Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a former mercenary, who’d intimidate and rough up individuals varying in their placement on the nastiness scale from a pimply Facebook stalker to hulks of sinew and grit that even Vladimir Putin would hesitate to face down. Faring somewhat successfully, Wade’s career is, however, cut short, not by a tough target or loss of limbs, but by the adroit escort Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), with whom he joins in amatory congress. This, too, is tragically forestalled: Wade is found to have cancer in an advanced stage, and, willing to take large risks to extend his allotted lifetime and spend it with Vanessa, elects to undergo an underground experimental regenerative mutation process to cure it. This is administered by Dr Ajax (Ed Skrein), and does the job, but also severely scars his entire body. For fear of how Vanessa would react to the sight of him, he never returns home, and leaves her to assume he has died. The film’s beginning finds him in furious pursuit of Ajax, anxious for his scars to be healed so that he may face her again.
From the opening seconds of the film – when the audience is introduced to cast members such as a “British villian” and the customary token “hot chick,” or crew members such as “ass-hats” (the producers) or an insufferable “tool” (the director) – audiences are informed that Deadpool is not conventional Marvel Comics fare, with their quasi-religious solemnity and partly mythical air of drama and grandeur that has absorbed so many of us these recent years. It derides the formulas and expectations typical of the superhero genre (while conscientiously fulfilling those expectations, in rather a neat little trick); it boasts of its daring and freshness in breaking Hollywood’s stifling boundaries (by introducing the first film protagonist in Hollywood history who swears, draws blood, and enjoys sex); it smacks of its self-congratulation for the innovative idea of breaking the fourth wall (which, it may have failed to notice, was done just the other day in a leading establishment production: a best picture nominee, no less); and, quite egregiously, it reneges on its promise of Hollywood’s first queer superhero.
Perhaps the cry for increased and accelerated transformation in studios has sounded muffled and confusing to those in charge, and it wasn’t understood that anyone would pay much attention to the manifestation of a lead character’s supposed pansexuality in a major blockbuster. Perhaps it was thought that when a man makes a joke about a dildo or forms a skittish connection between Wolverine’s abdominals and his own stiffened addenda, he’d be fulfilling suitable gay protocol. To be clear, when a character is presented as categorically masculine, and the only sexual prospect available to him is an unambiguously female woman (a night of strap-on experimentation aside – though not without noting that Wade was oddly squeamish about it for someone who stakes claims to broader horizons), and the closest he comes to even a cliched boarding-school-tryst is only one more lash of his tongue’s overly energetic whip, then that character is not gay. He isn’t exploratory nor is he open to the suggestions of those who are. Needless to say, such an individual may well be a good and proper deviant in real life, but the usual failures of a Hollywood director’s imagination firmly reject the possibility of any unexamined inner life in the character Deadpool.
This complaint, admittedly, falls outside of the realm of aesthetics, and is closer to movie politics, but it is a significant feature of the film to this particular viewer (to whom progress in Hollywood tentatively signals hope for progress elsewhere) and does, to my mind, serve as a marker for the actual aesthetic characteristics of Deadpool. A declared promise to “break boundaries” with the character resulted in the unintentionally yet comically exact compliance with those boundaries. When studio publicity managers propose that new ground is broken with the specific production they’re currently peddling, they mean that new jokes will be inserted into the script, and new stunts will be mapped onto the action sequences. It’s never meant that we’ll be exposed to new experiences or ideas, nor even really that we can expect a distinctive style from a bold young director. If we’re told that a character will dazzle us with the daring new tactic of a knowing referentiality, we needn’t expect allusive camera angles or borrowed literary names; only that he respond to an invitation to meet Professor X with the question: “McAvoy or Stewart?” When celebrities deign to inform us that we’re in for a character of fluid sexual persuasion, they mean to tell us that he’ll direct our attention to his tight buttocks in a tight suit.
Certainly, the entertainment quotient of Deadpool is entertaining indeed: the jokes are funny, the dramatic action is absorbing, and the romance is, at times, tender and convincing. But don’t be mistaken by the imaginative pretenses of the film; Marvel has not broken through any doors with this entry into their cannon. The decision, then, of what is signified by the increased archness of their output is left to viewers: either it’s a sign of growing maturity and playfulness, though still heavily constrained within the small globe of what executives and cultural systems will allow; or it’s a sign of growing cynicism, and disillusionment with the fantasies and artifice of movies. Either way, we’re stuck with it, and it’s all we can do to thank the few Hollywood insiders left who still keep the whole endeavour worthwhile.