Prior to this weekend’s opening—an opening that established a new record for motion pictures premiering in February (and, by the way, for R-rated movies as well)—only Marvel comics aficionados would have heard of the super-anti-hero “Deadpool.” After this weekend, everybody is going to know.
Deadpool, whose real name is Wade Wilson, first appeared in the Marvel publication The New Mutants in 1991, and was originally conceived of as a mutant super-villain. Since getting his own magazine in the late 90s, though, he has been more of an anti-hero. He is portrayed as physically disfigured and mentally unstable, and has enhanced physical prowess and the mutant ability to physically regenerate no matter how badly he is wounded—he can, for example, grow back a hand when he loses one. He is also characteristically verbose and has his writers in the Marvel comics world give him the tendency to “break the fourth wall” for humorous effect.
So take a sarcastic, foul-mouthed iconoclast who likes to hear himself talk and is enamored of his own cleverness and put him into a fairly conventional super-hero origin plot but also give him the tendency to speak directly to the audience when he feels like it—oh, and the knowledge that he is in fact a character in a movie, and you get Deadpool—the effect of which is something like watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 with a character in the movie itself making all the wisecracks. Ryan Reynolds, whose previous venture into superhero territory as DC’s Green Lantern was almost universally panned, finds a much more appropriate outlet for his snarky demeanor in the twisted Deadpool.
The story, told in a nonlinear manner with plenty of flashbacks, follows Wade Wilson, who in the present time is a manic mutant dressed in red spandex that looks like a cheap Spiderman knockoff. He wears a mask because his face is hideously deformed, and his monomaniacal goal is to find the man named Francis, whom he blames for his disfigurement and whom he believes can restore him to his original condition—if he beats him hard enough. In the midst of a violent battle, Deadpool incongruously tells the audience that this is a love story. Two years earlier, Wilson had been an ex-special ops soldier with 41 confirmed kills, who was now a vigilante hired to do bad things to people who are even worse than he is. Into this empty life comes another lost soul, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, best known from Showtime’s Homeland) who can match him wisecrack for wisecrack and raunchy remark for raunchy remark. The soulmates seem headed for happily-ever-after-land, until from out of nowhere Wade learns he is dying of cancer.
But he is approached by a strange messenger who offers him a chance for a cure—a cure that will also give him amazing powers. He leaves without telling Vanessa, and subjects himself to what turns out to be nonstop torture at the hands of the evil mutant Ajax (real name Francis, played by Ed Skrein). Apparently it is only through extreme stress that mutant genes can be brought into play. Ajax deliberately deforms Wade, making it impossible, he believes, to ever return to Vanessa, and he devotes his life to a manhunt to chase down Ajax/Francis and his right hand woman, Angel Dust (Gina Carano). In the background are the X-Men, represented by the giant metallic Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and the adolescent firebrand Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand)—whose name Deadpool really admires—who want to turn the antihero’s thoughts from vengeful to superhero-worthy, so that he can join the X-Men.
So far so good. It sounds like a fairly run-of-the mill superhero blockbuster movie. But from the very beginning, we know that we’re in a different kind of world this time. The opening credits suggest that this is not a superhero film that’s going to take itself very seriously. The credits tell us that the film is “directed by an overpaid tool” (it’s actually directed by Tim Miller in his directing debut) and that it was “written by the real heroes here” (who it turns out are screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick—who, of course, also wrote the credits). Between these three and Reynolds in the lead role, the film is a roller coaster ride of irreverence, subversion, and self-referential irony.
But it’s also more than that. It’s a spoof of a superhero movie that actually also works as a superhero movie. When Deadpool announces at the beginning that this is a love story he is actually, for once, totally serious. That’s exactly what it is. Deadpool’s quest is to get back to his beloved Vanessa, and nothing in the movie will make anybody think that it’s not worth the effort. Reynolds and Baccarin have convincing chemistry, and their relationship is the one thing in the film that does not seem to be a spoof. Indeed, there is a sincere poignancy in the disfigured Wade following his Vanessa but never daring to show her his grotesque face. It might be going too far to say that the film’s gallows humor is a deliberate buffer against the unthinkable—death and the loss of love. But there is a soft underbelly to this movie, which might give it an appeal to more than the usual comic book crowd.
And the bulk of that usual crowd—the teenaged part—is not going to be able to see this film in the theaters anyway (at least not legitimately), since it truly does deserve its R rating: it has the usual graphic violence, but there is also a good deal of nudity and sexuality, and some of the raunchiest language you’ll hear outside of a porno movie. On the other hand, the movie is hilarious, it has a protagonist who is appealing despite, or perhaps because of, his impudent arrogance. And it’s got a real love story that you care about, perhaps despite yourself. I’ll give this one three Tennyons. But trust me, you should believe the R rating.