For 2016 I’ve given myself a weekly challenge: watch a film that I’ve never seen before. That’s it. One film, each week. No restrictions on age, genre, or theme.
PLEASE BE AWARE THAT MY DISCUSSION OF THESE FILMS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.
TL;DR: Guardians of the Galaxy is still the best un-self-serious Marvel movie.
Deadpool makes a mockery of everything superhero comics is about, and we love him for it. He’s perhaps an inevitable result of the neon-colored, ultraviolent storylines of the 1990s, when everybody wanted huge muscles and elastic women, but a lot of longtime readers were vaguely embarrassed about it. Superheroes had been lifting cars and punching bad guys for sixty years, and the tropes were ripe for sarcastic picking. And so Rob Liefeld (who, I would like to point out, is largely responsible for the artistic excesses of that decade) created a motormouthed, metatextual mercenary who made comics oldbies feel better about their taste for the “adult.”
And now it’s 2016, and superhero films are mainstream enough that Fox actually made a big-budget, R-rated film about Wade Wilson, Superhero Send-up. What a time to be alive.
Ryan Reynolds is meant to play the rogue, and the most enjoyable part of the movie is watching him pinball through Deadpool’s attention-deficit emotional spectrum: after shooting two extra bullets into a villain who’s already down, he scolds and then immediately soothes himself (“Stupid! …Worth it.”) The movie’s also unafraid to dive deep into comic-book mythology; Deadpool’s supporting cast, who don’t even make the Marvel D-list, all make appearances, along with a truly obscure X-Man (not even the most devoted superhero fan can keep track of all the X-Men).
But there’s something missing, something that I can’t quite put my finger on. In part, I think Deadpool functions better on the comics page than on screen. Superhero comics have an even stricter set of tropes than superhero films do, down to the way narration is depicted within the art, and that turns even small tweaks into in-jokes. On the flip side, comics have greater freedom than tentpole films to dive into the absurd, because there’s not nearly as much money riding on each series. (This is my favorite Deadpool cover of all time, because it’s a glorious mash-up of high and low art, and it’s also what comedy writers call a “one-percent joke”: only a small percentage of your audience will get it, but it’ll be absolutely hilarious to the ones that do. It rewards their intelligence. It keeps them coming back.)
Deadpool the Film didn’t feel like a one-percent joke to me. It’s too afraid to truly subvert the tropes that built the superhero empire. Deadpool and his love interest, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), have real chemistry, but she’s a stripper, and not out of any narrative desire to humanize sex workers. Wade meets her, beds her, (nearly) weds her, leaves her, and wins her back in pretty much the same way Peter Parker would, if Peter Parker were allowed to make naughty jokes. (Cue the self-loathing!) And our famously flirtatious protagonist is still sexually hogtied, and not in a kinky way. (One of Deadpool’s greatest assets as a character is that he bulldozes stoic, queerphobic masculinity in a world that’s still very much behind the times in its depiction of romantic relationships.)
Perhaps I’m nitpicking, but I can’t shake the feeling that this film could have been so much better, that “heart-tugging” and “self-referential” are not mutually exclusive. I return, again and again, to Guardians of the Galaxy, to the scene where the Guardians truly become a team. Peter Quill gives a stumbling but dramatic speech, and one by one the others get to their feet to show their support. Rocket Raccoon, always the bristly one, is the last to rise. “Now we’re aaaaaall standin’,” he grumbles. “Buncha jackasses, standin’ in a circle.” He may mock the literal meaninglessness of the gesture – but he’s standing, isn’t he? Buncha jackasses, rising to the occasion.
Guardians of the Galaxy did have one crucial advantage over Deadpool: the Guardians don’t have the same kind of talismanic quality among comics fans that Deadpool does. They’re niche in a niche industry. When the film was announced, no one knew what to make of Peter Quill and company. Deadpool comes with the burden of expectations.
We did get the Deadpool film that no one would have dreamed of five years ago, and maybe the movie’s success will convince Fox to push the boundaries further with the inevitable sequel. But I’m not sure it will matter unless the filmmakers commit to surprising us with something beyond an R rating.