How do you subvert an entire movie brand, a brand that is known for ceaselessly upholding the PG-13 blockbuster formula?
You don’t, as it turns out.
There is a premise that superhero movies seem to be locked in, despite reaching to get out of it. As Marvel continues to pump out identical narratives year after year, never without the set-up and payoff that feels like it was crafted by a team of crack scientists instead of writers, a periodical viewer who is nonplussed by the idea of comic books being endlessly brought to the screen has to wonder if audience fatigue will ever set in. Will cinemagoers just stop paying for a mass-market product that has no distinguishing quality from the twenty preceding it, wondering if there is something more interesting than the same techniques of emotional manipulation (the continued tactic of faking a character’s death comes to mind)?
The antidote for this seems to be to look to indie film, where Marvel and other franchise machines have largely hand picked their (always make) directors. They’re searching for a higher sense of artfulness and prestige, a unique spirit behind the tens of millions of dollars and the machine. Some may be successful in trying to emulate a larger order of artfulness – one thinks of Doctor Strange, which boasts an impressive cast, and Black Panther, which is to be directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed). But indie filmmaking has a contracting style and philosophy to that of a satisfying big-budget spectacle. Marvel is the epitome of a film made by committee, independent film is more often than not a rather close example of a film born of a single person’s vision. The trademark underdog feel, complete with banter and a focus on smaller moments is at odds with the desire to inspire awe through technical feats.
But this is, of course, built on the premise that Marvel wants to be subversive in the first place, trying to emulate the indie movie origins of their directors without making any concerted effort to.
That’s the view from Deadpool, a superhero origin story that is violent and sarcastic, but still an origin story that has been seen many, many times before. And it’s not trying to be anything else. Those looking for any kind of subversion won’t find it here. Rather, they’ll find much of the same as before. The same superhero movie, just in a different looking package.
Because what’s actually in the film is much of the same. Wade Wilson (a fabulous performance by Ryan Reynolds) is a smart-mouthed mercenary who spends his evenings confronting the bad guys and exchanging banter with bartender Weasel (T.J. Miller). But after being diagnosed with terminal cancer and being part of an experiment lead by the British-accented mutant Francis (Ed Skrein), he’s regenerated with accelerated healing powers and a heightened mental instability, which, yes, makes him a perfect candidate for an offbeat superhero.
Deadpool is indeed lazy, but self-conscious in its unwillingness to try anything new. Barely a minute goes by without a self-deprecating wink about its unoriginality and indeed its position as a lower-budget test reel for the sequel. Because while violence is indeed emerging as a surer way to secure audiences, lured by the promise of something that’s not PG-13, studios are indeed still skittish about the age of their audiences. Director Tim Miller, who visualised Lisbeth Salander’s dreams in an incredible title sequence for David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, indeed looks to independent cinema for advice on how to direct a superhero movie with much more talking than fighting on a scanter budget. He resorts to much more unpolished visuals than are commonly seen in a world of perfectly computer constructed images, indeed focusing on moments of spectacle and not story (indeed, the plot with the most time invested in it ends up being a romance). But it also enforces why such a philosophy is at odds with blockbuster film. The stakes are simply too small, the momentum too minimal, and the direction not nimble enough to move between the warring sensibilities. Despite Miller wishing to place as much stock in dialogue as he does action, when the latter is called for, it’s not with enough zeal. It’s indeed a result of being unable to create a satisfying sense of momentum outside of the small moments of R-rated hilarity that comprised the marketing campaign.
Indeed, Deadpool is just another origin story, a first chapter in another series of the never ending line of manufactured product. An intermittently funny one, admittedly, but still one of the same tiresome already-run tropes. Will audiences ever tire of this, an endless stream of identical, bad-but-not-especially-good movies? Hopefully, I’d like to write about a different film for a change.