In the opening moments of Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds turns directly to the camera and asks a rhetorical question: “Whose balls did I have to fondle to get my very own movie?” (The answer: “I can’t tell you, but it does rhyme with Polverine.”) As with everything else about Deadpool, there are layers at work here. Ryan Reynolds is asking us this question as Deadpool, but he’s also asking us as Ryan Reynolds. For years, Reynolds was the movie star that just wouldn’t click, the good-looking and vaguely charming human blank who looked like he’d been airbrushed everytime he went out in public. And for years, Reynolds tried to get his Deadpool movie made.
Reynolds had first played Deadpool, the yammering Marvel kill-machine antihero, seven years before Deadpool. He’d played that role in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a truly ghastly nothing of a movie that couldn’t decide if it wanted to use Reynolds for toothless comic relief or as a vehicle for CGI fight scenes. By the end of that movie, Deadpool’s mouth has been sewn shut, and he’s become a generically monstrous villain who wasn’t even played by Reynolds anymore. (The straight-to-DVD British action god Scott Adkins played that final version of Deadpool—one of the many times a mainstream movie couldn’t figure out what to do with an all-time great screen martial artist like Adkins.) Nobody ever needed to see that version of Deadpool again, and nobody ever needed another movie like X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And still Reynolds tried.
Reynolds was developing a Deadpool movie since before the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and the character had originally been slated as a mere cameo in that film. Reynolds had a vision for what a Deadpool movie could be. Over the years, a bunch of different directors were attached to it, and progress stalled for a while when Reynolds anchored 2011’s Green Lantern, another notorious disaster of a superhero movie. Eventually, Reynolds linked up with Tim Miller, a special-effects guy and opening-credits designer who’d never directed a movie before. They wanted to make Deadpool the way he was in the comics: constantly joking, constantly going meta, constantly killing people in gruesome and extreme ways. Fox didn’t think it would work, but when Miller’s animated CGI-cartoon test version of Deadpool leaked online—we still don’t know who leaked it—Fox finally agreed to greenlight the movie, giving it about half the budget they’d ordinarily give to a B-list superhero movie.
It’s easy to cast studio execs as clueless villains in a story like this, but you don’t have to work too hard to imagine why they might’ve been hesitant to throw a whole lot of money at a struggling movie star and an opening-credits designer to make a movie full of dick jokes and beheadings. By 2016, superhero movies had become a firmly codified genre, and kids made up a huge chunk of those movies’ global audiences. And there had been movies that used the superhero format for R-rated shock-value hijinks; consider the two Kick-Ass movies, the cinematic equivalent of the kid who excitedly tells you what a dirty sanchez is in the middle-school cafeteria. Those movies had been dismal nonentities. Deadpool could’ve been a dismal nonentity, too.
Instead, it hit with a profound splat, giddily skewering the conventions of the day’s dominant commercial movie genre the same way Blazing Saddles had done with the Western in 1974. The difference, I think, was in the good-natured silliness of the entire enterprise. Deadpool is a tiresome movie, in love with its own foul mouth and its facility with butt-based humor. (A typical line: “Today was about as much fun as a sandpaper dildo.”) It’s also much less revolutionary in its self-consciousness than it seems to think it is. (Almost every superhero movie has at least a little bit of fun with its own silliness; that’s the function of all those Stan Lee cameos.) But in its endless ratatat goofiness, Deadpool somehow wears down your defenses and forces you to give in to its warm-hearted nihilist snark.
Reynolds had made his big-screen breakout with the pretty-bad 2002 collegiate raunch-comedy Van Wilder, and that movie also effectively defined his most appealing movie persona, the buffoonishly handsome joker who gets in over his head and doesn’t care because he’s always too busy commenting on the absurdity erupting around him. That persona was always waiting for the right superhero-movie vehicle, and Reynolds kept working on how to fit it in. He was playing Van Wilder when he was wearing black vinyl and fighting vampires in 2004’s disappointing series nadir Blade Trinity. He was clearly trying to play Van Wilder in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He even visibly strained to play Van Wilder in Green Lantern, though the movie had other ideas. And with the Deadpool version of Deadpool, Reynolds finally found the ideal superhero-movie vehicle for the Van Wilder character.
Deadpool was always the most riotously ’90s of Marvel characters. The widely and feverishly mocked superstar artist Rob Liefeld introduced Deadpool in 1991, and like so many other Liefeld creations, he mostly served as an excuse for Liefeld to draw giant guns and weird thigh muscles and questionably functional pouches. (He also looked way too much like Spider-Man.) Deadpool started out telling way too many jokes, and the writer Christopher Priest eventually pushed him into becoming a fourth-wall-breaking Marvel answer to Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. I always hated seeing Deadpool show up in comics, smirking and pointing at whatever absurdity was happening. He was an easy tool for any comic writer who was feeling a little too clever. But that’s Van Wilder, too. And when a straight-up movie star—even a struggling movie star like Ryan Reynolds—commits to the bit, all of a sudden Deadpool becomes charming.
From the opening seconds of Deadpool, we know that Reynolds and the movie are both fully committed to the bit. Juice Newton’s “Angel In The Morning” plays over the various logos. The opening credits name “God’s perfect idiot” and “a hot chick” and “a British villain” as the stars. And the movie never lets up from there. Deadpool cuts his own hand off and make sure his severed appendage is flipping the bird. The falling-in-love montage includes pegging. There are Green Lantern jokes. Reynolds relentlessly mocks himself: “Think Ryan Reynolds got this far on his superior acting technique?” And he even makes meta-comments about how often he goes meta: “A fourth-wall break inside a fourth-wall break! That’s, like, 16 walls!”
