March 18 2016 09:56 AM

Review: 'Deadpool' is witty, smart, not for faint of heart


FRIDAY, March 18 — I’ll answer the big question, the one that most of you are here for, first: “Should I see ‘Deadpool?’” Yes, definitely. Now for the trickier question, the one only some of you are here for: “Is Deadpool a good film?” Well … maybe.

“Deadpool,” the latest in what seems a never-ending stream of superhero films, tells the story of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a mercenary who, not long after getting engaged to the woman of his dreams, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), discovers he has terminal cancer. Wade is approached by a shady organization who promises to not only cure him, but grant him superpowers. He allows himself to be tortured and experimented on by said shady organization, but, unbeknownst to Wade, the organization’s goal is to turn him into a slave and sell him to the highest bidder as a super soldier.

His superpowers develop (he can heal rapidly and is essentially immortal, like Wolverine from the “X-Men” films) but it causes his skin to mutate as well, making him horrifically dis-figured and ugly. (I could quote how the film’s characters describe him, but it’s rather vulgar. More on that later.) From there, Wade dons the moniker “Deadpool,” sets out for revenge and — this being a somewhat traditional Hollywood superhero film — the rest you can figure out from there.

In terms of structure, that last part is what really holds the film back. While the main goal of the movie seems to be to provide some relatively transgressive entertainment, I couldn’t help walking away from the movie feeling like it was pretty formulaic. Or, at the very least, taking what’s been done before and adding a few twists.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To be fair, “Deadpool” has many virtues. The film is a laugh riot. Granted, its humor is pitch black and will likely cause some pearl clutching among more conservative viewers. (I’ll admit that my own sense of humor can be a bit twisted.) The action scenes are inventive and get the job done, even if they’re a little uninspired and too chaotic for their own good.

The cast is suitable, with Ryan Reynolds the obvious and necessary standout. The whole movie hinges on his performance, and he absolutely nails it. There’s a reason that Reynolds has been trying to get this film off the ground for 11 years; he clearly connects with the character and his ethos. It shows in his performance, and he completely makes the character his own, playing him with an impish glee and smart-ass machismo that suits him perfectly. It’s high praise for an actor when you can confidently say that they make their roles completely their own, when they seem so natural in the part that you can’t imagine anyone else in it. This more than applies to Reynolds as Deadpool.

There’s also plenty that distinguishes “Deadpool” from just about every other piece of superhero and comic book fiction. A lot that’s fresh, edgy, new, exciting, to use all those terms that movie makers, marketers, and critics will use to put your butt in a chair. For one thing, it definitely earns its R-rating. It’s vulgar and very violent. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino — or one of his imitators, which VFX designer-turned-director Tim Miller seems to be — directed “Spider-Man” or an “X-Men” origin story. And it kind of works, providing an interesting new spin on the genre. It’s a sort of “corrective” to the clean, sanitized violence and preachy moralizing of a “Captain America” or “Superman” film. But, like every other superhero film, the action sequences start to lose their luster and you become a bit numb as it starts to devolve into a mess of blood, gore and bullets.

There is something different about “Deadpool,” due to the extreme nature of its violence. As dark as every other superhero film can and has gotten, there is still something conservative in their approach, something that always reminds us that the good guys are, at the end of the day, unequivocally good and the action and spectacle depicted in the film is ultimately free of too much mess. Aside from a few destroyed cities, there’s no real human cost in most of these films. Nobody really gets hurt. Not so with “Deadpool,” because oh boy do people get hurt in this movie. And besides cameos by two lesser-known X-Men, there are no outright good guys in “Deadpool” either, a fact that Deadpool himself keeps reminding us. “I may be super, but I’m no hero,” and variations thereof keep popping up rather annoyingly throughout the film. We get it, you’re an anti-hero. This could potentially be a fascinating development in Hollywood entertainment, but it could just as easily be very troubling and problematic.

When it comes to the character of Deadpool, what’s unique about him isn’t that he’s got swords and guns or that he heals quickly or that he’s witty. There have been plenty of superheroes in the past who possess some combination of those traits. No, what makes Deadpool stand out, his real superpower, is that he knows he’s fictional, that he’s a self-aware comic book character and will often break the fourth wall to engage directly with the audience. This gives his comics and the film a self-referential quality, a post-modern twist. (There’s that Tarantino influence again.) There are several references to superhero films outside of “Deadpool,” referring to X-Men and the Avengers and pop culture more broadly.

The whole time, I felt like the film itself was sitting next to me in the theater, winking, nudging and asking, “Get it?” This sounds like a critique, but it’s not. In terms of comedy, these moments work quite well and made me chuckle. It’s nice to see a big blockbuster with some self-awareness, wit and irreverence — or at least, the appearance of it. Remember when I said it’s still a bit formulaic?

But then the film’s (possibly) broader point starts to emerge. Is the film’s self-awareness meant to show us something, to throw into our faces a rather uncomfortable truth about our cultural tastes and recent obsession with comic book films? Regardless of what you think of these films, and this isn’t to say they’re bad or you’re a terrible person if you enjoy them, there is something unsettlingly adolescent about their popularity. It’s like our whole culture has tapped into it’s inner impulsive, violent, hedonistic teenage boy. Is “Deadpool” simply taking this chain of thought, this desire for escapist and juvenile entertainment to it’s logical extreme by showing us what such mayhem would actually entail? As if to say, “This is what you apparently all want. Well, this is what it would look like! Does it look fun to you?” As entertaining as it is, there are several moments where its irreverence and extreme violence are downright uncomfortable, even sadistic. Is that discomfort intentional? Is the film’s real derision not targeted at other superhero films, but at us? Or does the discomfort come from the fact that the film is enjoying its own carnage and sophomoric humor a bit too much? If it’s the latter, you can see why I’d be a bit put off by the film.

Now, most people are probably thinking that I’m reading far too much into this. “It’s a superhero film! Stop overthinking it!” I agree, because at a certain point, “Deadpool” seems to do that itself, backing away just when it’s about to have a real breakthrough to avoid turning people off who came for nothing more than an entertaining action flick.

So, is “Deadpool” one or the other? It can’t be pure entertainment, because it’s far too smart for that. There is genuine wit to the film and some great, intelligent insight about our culture and this genre. But commercial demands (and the demand for pure spectacle) seem to keep it tamped down. There will be many people who won’t enjoy “Deadpool” because of its ultra-violence, its vulgarity and its sexual content. They’ll be offended because it goes too far. Me? I’m offended because it didn’t go far enough.

Eric Bayley was born in Lansing and raised in Grand Ledge. A recent graduate of Michigan State University, he holds a degree in English with a minor in film studies. He has loved movies all his life but discovered his passion for them early in college. He is applying to several graduate film schools and hopes to become a filmmaker.