually, the good guys win. Ajax reveals that he can’t cure Deadpool, at which point Deadpool shoots him in the head, against Colossus’s wishes (and the act of shooting him in the head causes Colossus to throw up). Vanessa is furious at Deadpool for not telling her he was alive, but they wind up reconnecting by again comparing how awful their lives are. (He says he lives in a crackhouse with a dozen other people. She responds with, “You live in a house?”) She takes his mask off, only to find he’s wearing an improvised Hugh Jackman mask over his ruined face. She takes that off, and says that, after many many drinks, it’s a face she’d gladly sit on.

And they all lived happily ever after…

 

“You think Ryan Reynolds got this far on a superior acting method?”

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox

Back when I reviewed Mystery Men in this rewatch, I pointed out that 1999 was a bit too soon to do a parody/deconstruction of superhero films because the only such films that were in any way mainstream successes were those starring Batman and Superman. It wasn’t until X-Men’s success a year later that the modern renaissance of superhero films started. Parodies work best when they go after something established and popular, so a decade and a half after X-Men is a much better time to make some serious fun of it.

And hoo-hah does Deadpool make fun of it, from the fourth wall breaking (Deadpool asking, when they go to see Professor X, if it’s Stewart or McAvoy) to the digs at other superhero movies (Wilson requesting that his suit be neither green nor animated, Deadpool calling Angel Dust out on her superhero landing when she jumps down from the aircraft carrier). The jokes come fast and furious, some obvious, some subtle, some ridiculous, some clever, all hilarious. Reynolds makes the movie, as his usual smartass persona—which worked beautifully in Blade Trinity and which crashed and burned in Green Lantern—is 100% perfect here. His timing is impeccable, his delivery is letter-perfect, and the scripting helps him out by giving him actual funny things to say. (It’s unfortunate that the first truly kink-friendly superhero movie is the parody, but you take what you can get, I suppose.)

For all that, it’s also a decent, if simple, story, one that follows the basic superhero origin pattern, with the twist that Wilson doesn’t go on a journey to become more heroic, but instead goes on a journey that turns him into an even bigger psychopath. Up front, Deadpool is clear about the fact that he’s not a hero. Colossus even gives a speech about how little it actually takes to be a hero, but Deadpool interrupts it by shooting Ajax in the head. Heroism is not Deadpool’s thing, batshit crazy is, and he embraces it with both hands.

There’s not a bad performance in the movie, which helps immensely. T.J. Miller’s dorky deadpan keeps up beautifully with Reynolds’s rapid-fire snark, Leslie Uggams is superb as the too-old-to-give-much-of-a-shit Blind Al, Stefan Kapičić is hilariously earnest as Colossus, Brianna Hildebrand is stereotypically teenage (but nonetheless compelling) as Negasonic, and both Ed Skrein and Gina Carano are delightfully, unapologetically evil in their portrayals of Ajax and Angel Dust.

But the best performance here is Morena Baccarin, because she has so little to work with. Deadpool’s approach to Vanessa is to take a complicated comics character and reduce her to The Love Interest. She’s marginalized constantly, with Wilson sneaking out of the house to get his super-cure, and never going near her after he turns ugly, not thinking highly enough of her love for him that he thinks looking like the product of two desiccated avocados that rage-fucked will be enough for her to reject him. And then she’s kidnapped, because that’s really all they can think of to have her involved in the plot. Sigh.

Having said that, the early scenes of their courtship and the montage of their first year together are brilliant. Baccarin has often taken roles that are underwritten, underdeveloped, or poorly written and made silk purses out of those sow’s ears (Inara on Firefly, Lee Thompkins on Gotham, Anna in V), and she does so here, too. Vanessa is a delight, with Baccarin selling her craziness, her love for Wilson, her anguish at his cancer diagnosis, and her fury at his showing up out of nowhere after a year and after she’s been kidnapped.

After a decade and a half of movies that took the notion of superheroes seriously (even if they didn’t always take themselves seriously while doing so), the time was definitely right for a movie that totally made fun of the entire notion.

Mystery Men would’ve been so much more well received if it had come out after this…

 

Next week, we’ll look at the 2018 sequel, prosaically titled Deadpool 2. (Seriously, couldn’t they have at least called it Deadpool 2: The Quickening or Deadpool 2: Electric Boogaloo or Deadpool 2: The Wrath of Cable or something?????)

Keith R.A. DeCandido also recently took a look at Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy on this here site. You should buy all his books, because they’re awesome. The most recent is A Furnace Sealed, which you can read an excerpt from right here. Keith also discusses the novel on both John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” and Mary Robinette Kowal’s “My Favorite Bit.”

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