Retrospect: Deadpool rebooted the superhero genre. Does its sequel do the same?
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MANILA, Philippines — Back in 2016, just a few days short of Valentine’s Day, an unlikely superhero — one that cursed, killed, and frequently-joked about self-pleasure — took cinemas worldwide by storm. Deadpool, “The Merc with a Mouth” as he’s called, opened at no. 1 in the box office, quickly rising to be the highest grossing R-rated film of all-time.
Just to put things in perspective, with its $783.1 million total gross (all the more impressive when compared to its measly $58 million budget), Deadpool outgrossed all of the previous X-Men films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Yes, Winter Soldier, the 6th highest-grossing MCU movie), and the first four Twilight movies.
On top of that, the film wasn’t just warmly received in terms of box-office, it was a critical darling too. Many critics praised its refreshing self-awareness and how its R-rated chutzpah broke the mold for superhero movies.
The right moment
What made the first Deadpool such a breath of fresh air was that it came at just the right time when the first wave of superhero fatigue was starting to set in. This was when the MCU hit a plateau (Avengers: Age of Ultron was disjointed and got mixed reviews, Ant-Man was enjoyable but derivative), Fox’s Fantastic Four and Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 bombed both at the box-office and with the critics, and many weren’t all that hyped up for the then-upcoming overtly dark DC movies.
Deadpool entered the game, guts flying and guns ablazing, with the gall to point the finger inward and poke fun at the ludicrousness of the whole genre landscape. It’s opening credits even billed itself as “Some Douchebag’s Film, starring God’s perfect idiot and directed by An Overpaid Tool.”
As a character, this was Deadpool’s true superpower, not his self-healing ability nor his proclivity to guns and katanas. Deadpool’s ultimate weapon was his mouth. He lived in a hyperreality, where real and reel become indistinguishable.
Because of this hyper-awareness of its surroundings, Deadpool was able to engage audiences in ways previously unseen in superhero movies. The film was able to make jabs at the celebrity of its star Ryan Reynolds; it was able to poke fun at Fox, the film’s own studio, for its failure with past X-Men movies; and it too was aware of its own being caught in cinematic tropes and cliche storylines (we’ll get back to this later).
Deadpool’s connection with fans extends beyond its film. Deadpool works as a transmedia piece of art as its story is a compounded upon by multiple platforms and the real-world awareness of how it came into being.
Just to recap, the film was in development with Ryan Reynolds attached to star as early as 2004. This was long before the character’s unceremonious big-screen debut in the 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine. However, with Origins’ failure and Ryan Reynolds’ other superhero film, Green Lantern, suffering the same fate, the film got stuck in development hell.
However, in a bizarre/serendipitous turn of events, the CGI test footage director Tim Miller prepared for pitching leaked online. The fans went nuts for it, and soon enough, the film went into production.
For many, seeing the film as a whole was a compounding of emotions, a holistic experience in every sense of the word.
Deadpool knew this and guarded this special connection to fans very much by continually engaging them via unorthodox ad campaigns which involved emoji billboards, viral videos, and posters which advertised the film as a traditional rom-com that fans can bring their unsuspecting partners to.
Best of all, Deadpool wasn’t as intimidating as other superhero movies. New fans could easily jump in as the film outright dismissed, ridiculed even, the convoluted timeline of its own X-Men film predecessors as well as the idea of a shared universe in general. It doesn’t ask you to internalize 18 past films, it lets you laugh at the moment.
Yes, there were criticisms back then of how Deadpool poked fun at the genre but at the same time subscribed to it, referencing numerous narrative problems but not doing anything new with its own. I personally agreed to these criticisms, but in hindsight, the film was much more than the sum of its parts as it introduced audiences to something new. It created a movement within Hollywood, urging studios to push beyond their comfort zones.
While many Marvel fans consider Thor: Ragnarok as the film that pushed Marvel to explore full-on genre-bending, I’d argue that Deadpool was the true catalyst for not just Marvel, but the whole genre.
Deadpool showed us that an R-rated superhero film could earn, and this lead to Logan. Deadpool was a testament to how self-contained narratives would be warmly received in a world of shared universes, hence the added confidence in Wonder Woman and films like The New Mutants heading into production.
Deadpool was the much-needed pot stirrer both the genre and the industry needed.
What’s Deadpool 2 left to do?
Changing times call for changing needs, and the Hollywood of 2018 is much different from 2016. In the span of two years, much-needed industry movements occurred: #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo. Genre blockbusters have also upped their game with the coming of Black Panther’s thoughtfulness, while Disney proved that they can push back against fan expectations with Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Avengers: Infinity War.
In most parts, Deadpool 2 does work as a film. Critic Oggs Cruz describes it even as one “that makes most of its being more of the same.”
We get the fourth wall breaking, the unremorseful violence, and a whole bevy of pop culture references and political incorrectness (molestation jokes might be too much though). To add to this, critics note that Deadpool 2 has better direction and a more focused story. Characterizations added even contextualize much of the film’s zaniness.
Being a more conventional film works as a double-edged sword though. Yes, the story might be tighter this time around, but simultaneously, the more it falls to clichéd trappings. Deadpool 2 becomes more like the films it was once parodying.
To be fair, the first film shared these symptoms, but because of the sheer freshness of its irreverence, audiences gave it a pass. The card of self-awareness — Deadpool distancing itself from the film to poke fun at its weak writing — was enough. Two years after though, people want expectations to be upended.
Deadpool 2 being aware of its faults is different from it actually doing something (awareness without action might even be worse). Its powers of perception should have the ability to nudge us towards directions we're not yet aware of. Pop culture references are fine, but there needs to be more.
Make no mistakes though, Deadpool 2 is fun and funny, if those are the only criteria of concern. But as a fan, I know it's in a unique position to again be the boat rocker it was in 2016. Here’s hoping the next films do more than just tell us, as Deadpool himself would put it, “that’s just lazy writing.” – Rappler.com