Deadpool [2016]

Robbie Collins made the observation that studios were going to look at the “out of nowhere” success of Deadpool and engage in an intensive period of dissection and vivisection trying to understand how to make another one. There’s going to be a lengthy series of executive meetings where people in suits will sit around asking “was it the swearing?” “was it the full-frontal nudity?” “was it the jokes?” “was it the fourth wall, or the sixteenth?” I hope they’ll at least get it into the right ballpark, which is that this was a film aimed more-or-less at adults rather than children – but beyond that, I sense an impending wave of pseudo-clones that just aren’t as good. All I can do, with spoilers, is tell you what I thought worked well and before we get into it, we need a disclaimer – I loved this movie. It was frickin’ genius – I saw it twice in the cinema, joining only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Django Unchained in that exclusive club. If you want to know whether it’s good, it is. If you want a spoilertastic suggestion about why and how, carry on.

deadpool-costume

The basic chassis for most super-hero stories is pretty similar: something extreme happens to a berk and he manifests super-powers which are o-for-awesome. In a parallel and unrelated series of terrifying coincidences, some or other super-villain emerges who needs to have an End Put To Them – usually by some kind of hero-assisted suicide. Raimi’s Spider-Man is my favourite of these, where Peter Parker and Norman Osborne are on parallel routes to post-humanity. The original Donner Superman is amongst my least favourite, alongside Man Of Steel, because it’s basically a shaggy dog story – “I told you that story, so I could tell you this one”. The original Fantastic Four [2005] tried to work around this by making the emergence of the villain simultaneous with the emergence of the heroes – basically just wanting to make it seem like less of a coincidence. It’s why the second film in a franchise is usually better, all that rubbish is out of the way (X-men compared to X2, or The First Avenger compared to The Winter Soldier). I don’t think you’d be out of line to point at The Force Awakens and make similar noises.

In that regard, Deadpool is more of the same, but whereas other films effectively concatenate two otherwise unconnected stories and it sometimes works out because humans inherently like patterns. Deadpool is one of the few superhero films that successfully integrates the origin story and the ancillary story where the hero gets to be the hero. There is a certain continuity of action and engagement that allows the film to actually develop a coherent character concept throughout. The main benefit of this continuity is that it makes the central conflict far more engaging than is merited by the somewhat boilerplate villain. Marvel and its derivatives have, in general, had relatively weak villains whose schemes are simply an arbitrary foil for showcasing the heroes, and “Ajax” [Ed Skrein] is not much of a deviation from that, his “Angel” [Taylor Hickson] even less so. In addition, the staging of the final conflict could hardly be more contrived and trivial, one of the worst plans for revenge of any super villain ever, but because it’s of a single piece with what comes before we don’t care.

Of course, the action isn’t precisely one continuum of activity – it is bifurcated by the before/after dichotomy of the classic becoming-a-superhero singularity. Wade becomes Deadpool, and this is a kind of schism in the fabric of the story. However, the component pieces of the pre-superhero story play an important role, such as the photograph of the happy couple providing the attack vector the villain needs to find Wade. More importantly, this recycling of story components across the singularity means that the scope and scale of the drama is limited to basically human components. The world is not at stake – only Wade’s human connections are.  This evades the all-too-common problem in most films of an interminable and incomprehensible scale of conflict, where it doesn’t much matter who’s doing what. Obviously the worst example of this in modern superhero films is the fight between “Superman” and Zod, which felt like an endless tedious eternity of buildings smashing – we have a supposed planetary-scale conflict scaled down into the destruction of one city by the prodigiously up-scaled pair of men. I want my time and my money back.

To assist in making the film feel like a continuum, the film has used the classic strategy in media res and liberal use of flashbacks. This helps to create some near-symmetries which are not in the linear events depicted. We open with a fight, we close with a fight – so the two ends of the film where modern audiences are accustomed to seeing action are adequately catered. We see the development of the love story and the monstrous transformation of Wilson into Deadpool intercut with unfolding action so that the pace never feels slothful as it would if the order were linear. This simple technique helps obfuscate the very simple narrative arc, and it’s a bit shameful that a lot of critics have slyly pointed that out without acknowledging the hard work that went into concealing it – as if that were a fault they had cleverly noticed. Ultimately Deadpool as a film still needs to introduce a new character and their powers, and the utterly worn-out linearity of, say, Batman Begins has been given fresh life by the use of this representational device.

The result of all these strategies is that the film has something like an Aristotelian Unity of Action, with a fairly low quotient of exposition as such – most of Wade’s dialogue is narration of action unfolding in front of the audience rather than explaining what’s going on. The only substantial exposition is Francis explaining to Wade how the serum for super powers works, but the rest of the world simply is. Who is Francis selling weapons to? Doesn’t matter – it’s a character scene to try and breathe life into the poor guy and it’s not wildly successful, but I think most other films of late would have tried to tie it in, or explain his organisation’s power structure, or blah blah blah that nobody cares about. The film can do this in part because it takes place in a well-known context. What’s less obvious is that this is also the basis of much of the film’s humour – exposition kills any joke stone dead. If you’re going to have a wise-cracking character, Deadpool, continually making references to the non-fictional world and you trust your audience to go along, any substantial exposition has to be cut. The film is funny at least partially because it doesn’t explain. It’s funny because structurally it assumes we’re in on it – it’s collaborating with the audience.

I hope when various studio people are trying to vivisect this film to find out how to make more of the same (and more of the same money), they recognise that the thing which works best about this film is that it trusts its audience. It plays with structure and presentation, but it retains the things which basically work and are reliably proven to work. Some critics have said this film isn’t unconventional enough, but I think if someone wanted to make a truly off-the-wall experimental Superhero film, they need to go further than pick a smart-alec character with dubious morals. It is in fact the very familiar basis of Wilson as the central amoral figure of the Revenger which allows the audience to instantly understand and sympathise with the character, and it is the essential unity of action that allows the audience to completely understand all the action as it unfolds. There are truly great films which throw all the rules to the wind, but I think most of the cannon of great films in our culture know how to use those rules in an interesting way rather than reinvent the nature of drama.

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