The last time we saw Ryan Reynolds play Deadpool on screen was in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which the wise-cracking Merc with a Mouth spent most of the film with his lips sewn together, unable to speak. That single decision encapsulated everything that was wrong about the film’s treatment of his character. This wasn’t the Deadpool that fans had grown to love. It was an embarrassing demonstration that 20th Century Fox didn’t understand their own franchise.
Thankfully, the studio has learnt their lesson. Because this year’s Deadpool is exactly what we wanted. And it may even set a new standard for the superhero genre.
Directed by Tim Miller, the plot of the film is fairly simple, preferring prioritisation of character development and comedy. And why not? Instead of saving the world or seeking redemption, Deadpool’s story is a straight-up tale of revenge. Most importantly, it feels true to his character.
Wade Wilson is a former special forces operative turned mercenary who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is offered an experimental treatment by the sinister mutant Ajax, who injects Wade with a serum and tortures him in order to activate a mutation. Wade eventually develops a healing power, but is hideously disfigured in the process. He spends the rest of the film trying to get revenge on Ajax and win back his girlfriend.
The comedy is fast and furious throughout the film. There are numerous jokes at the expense of the other X-Men films and some pointed remarks about Ryan Reynolds’s career choices. In his characteristic style, Deadpool frequently breaks the fourth wall. His interactions with other characters, particular Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (the two X-Men who assist him), are delightful to watch. Deadpool fits comfortably into the X-Men franchise without straining to make unnecessary connections with the other films (a problem which hobbled Marvel’s Ant-Man).
Part of the genius of the film is in its storytelling. Deadpool begins in media res, halfway through Wade’s quest to get revenge on Ajax. His transformation into Deadpool is told through numerous flashbacks, meaning the pacing is consistent throughout the film. This overcomes many of the issues plaguing other superhero origin films, where a linear plot means that the script rushes to get the hero into his/her costume so that the real action can begin. Deadpool subverts this tired formula. It starts with an action sequence, sacrificing none of its pacing as it switches back and forth between flashback and the main story. This in media res format is utilised so successfully that writers of future superhero origin stories will be forced to re-think the standard linear formula. It has set a new standard for origin films. And although the plot may be fairly simple, it’s the way that the story is presented that sets the film apart.
My real interest in Deadpool is in how the film fits into the wider landscape of superhero blockbusters. It’s already challenged the traditional way to do an origin story by abandoning a linear narrative. But it also sets the tone for 2016, a year which is bursting with superhero blockbusters. The genre is facing fatigue – the glut of films by competing studios threaten to saturate the market, transforming even the best of them into pale imitations of those that have come before. Superhero films have devolved into one of three categories: origin stories, sequels, or ensemble pieces in which the real drawcard is watching our favourite heroes fight each other.
It’s possible that Deadpool heralds a New Wave of superhero films, a revitalisation of the genre in which films self-consciously acknowledge that they are part of a larger movement and experiment with creative modes of storytelling. If this is the case, then it may be too late for some of 2016’s superhero films to try to keep up, with most of the major blockbusters already nearing their release dates. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of 2017’s superhero films follow Deadpool‘s example, turning their back on traditional origin/ensemble tropes and taking risks with their filmmaking. It would be great to see this genre evolve into something more sophisticated, something that maintains its links to its graphic novel origins even as it attempts to transcend the milieu of stagnation that mires the genre today. My desire for change extends to the inevitable Deadpool sequel, which will also have to meet the standard set by its predecessor. The trick will be to revisit the elements that made the first film a success, yet have a script that does for sequels what Deadpool did for origin stories.
Of course, this optimistic talk of a New Wave could be entirely unwarranted, and Deadpool may remain an anomaly in an increasingly standardised and repetitious genre of superhero films. Only time will tell. But the potential for change has been established, and it’s up to the studios to determine their next move.