Every year or so there seems to be a Ryan Reynolds vehicle waiting to test my resolve to stop trying to fall in love with the dude’s work. Last year it was the horror comedy The Voices, which pulled me in with an amusing premise & a candy-coated color palette only to waste it all on Reynolds’ unlovable smugness. This year Deadpool fits the bill. I was once again fooled that this was the Ryan Reynolds vehicle for me, because this time there was a Ryan Reynolds vehicle for everyone. Hell, I could even repeat my opening screed from my review of The Voices to cover a lot of how I felt watching Deadpool in the theater: “Comedy is risky. If you fail to connect with your audience the time you spend together can be brutal. Just ask any stand-up who’s bombed a set. That disconnect between audience & performer can be even more punishing if the material is aggressive.” Deadpool is both aggressive & aggressively unfunny. It’s making tons of money & most of the people in the theater where I watched it were howling at every gag, so there’s certainly an audience for what it’s selling, but I was left stone cold. Reynolds can play a perfectly good cad when you’re not supposed to like him (as with his turns in Adventureland & Waiting), but I find his shtick much harder to stomach when you’re supposed to cheer for his assholery. I’m still having a difficult time buying him as a leading man and an anti-hero.
Deadpool is, more or less, the Family Guy of superhero media. It’s a crass, hopelessly juvenile comedy that believes “adult content” means decades-old pop culture references & an onslaught of abrasive language. The thing is that a lot of people really like Family Guy & I’m not one to begrudge anyone from enjoying themselves at the movies, so I’m honestly glad the film has found a satisfied audience. For me, though, the pop culture-referencing, Gen-X snark that that properties like Deadpool & Family Guy seem determined to keep alive feels hopelessly outdated, a relic of the 90s. Watching the MCU films for the first time with Boomer for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. recaps, I’ve noticed that the earnest side of the superhero spectrum is what plays much more fresh & endearing in a modern context. Properties like Thor & Captain America (especially Captain America) are much more readily enjoyable to me than the bloated ego snark of properties like Iron Man (speaking of films that made tons of money & did nothing for me). Deadpool is firmly on that snarky, self-satisfied Iron Man end of the spectrum, always willing to poke fun at itself or detract from its run-of-the-mill Origin Story Formula by tossing out a name like Bernadette Peters or Wham! as if its detached irreverence was more of a game-changer than it would be to actually try a new idea in earnest. At the very least it could’ve gone further in the irreverent direction & functioned as a full-blown ZAZ-style spoof of superhero conventions instead of trying to have it both ways all while appearing not to genuinely care about anything at all (à la Seth MacFarlane). Deadpool is willing to wholeheartedly participate in the most generic tropes of its genre, but it wants you to know the entire time that it’s totally above it all & doesn’t give a shit. It’s not an endearing attitude.
From what I gather from comic book aficionados (both friends & internet commenters who’ve been viciously picking at the small list of critics who’ve dared to give this film a negative review), it’s the exact qualities I loathed about this film that made Ryan Reynolds & Deadpool as a character such a perfect match. From the outside looking in I have no reason to disagree with that idea. Deadpool’s 4th wall-breaking, winking at the camera, “Ain’t I a stinker?” meta snark is custom made for a comedy style Ryan Reynolds has been perfecting since the late-90s. In effect, both Deadpool & Ryan Reynolds have been working in the realm of Gen-X sardonic humor since it was actually in its heyday two decades ago. The movie wastes no time in setting that tone either. The opening scroll forgoes telling you who actually worked on the film to include credits for “A Hot Chick”, “A CGI Character”, “A British Villain”, “A Gratuitous Cameo”, etc. One of Deadpool’s first memorable lines is “I know, right? Whose balls did I have to fondle to get my own movie?” It’s pretty much a steady course from there. There’s a nonstop onslaught of “witty” jokes about death, poop, genitals, sexual orientation, babes with bangin’ bods, and things going up dudes’ butts (including a pegging gag that threatened to be playfully progressive for a half-second before falling back in line with the film’s bro-pleasing sensibilities) that eats up the film’s runtime, just barely distracting you from the fact that you’re watching yet another by-the-numbers superhero origin story. Personally, the biggest laugh I got out of the film is when the “British Villain” asked Mr. Pool, “You’re so relentlessly annoying. Why don’t you do us all a favor & shut the fuck up?” but those more in tune with Deadpool & Reynolds as personalities are a lot more likely to find humor that lands. Jokes are certainly in no short supply, since the film has zero interest in taking anything seriously (except maybe in a couple ten minute stretches when it pretends to be a cancer drama or a romance of the ages).