At least nominally, Deadpool takes place within the previously established X-Men universe. But the movie doesn’t actually care anything about that. Colossus shows up, but he’s the hulking Russian version of Colossus that we know from the comics, not the barely-there version from previous X-Men movies. Instead, the other X-Men movies are one more point of reference, one more thing for Deadpool to make fun of. (Upon arriving at the X-Mansion and meeting Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead: “You know, it’s funny how I only see the two of you. It’s like the studio couldn’t afford any more X-Men.”)
From time to time, Deadpool seems to want to be a real movie. Even there, though, its raging insincerity is evident, sometimes painfully. When a pre-Deadpool Wade Wilson gets cancer, he keeps wisecracking, but they’re sad wisecracks; the pathos couldn’t be any more half-assed. When he’s tortured and scarred into becoming Deadpool, the movie slows way down. There aren’t many fight scenes—a function of the lowered budget—but they still get numbingly repetitive. Haywire star and ex-MMA fighter Gina Carano, as secondary villain Angel Dust, gets to do some cool fight moves. But in a movie like this, cool fight moves are beside the point, and they mostly just distract from the Bugs Bunny-esque gore-explosions.
And certain things about Deadpool already haven’t aged well. The Indian cabdriver is a gentle racial stereotype, but it’s a racial stereotype nonetheless, a present-day equivalent to Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. TJ Miller’s face isn’t especially welcome, either, though that didn’t stop Fox from bringing him back for the sequel three years later. Still, it’s a movie with charm and verve and silliness working for it. And amidst all the superhero movies that were taking themselves more and more seriously, its anarchic spirit was welcome.
All the things that Fox thought would work against Deadpool ended up working for it. The movie made more money than any of the other X-Men movies, it reignited Reynolds’ career, and it brought them a whole new franchise. Its success might’ve caused Fox and its competitors to get looser and more playful with their superhero movies. The movies were nothing alike, but maybe the success of Deadpool helped pave the way for Logan and Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. Or maybe it just led to a whole new generation of kids trying to make better dick jokes. That’s fine, too.
Right now, Disney is in the midst of absorbing Fox into its corporate blob. When the deal was first announced, Disney boss Bob Iger said that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would expand to include Fox’s various superhero properties, and he mentioned Deadpool by name. It is utterly baffling to imagine Deadpool showing up in an Avengers movie, joking about Robert Downey, Jr.’s old cocaine habits or whatever. It probably won’t happen. Deadpool exists as a rebuke to anything Disney might try to do to the character. But Deadpool has already made its influence felt in a million tiny ways. And maybe one day, Deadpool, or Ryan Reynolds, will get to snarkily tell us all about them.
Other notable 2016 superhero movies: The year’s big Marvel entry, and really the unofficial third Avengers movie, was the Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War, a convoluted crowd-pleaser that fleshed out the MCU’s most important characters while pitting them against each other. Maybe the whole storyline about the mental wages of the violence in Avengers: Age Of Ultron was a little too self-serious and too blatant in its reaction against DC’s Man Of Steel carnage. But Civil War still introduced Black Panther, reintroduced Spider-Man, and figured out how all the characters in its vast cast could make sense together. The massive show-stopping Berlin-airport brawl is probably still the single most satisfying and rewatchable action scene in any Marvel movie—maybe in any superhero movie, bar-none.
Marvel also came out with Scott Derrickson’s slightly wooden psychedelic bugout Doctor Strange. Within the whole Marvel context, it’s a pretty minor effort. Its origin story is clumsily told, and its action scenes could be better. (Poor wasted Scott Adkins, bested in combat by a sentient cape.) Star Benedict Cumberbatch gives off an unpleasantly uptight vibe throughout, and the entire magical realm continues to coexist with all the other Marvel stuff fairly awkwardly. But the far-out visuals—even the ones ripped off directly from Inception—make Doctor Strange well worth your time. I saw it while high out of my mind on opening weekend, and this was absolutely the right decision.
Fox’s big X-Men swing for the year was Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, a movie that conclusively shows how much that whole thing needed Deadpool to show up and let some air out of the tires. Apocalypse is full of great actors (including latex-and-CGI-smothered villain Oscar Isaac) and beloved characters, and for a while, it coasts on those things. But if Singer ever had any designs on using the X-Men to make grand allegories, all that is out the window by the time the shittily overblown special effects get going. It’s a noisy slog of a movie, a waste of everyone’s time. (The hyper-violent Wolverine cameo is fun, though.)
But X-Men: Apocalypse is a charming romp compared to Zack Snyder’s Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, a self-righteous religious allegory in love with its own grandeur. All the problems with Man Of Steel—the wanton destruction, the dumb religious overtones, the total lack of anything resembling actual human emotion—get cranked way past 11. And while Snyder does make some attempt to address the massive levels of civilian death in Man Of Steel, he then fucks around and comes up with something even more aggravating: Batman and Superman stopping mid-fight and bonding over the fact that they both have mothers named Martha. Wonder Woman makes a nice impression when she shows up, but the montage of other future Justice League members is absolutely risible, and the movie’s version of Doomsday is one of the least cool envisionings of a cool character in the entire misbegotten history of superhero cinema.
And DC also gave us David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, a rancid mess of hyperactive editing, pop-song intros, unfunny-joke dialogue, incoherent motivations, not-even-half-drawn characters, and the type of action scenes where everyone runs around while a giant beam of blue CGI energy erupts out of somewhere. Also, Jared Leto follows up Heath Ledger’s beyond-iconic portrayal of the Joker by playing that same character like he’s Machine Gun Kelly doing a Marilyn Manson impression. It’s such a piece of shit, and yet Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn still comes off as a fun and engaging character, which is how you know she’s a movie star.
Next time: With Wonder Woman, DC pulls from the Captain America playlist while making a long-overdue statement that superheroes are for everyone.