While Deadpool featuring actor Ryan Reynolds has hit big box-office numbers for a February release, it remains uncertain whether or not an R-rated Marvel franchise has much to offer movie-goers on a long-term basis.
Deadpool is Marvel’s experiment in producing a comic on the edge of sleaze. As pre-adolescent fans of Spidey, Hulk, Captain American and Iron Man grew older, the possibility opened up for Marvel to test out a raunchier super-hero who lived on the wrong side of the tracks. They kept their signature motif of alliterations with this new dude named Wade Wilson, but broke almost every other mold the publisher had established.
Clark Kent (Superman) was a WASP from the Midwest. Bruce Wayne (Batman) represented old money from the east. But the rest of Marvel’s heroic cast including Peter Parker (Spiderman), Dr. Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk), Steve Rogers (Captain America), where all from middle-class or privileged families.
Introduced in 1991, Wade Wilson was something entirely different. Marvel Universe Wiki says his father was “a teller of bad jokes,” who abandoned his family. His mother resorted to alcohol, humor and the shopping networks in order to cope. Wilson, with few prospects, went into the U.S. Army and joined a special ops task force. When he came out, he was damaged goods – unstable, jobless, wise-cracking and bitter.
The movie picks up from there. Wilson frequents low-life bars in a nameless city and falls in love with a woman who works at a strip club. But, just as he and his girl get engaged, he is diagnosed with cancer that quickly hits his lungs, brain and a few other vital organs.
Wilson decides to leave his fiance so she can remember him during the good times and ends up in the hands of a hustler who tells him he can cure his cancer at the expense of giving him super powers. Wilson takes him up on the offer, then ends up in a corrupt dungeon-like hospital that is really a torture chamber operated by a power-seeking mad scientist. This man can cure him, and does. But to do so, Wilson is given a serum, then tortured, which triggers a mutation response that leaves Wilson horribly disfigured (OK, that’s bad), but able to heal almost immediately from any injury (which is good).
Perhaps sensing that the audience needed a cheap reason to like this guy, Marvel made Deadpool out to be the star comic in its line up. This likely meant Marvel didn’t have the writing talent to back up this complicated character’s plot line, so they went for the easy out. It turned a potentially radical new hero into a vaudevillian clown. And this works sometimes, and falls flat just as often.
To pull this off on the big screen, 20th Century Fox and director Tim Miller turn to Reynolds to star as Deadpool, except for the point that it was Reynolds, according to many news stories, that lobbied hard for the film to be made. The key argument was that Reynolds believed he could pull off an R-rated Marvel movie. And box office numbers say that this is a big success – a film made for $58 million that has already earned several times that much.
But not so fast. Reynolds may well be just the narcissist to pull off the role of a red-suited, irreverent hero. After all, he made his mark in the movies as a master of narcissistic deadpan in teen-oriented romance comedies and has been struggling to find a grown-up character that can make use of this talent. Enter Deadpool – a movie with the tag line “Wait ’til you get a load of me.” In a post-opening interview, Reynolds is quoted as saying – with a beaming picture next to this – that “Wade Wilson is an alter-ego for me.”
That’s maybe too much “me.” In the film, Deadpool is a character who cannot stop with the jokes, proving in spades that your biggest strength is your biggest weakness. Yes, he can be funny (which is good), but enough with the damn jokes, already. This is a guy who tries to be funny while bad guy brains are being splattered across the screen in slow motion and while proposing to his fiance. There are jokes that land and jokes that don’t. After a while, however, it just looks narcissistic and desperate, especially when the script has him repeating jokes that weren’t even funny in a elementary school playground, where most of us first heard them.
Bottom line: From trailers I saw, I dreaded seeing Deadpool. However, I ended up enjoying the film far more than I thought I would. The idea that heroes aren’t always middle-class white folks reciting the U.S. Constitution and the Ten Commandments sounds far more interesting than I first assumed.
This is a hero who isn’t very noble, which means he will have to walk a fine line in future films between good, bad and indifferent. That could be worth pursuing. But leaning on the Reynolds/Deadpool’s comic touch? If that is his signature feature, look out; It also might be his Achilles heel.