As much as the humor failed to connect with me, I did appreciate the way Deadpool staged its action sequences. Deadpool himself has a cool look to him, especially the way he totes both guns and swords into battle & it’s nice to watch a superhero film where the protagonist actually keeps his mask on for most of the runtime (especially since it saved me from Reynold’s eternally smug grin in this case). While I found most of its “adult” humor about as charming as Ben Kingsley’s potty mouth brute in Sexy Beast, the film’s R-rating worked wonders for its gore. The decapitations & blood-soaked torture upped the stakes to grindhouse horror levels that I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing in a more worthy superhero property. The rating also made room for a lot of naked Ryan Reynolds footage, which I know is sure to please plenty of folks who like to treat him as what Liz Lemon would describe a “sex idiot.” It was also cool to see X-Men characters Colossus & Negasonic Teenage Warhead in action if not only because X-Men is one of the few superhero comics I’m actually familiar with. Even the bloody, well-choreographed action sequences can be botched in their own way, though. Particularly, the opening sequence involving a fight-to-the-death on a freeway is really fun to watch, but is broken into frustratingly small pieces by elongated flashbacks that create a dual timeline structure, making the film feel like an incoherent mess on top of being painfully unfunny. The main goal of Deadpool is sarcastic humor & the genuinely awesome action sequences are often swept aside to serve that purpose, probably because they feel too sincere to fit the character’s M.O.
Like I said, I was never the target audience for Deadpool. I gave it an honest shot, but it was just never meant to be. The film never really tries to win over an outside audience, either, which I’d count as a huge positive. I didn’t need to be included here for the film to be successful. There’s a specific brand of mainline Nerd Culture™ that I always fail to connect with and although the definitions of what falls under that umbrella are intangible, Deadpool is firmly Nerd Culture™-friendly in a way that feels authentic even when it’s not funny or enjoyable or especially well-made. It’d be difficult to boil the film’s Nerd™ aesthetic down to a specific image or two, but I can at least point to its insistence that the meme-ification of unicorns & Ugly Christmas Sweaters is still verifiable as comedy gold. The thing is that unicorns & Ugly Christmas Sweaters are the exact kind of quirk you’d find crawling all over Facebook timelines or Target store fashion racks, so they’re not nearly as “weird” or “subversive” as Nerds™ believe them to be. Deadpool is a film that broke all kinds of box-office records for an R-rated property’s opening weekend, so the Nerdy™ gatekeeping that usually accompanies products like this is more than a little silly considering how many people loved what the movie was selling. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing that this movie was a widely-loved Nerd Culture™ property that made tons of money (I just spent most of the last two months singing The Force Awakens’ praises after all). I just got the distinct feeling that I was on the outside looking in with this film, which is fine. There were a lot more people in on the joke than I expected and I’m glad they had a good time where I failed to.
Side note: One thing that struck me as odd about this film’s sense of humor is that it felt compelled to repeat minor jokes as if they were callbacks to gut-busting one-liners. Off the top of my head, there were references to unicorns, shit-stained pants, and Agent Smith from The Matrix that were repeated twice apiece with little to no effect or change in their second occurrence. If they had occurred more often they might’ve played like a running gag, but just hitting the same note twice felt awkward at best, hopelessly lazy at worst.