PUNCH UP, NOT DOWN21 March 2016
The superhero movie has long been waiting for a satire equal to the silliness of its conceits. The number of podcasts and YouTube channels that survive on parodying superhero films (and the very fact that Superhero Movie ever got made) reflects an audience ready to laugh at the genre that has so much defined the 21st Century blockbuster.
For a long time however, major studios have had a hard time understanding what could be funny about a self-serious bodybuilder in a rubber suit. While superhero films have certainly become lighter since Batman Begins first introduced ‘gritty reboot’ to the cultural vernacular, the genre is yet to veer fully into parody. So now we have Deadpool, a film that transposes two hours of fourth wall breaks and pop culture references onto the adamantium skeleton of a super flick. The result is sometimes
funny and entertaining, but ultimately fails to appreciate what makes both a great superhero movie and a great satire.
The irony of discussing Deadpool as a satire of superhero films is that it typifies all the worst aspects of the form. The action sequences are imaginative but often hard to follow. Compared to the spectacular fight sequences in Netflix’s Daredevil, Deadpool’s set pieces feel like filler between plot points. It’s tricky to make fights featuring a near-invulnerable mutant feel high-stakes, but Deadpool never inspires even the slightest bit of doubt as to their outcome.
The story surrounding those sequences is equally unimpressive. While the movie pokes fun at how formulaic its plot is, this does not make it any more fun to watch. The story unfolds with a drudging inevitability and any interest the other characters inspire is only through being played off of by the titular merc-with-a-mouth. The basic elements of the film are so unimpressive that it more often feels like the film is parodying itself rather than the genre it belongs to.
If Deadpool is a mediocre superhero movie, it’s equally a mediocre satire of superhero movies. Most of the film’s biggest laughs are from the Family Guy school of humour, where the joke ends at telling the audience that the characters have seen the same movies as them. What’s worse is that it feels like Deadpool has purposefully made itself predictable to more easily make fun of itself. This would be fine if it was pure parody but the film’s best sequences point too closely towards real movie-ness for this to be the case.
The greatest genre satires show that it’s possible to celebrate a genre while making it look ridiculous. The difference between Blazing Saddles and Adam Sandler’s much maligned Ridiculous Six is that the creators of the former had an evident respect for the genre they were skewering. The other difference between them is that Blazing Saddles laughs at the racism of the genre rather than with it. The result is a movie that manages to address the uncomfortable baggage of the Western while still being funny and importantly, stupid.
Superhero movies have their own notorious representation issues, but here again Deadpool is happy to typify the worst of its genre. The list of boorish tropes included without comment in Paul Wernick and Rhett Reeses’s screenplay includes an Indian taxi driver who abducts his rival in love, an attractive damsel in distress and a completely gratuitous stop at a strip club (that the love interest of course only waits tables at). If there’s anything that truly deserves to be made fun of in superhero movies, surely it’s the way they treat women and minorities.
In commercial terms, Deadpool has been a huge success, becoming the highest earning R rated movie in American box office history. Like the previous record holder (Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ), Deadpool is built on hype and destined for obscurity. This is for the simple fact that the film does not know what it wants to be.
If it were simply a superhero movie striving for levity, it could have taken lessons from Guardians of the Galaxy or Kickass, which hilariously subvert the genre while being genuinely great examples of it. Guardians shows that the genre is only as confining as you allow it to be and that fresh, creative narratives can still be told within it. If Deadpool was striving to be a self-conscious takedown of a too serious genre, it could’ve benefited from two axioms of good comedy: punch up, not down and make sure there’s something worth watching between the jokes.