Tuesday, February 16, 2016

DEADPOOL, Improbably, Does Right By the Cult Comic Book Character


- And here we are: after a monster four-day President's Day weekend, DEADPOOL has shocked the world and become the highest grossing R-rated film ever. How did we get here? How did we get to a place where a cult comic book here outgrosses Marvel and DC's biggest big guns? Let's set the stage a bit ...

What's amazing to me is how superheroes at the movies have drawn inspiration from so many different eras of comic books - it must be confusing to the casual observer. In comics, the bright, optimistic sci-fi and adventure of the 60's gave way to darker and more real-world-based stories in the 70's. That evolution continued into the 80's, even as titans like Frank Miller and Alan Moore penned gritty deconstructions of iconic characters. This begat the "extreme" stories and characters of the 90's, which in turn led to the creation of characters like Deadpool. Deadpool poked fun at the absurdities of the era with a fourth-wall-breaking sense of self-awareness in the style of classic Looney Tunes characters. He was Marvel Comics' Bugs Bunny - except with guns and swords and a costume that blended Spiderman with DC's Deathstroke. When comic book pandering to the 90's audience became too much, Deadpool (and Lobo, and several others) were there to skewer it all.

Superhero movies, meanwhile, have taken inspiration from various comic book eras and put decades of comic book evolution into a pop-culture blender. Deadpool is itself an extension of FOX's X-Men movies, which in the early 00's ushered in the modern era of big-screen superheroes by downplaying the comics' more colorful aspects - giving us black leather-clad heroes from a studio seemingly semi-ashamed of its franchise's comic book roots. Shortly thereafter, Warner and DC rebooted the Batman movies under Chris Nolan as epic action/dramas - dark and deadly serious - to much critical acclaim. But then the Marvel Studios movies came along, and serving as a rebuke of the monochromatic superhero movies that had then become the norm. Culminating with the live-action-comic-book-spectacle that was The Avengers, Marvel presented a clear alternative to both FOX's dark X-movies and Warner's even darker Bat-films. And that's where we're at today - Marvel is a juggernaut - a money-printing part of the Disney IP empire that has created the definitive cinematic brand at the box office today. So why is *now* the right time for DEADPOOL? I think superhero movies are now ingrained enough into the pop-culture collective that they are ripe to be skewered. The fanboys that Deadpool spoke to in the comics - well, we are now all those fanboys/girls. And we've now seen enough variations on the superhero origin-story movie that *that* story in particular is ripe to be skewered. And Marvel, in particular, has become enough of a "machine" that the time is, I think, right, for a character that is self-aware and can make fun of that machine a bit. If Iron Man was the birth of the new era of superhero movies, then we're now in that era's snotty teenage years. And if that's the case, then you had better believe that DEADPOOL is the hero that is the living embodiment of the superhero movie's adolescent years. The superhero movie is now in its bratty teenage phase, people.

I mean, hey - I was a teenager in the 90's. And I liked my superhero comics then like the studios like their superhero movies now - either way too self-serious and dark (hello, Batman v Superman) or semi-rebellious and funny and maybe just a little bit extreme (or X-TREEEEME, as we would have said circa 1997). So strap in to your time machine, because it's the 90's all over again. The old is new again, and we live in a weird era in which pop-culture is reflecting back on itself in a funhouse mirror version of the history of the comics that inspired them.

As many have pointed out ... the studios will likely take the wrong lessons from DEADPOOL. Expect plenty of X-TREEEEME superhero movies in the near future, for example. But this should not be the takeaway here. Instead, we should recognize that different characters demand different approaches, and that there's not a one-size-fits-all take that is a guarantee of success. All one needs to do is look at FOX's epic fails with the Fantastic Four franchise to see that straying too far from the core of what makes characters beloved is, in fact, a recipe for failure. The simple genius of DEADPOOL is that it is exactly what Deadpool fans want out of a Deadpool movie. The movie delivers on expectation. And the fact that a real-deal Deadpool movie seemed so unlikely in the current climate of corporate superhero franchises makes its authenticity all the sweeter.

So yes, DEADPOOL is - surprise! - a Deadpool movie, down to the last detail. The costume is 100% comic-book accurate. There's the same exact sort of R-rated Looney Tunes violence, meta-humor, 100-mph quips, and self-referential humor you'd expect from a Deadpool comic. Clearly, director Tim Miller - and everyone else involved in the film - were passionate about the character and wanted to nail the movie's vibe, to keep it authentic. And FOX, apparently, thought they had nothing to lose by letting them go for broke. Thank the lord for that.

Ryan Reynolds has had a rough go of it as an action movie leading man. He first became known for his comedic chops, and there's something about the guy that makes him a little hard to buy as a humorless straight man. We want to see Reynolds snark his way through a fight, not grimace and scowl. That sort of casting mismatch made him a terrible fit to play straight-arrow Hal Jordan in the Green Lantern movie. But it makes him a perfect Deadpool. Reynolds was born to play the wise-cracking, smart-alecky, no-filter antihero that is Wade Wilson. And he's great here. It's the most I remember enjoying a Ryan Reynolds performance since ... ever.

