Deadpool is the latest superhero-with-a-twist story to find a marketable point of difference by positioning itself as an edgier alternative to standard-rate caped crusader movies.
The days when critics scoffed from on high about squeaky clean “underwear on the outside” characters feel, tragically, like they may be drawing to a close, shoo-shooed into nostalgia by contemporary stories that tend to be either bigger and meaner (The Dark Knight) or big and SFX-lathered (Avengers).
In recent years a ragtag of memorable crazies have emerged from the woodwork, swinging fists and talking jive. These include a wisecracking raccoon (Guardians of the Galaxy), a gung-ho 11-year-old girl (Kick-Ass) and a wrench-wielding buffoon (Super).
Played by Ryan Reynolds with spritely and exhaustingly self-deprecating spirit, Wade Wilson aka Deadpool is a cancer survivor whose sickness has been cured by a mad scientist type figure, Francis Freeman (Ed Skrein), who actually looks more like a Versace model. Freeman has built a cottage industry in transforming his patients into freaky super-soldiers.
The catch is that while Deadpool’s body can miraculously regenerate itself, rendering him virtually invincible and thus able to fisticuff foes until the cows come home, Reynolds’ beach bod good looks have mutated horribly. His face is disgustingly splotchy: it looks Freddy Krueger-esque, or how one might imagine an anthropomorphised third-degree-burnt scrotum.
This poses issues for his prospects with hot girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). So Deadpool – his name gleaned from a board on the wall of a dive bar, collating bets on which of its regulars will die – goes on a mission to track down Freeman and vent his spleen. This happens in much the same way Reynolds hunted another quack who saved him from cancer (ungrateful sod) in last year’s lacklustre body-switching action pic Self/Less.
Pre-treatment, Wilson is told “the one thing that never survives this place is a sense of humour”. This proves manifestly untrue.
Deadpool pogoes between jokes, the yappy anti-ihero firing off attempted zingers like a less effective, costume-clad Rodney Dangerfield. Some connect, most do not, but the sheer volume of them imbues the film with a spirited sense of humour that is both routinely amusing and clearly desperate to impress.
Most of the laughs come from dirty jokes; think masturbation gags involving white toy unicorns. And while Deadpool imparts a wearing-us-down-to-make-us-laugh psychological toll, it’s also refreshing to see a superhero movie that matches the bouncy and impertinent personality of its protagonist so closely to the personality of the film itself.
The opening credits inform us it was directed by “An Overpaid Tool”, stars “A Hot Chick”, features a “Gratuitous Cameo” and so forth. This is not a bad gag – at a push, a sort of lightweight counter to the magnificent opening sequence of 2009’s Watchmen, featuring visions of fallen superheroes matched to Dylan crooning about how the times, they are a-changing.
Both scenes are post-modern (acknowledging conventions) and both precursors to let-downs, in the sense they belong to films that gorge on the same kind of stereotypes they draw attention to them without a great amount of wit or innovation.
In Deadpool’s case a cheeky wink-wink intro is one thing; a genuinely fresh alternative to cookie-cutter content quite another. The casting of a hunk to play the hero and a hunk to play the villain is indicative of a film that wants to appear to take risks while not really taking any at all.
Probably the gutsiest director Tim Miller gets is laying out a scrambled non-linear narrative. The story jumps here and there, as if victim to vagaries of the protagonist’s memory and mind frame.
This execution is playfully performed – undoubtedly sassy at times – but also halts the plot’s momentum. However this proves no biggie given where the story ultimately ends: in antiquated damsel-in-distress mode, another reminder this is old-hat material dressed up with a fresh lick of paint.
For a better example of the kind of film Miller probably intended to make – or one that more faithfully fits how Deadpool is being marketed – rustle up a copy of the under-watched 2010 gem Super (by James Gunn, who directed Guardians of the Galaxy).
Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page star in a giddily entertaining film that blurs the line between mental illness and heroism, and walks a tightrope between being pared-back and over-the-top. It is also, unlike Deadpool, genuinely subversive.