All decent, right-thinking people love action movies with a high body count. But few movies pack the combination of insane violence and ludicrous self-mockery that you’ll find in Deadpool, in theaters today. This is a celebration of slaughter that gets so silly, it actually feels sort of joyful. Vague spoilers ahead!
Deadpool is the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of the beloved Marvel comic book about a psychopath with a scarred face. Wade Wilson gets a very special therapy for his cancer, which activates mutant healing abilities but leaves him looking maybe unfit for polite company. So he dresses in a red suit (that looks a bit like Spider-Man and a bit like the world’s least stealthy ninja) and goes around killing everyone who gets in his way.
And because Wade Wilson is so unglued, he has a tendency to break the fourth wall and talk to the audience—and he knows he’s a fictional character. This hyper-awareness of his own fictionality makes him the perfect icon for our new age of mash-ups, remixes, fanfic and absurd crossovers, because Deadpool is already semi-detached from his own fictional milieu and can easily stomp through any situation with the same cartoony fuck-it attitude. Deadpool is hyper-aware and does not give a shit, and he cannot be permanently hurt.
The actual plot of the new Deadpool movie is more or less a conventional superhero origin story. But star Ryan Reynolds keeps the demented commentary and ridiculous gags coming, which is enough to turn pretty much everything sideways. The point of the movie is not really the plot, such as it is, but the character. His white pupil-less eyes widening and narrowing in response to the action. His constant riffing. The acrobatic leaping and spinning as he takes out everyone around him.
And really, what makes this movie so watchable and fun is the intense ultra-violence, coupled with the ever-present lampooning voiceover and wacky sight gags. Deadpool makes extensive use of slow-mo and CG-enhanced action—like, at one point, Deadpool realizes he only has twelve bullets left, so each bullet has to count, and we see the bullets fly through the air with little numbers on them. This is nothing new: Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted did similar stuff, for example with the scene where James McAvoy smacks somone with a computer keyboard, and we see teeth and letter keys floating through the air. In fact, Deadpool owes a huge debt to Wanted, which was a relatively new movie when Deadpool was first being developed. (See also: Scott Pilgrim, Sin City, etc. etc.)
The main difference is that Deadpool goes way more over-the-top with its humor, including meta jokes about the character’s terrible previous appearance in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Plus some formally inventive gags, like one weird sex-montage and a lot of Wham!. And some cute uses of old-school hip-hop.
And when we go into a slow-mo scene where all the action is paused and turned into stylized bits, it’s usually to make room for some manic jokes and riffs from Reynolds. The combination of the slowed-down graphics and stunts and the hyperactive commentary does feel pretty new, and Reynolds sells it. The overall effect is one in which the dismembering, head-splatting action is almost like a gateway to a realm where the grip of time loosens and you can live inside a moment, making as many jokes as you want before everything goes boom. By breaking the fourth wall and simultaneously creating bullet-timey death stunts, Deadpool is both the instigator of mayhem and yet also outside the action. And the whole thing just feels even more chaotic as a result.
Meanwhile, Deadpool is sort of a meta commentary on superheroes and fan culture, and on how artificial the whole business is, including the masks and costumes but also the moral code. Deadpool doesn’t wear a mask to hide his identity but just to cover up his scarred mug, and meanwhile some of the movie’s funnier moments include his collision with a couple of members of the goody-goody X-Men, the strait-laced Colossus and the grouchy Negasonic Teenage Warhead. But meanwhile, the movie also gets in a lot of digs at our relationship with pop culture in general, and all the weird stuff we take sorta-seriously.
In fact, I feel like one reason why critics have embraced Deadpool so much is because it seems to speak to our superhero fatigue. Even though this is a totally conventional superhero movie in a lot of ways, it also invites you to giggle at the total self-seriousness and wackness of the genre as a whole. And if you’re someone who feels like the ascendancy of superheroes on TV and at the movies has gotten kind of overwhelming, then it’s probably refreshing to see a film in the X-Men universe, from a major studio, that mocks that trend. (Very mildly, a teeny bit.)
Basically, they pulled it off. They put Deadpool, the most notoriously anarchic and messed-up character, on the big screen, and preserved the core of who he is. Ryan Reynolds absolutely owns the role. That said, my main feeling as I walked out of Deadpool was that I really wanted to see Deadpool 2, because this movie feels very much like a proof of concept, which earns everybody involved the right to do something more ambitious the next time around.
And meanwhile, speaking of things Reynolds totally makes work, the running flashbacks to Wade Wilson’s life before the red suit, and his relationship with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) are actually super-charming and fun, and help to balance out the ultraviolent zaniness of the present-day sequences.
That said, Deadpool’s third act falls a little flat—maybe in part because they slashed the budget at the last minute. The action is pretty amazing up until the final sequence, and then it’s just sort of fun. Also, now that we’ve seen Kick-Ass, Kingsman and some of the other movies I mentioned earlier, this movie doesn’t feel quite as revolutionary as it might have back in 2010. (And Kingsman is generally a better example of this type of movie, even if Deadpool is funnier.)
But that doesn’t change the fact that Deadpool is a super-fun movie in which extreme violence combines with extreme meta to create a kind of insanity that I’ve never quite seen on the big screen before. There’s nothing better than crazy mayhem -- except, it turns out, crazy-as-fuck mayhem mixed with weird-as-hell self-referential comedy. Fuck yeah.