This really is the Ryan Reynolds show. But he's helped by a supporting cast that is across-the-board really good. Morena Baccarin often plays distant or angst-y characters, but here she gets to cut loose as Wade's punk-rock girlfriend Vanessa. She makes Vanessa a lot more memorable (and, um, adventurous ...) than your average superhero-movie significant other. And somehow, she makes you really root for Wade and Vanessa as a couple. Despite the movie's irreverent tone, there is a level of sincerity to their romance that works. Similarly, there's a lived-in quality to the friendship of Wade and TJ Miller's Weasel that also works well. You can argue that you don't need a comic relief character in a movie where the main character is already comic relief - but Miller is so naturally funny and sharp that he adds a lot to the film. Meanwhile, Ed Skrein's villainous Ajax is sort of a cookie-cutter adversary in some ways - but Skrein is so seethingly vile and easy-to-root-against that he really elevates the role.

Plus ... DEADPOOL has Colossus. Like, a Colossus who looks like the spitting image of the dude from the X-Men comics and cartoons and videogames. In the old X-Men movies, a somewhat cartoonish-looking character like Colossus was suitable only for quick cameos that downplayed his over-the-top, hulked-out look. But this is a new era of crazy, and DEADPOOL wholly embraces the awesomeness and goofiness of the Colossus we know and love. So yes, this CGI'ed Colossus, endearingly voiced by Yevgeniy Kartashov, feels like he came from some long-lost crazy and colorful X-Men movie that we never got but always wanted. Plus, he makes an awesome pair with Brianna Hildebrand's Negasonic Teenage Warhead (yep, you read that right). Warhead - sporting a classic black-and-yellow X-outfit - is a sullen teen girl whose unlikely kid-sister relationship with Colossus, and occasionally-explosive rivalry with Deadpool, make her an instant favorite.

DEADPOOL moves along at an ultra-quick pace, with kinetic action that brings satisfyingly visceral superhero fights to life. Even if the scale of DEADPOOL is a bit smaller than the X-Men or Avengers movies, it doesn't skimp at all on action - and it's got some of the craziest fight scenes you'll find this side of John Woo. Plus, the gore factor gives everything a shock-value not seen in most other superhero movies. Combine that with the fact that Deadpool is less bound by the laws of physics than his superhero contemporaries, and you've got a movie where the action has the free-flowing thrill of a cartoon or videogame.

So is DEADPOOL actually the best thing since sliced bread, as its $100+ million weekend box office might lead you to believe? Well, I wouldn't quite go that far. Get past the sex and violence and meta-humor, and the movie, at its core, is actually a pretty conventional superhero origin story. Wade Wilson is still, at the end of the day, an antihero in the mold of a Punisher or Crow or whoever, who is out for revenge on the scumbags who done him wrong. And the plot of the film is pretty much that - revenge - without much in the way of added layers. Not only that, but it's one that's told with a sorta-convoluted flashback-within-flashback structure that makes the main, present-day action feel oddly truncated.

The other knock against the movie is that it's funny, but, well,  not *that* funny. A lot of the jokes are pretty low-hanging-fruit bro humor - quick meta-references of the Family Guy variety and warmed-over rap-battle insults. This has always been the Deadpool aesthetic, so no surprise. It's just - as funny as the movie is, it could have been a lot funnier with better jokes. That said, there are moments of genuine cleverness. And even when jokes are not-so-clever, Reynold's rapid-fire delivery helps them land better than they might have in less-capable hands. What keeps DEADPOOL a cut above though is that its got smarts and passion to balance out the parts that fall flat. It's smart enough to add depth to the characters beyond just being walking one-liner delivery machines. And it's passionate enough about them to get all the details right. Even though not every joke lands, the sum here is in many ways greater than the parts. Because the overall *vibe* - the lasting impression here - is one of fun and genuine affection for the subversive and winking world of Deadpool.

For us longtime comic fans, DEADPOOL represents the self-effacing meta superhero finally getting the big-screen treatment (okay, other movies like Kick-Ass have tread some similar ground, but this one is a MARVEL character - worlds within worlds, baby). For many others - kids and teens just cutting their teeth on the whole superhero thing - this one will be an eye-opening (in more ways than one!) look at how superheroes can be more than just whitebread tales of good vs. evil. Again, we've seen all of this before - and will again - from Kick-Ass to The Tick - but DEADPOOL feels like a gleefully insane sanity-check in a world that is starting to feel a bit *too* dominated by the action-figure and themepark ride-ready aesthetic of the Disney/Marvel superhero machine. For that reason, DEADPOOL opportunistically feels like a breath of fresh air.

But again ... the basic success story here lies in the fact that Tim Miller and Ryan Reynolds brought to life a fun, beloved cult comic book character in a way that does right by that character and his fans. It's a crazy-fun movie - an exciting and timely counterpoint to the other big superhero franchise movies of the moment that have become the new normal. Well, that new-normal now includes the sword-wielding, fourth-wall-breaking Merc With a Mouth - who has now crossed over from cult icon to mainstream smash. Guess we had all better get used to it.

My Grade: B+

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