Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review - Deadpool

          This is quite a relief. After what I would consider to be an overall successful year for cinema in 2015 to be followed by the completely horrible excuse for a sci-fi movie that was The 5th Wave at the start of 2016, my outlook for the remainder for 2016 had been regrettably tainted. Rest assured, however, for a hero has come along and redeemed 2016 from the clutches of failure and my bleak outlook. And by hero, I mean a katana wielding, sex-hungry, overpowered, semi-sadistic, 4th-wall-breaking joker wearing a red unitard who encourages cab drivers to kill their family members, his roommates to do cocaine, and has no shortage of dick jokes. Yes, I mean Deadpool.
          Marvel has kicked off the superhero genre for year with our quirky comic book hero Deadpool, featuring Ryan Reynolds as our wise-cracking, ex-military mutant out to settle a personal score in the X-Men universe. And I must say, Marvel and Fox Studios deserve praise for this one; this is one of the few cases where a genre experiments and ventures out of its comfort zone. I would hesitate to call Deadpool a "superhero" movie in the traditional sense; there is no readily apparent disaster threatening the world that only Deadpool, with his mutant powers, can solve (although one may be implied), nor does our hero exemplify many of the virtues of the other characters in the X-Men universe, like, say, Professor Xavier. Rather, Deadpool is best understood as a parody of the superhero genre, with an anti-hero as the protagonist as opposed to your traditional hero. And these two characteristics alone already set Deadpool up to be a noteworthy entry not just in the superhero genre, but for 2016 in general. Good parodies and anti-heroes are rarely seen in cinema these days, and to have them done well is a noteworthy feat. Accordingly, I should say up front that I already have a feeling that this review may be slightly shorter than most of my previous film reviews, insofar as I really have no point of comparison for Deadpool (I will admit that this was a comic series that I had certainly heard of, but wasn't very familiar with); many of its primary characteristics don't follow the formula for your typical superhero film, and aren't meant to. As such, Deadpool is a kind of "lone wolf" in the genre, rebelling against the norm and setting its own rules. And because of all of these things, I have to give it a positive recommendation; it experiments with the genre, making a bold attempt at parody and shirking the superhero norms with gratuitous violence, sex, drugs, anti-heroes, and adult humor - and it does it all fairly well.
          Deadpool opens up with a high-intensity, blood-soaked freeway firefight: our hero dives into a convoy of vehicles and begins assailing the occupants. It's not immediately clear who these guys are or why Deadpool is so inclined to stop them, only that he is looking for a man named "Francis". But it is apparent, at least, that they are up to some type of no-good; they all immediately pull out automatic weapons and grenades and unload clips of bullets at Deadpool, all while our protagonist calls out for Francis, much in the same way a dog owner excitedly calls out to Fido in his backyard. It is at this point that Deadpool takes us on a flashback of events leading up to this kill-fest. We learn that he was once referred to as Wade Wilson, an ex-military commando with a long kill streak and dishonorably discharged from service. After leaving the military, Wilson makes a living taking up odd jobs as a mercenary in New York City, mostly as "a bully who stops other bullies" sort of guy. He spends his spare time at a shady dive bar run by his friend, Weasel. Weasel's bar is more or less what you would expect of a place that caters to mercs: a joint for many of New York's more "unscrupulous" characters to hang out, a place for drug dealers and con artists, computer hackers and arms dealers, prostitutes and muscle-for-hire. It is at Weasel's bar that Wade meets the escort girl Vanessa, where both of them detail their troubled pasts and become romantically involved with each other. We are then fast-forwarded through the following year after Wade and Vanessa meet, which more or less consists of a montage of them having wild sex on various holidays until the Christmas season, where Wade suddenly collapses. He is then diagnosed with an extreme form of cancer, which his doctors say is terminal. Devastated, Wade and Vanessa desperately seek out any kind of treatment they can. One night, Wade accepts the offer of a man who represents Francis Freeman and his sidekick, Angel Dust, and is taken to a secret facility where Francis injects him with a special serum in order to trigger the rapid mutation of his body "under extreme stress" that promises to cure Wade of the cancer. It is then revealed that the serum is part of a super-soldier program where Francis auctions off the survivors to the highest bidders on the black market for use as obedient killing machines. After realizing this, Wade manages to escape from the facility, but not before being highly disfigured by the experiments. Here, we are more or less brought full-circle back around to the opening scene, where Deadpool is out to get revenge on Francis and hopefully reverse the disfiguring effects of the experiments on him, all while trying to reunite with Vanessa.
          Assessing the pros and cons of Deadpool will be a somewhat new experience; there hasn't really been a film quite like this in recent years, and, as such, it is subject to a radically different set of evaluative criteria than many other superhero or action films. Perhaps the two most important things to take away from Deadpool are its re-introduction of parody into mainstream cinema, as well as its use of the anti-hero character archetype. Parody seems to have a kind of "love-hate" relationship with Hollywood; some may, for example, point to the Scary Movie series as the apotheosis of parody in modern cinema over the past couple of decades. However, the Scary Movie series is a good example of parody to the extent that Donald Trump is a good example of a philanthropist, which is to say, not at all. Contrary to popular belief, it is certainly possible for a parody to exhibit a degree of depth and complexity, and do more than simply rely on immature humor, something that is severely lacking from the Scary Movie series, or any films like it. I confess myself perpetually dumbfounded by those who find the Scary Movie series entertaining. However, Deadpool avoids many of these pitfalls. Wade, Vanessa, and Weasel all exhibit the same degree of character that we find in many other characters of the X-Men universe. Reynolds does a great job of portraying Wade Wilson as a wise-cracking tough guy, someone who approaches life with a notably morbid and mature sense of humor, like a cross between the completely "fuck you" demeanor of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with the complete lack of seriousness of the Joker from Batman. And such a persona lends itself well to the task of parody; Deadpool's lack of seriousness allows him to famously "break the 4th wall" and, quite literally, give to the audience a sense of lightheartedness to an otherwise extreme and violent situation. It also allows him to to provide the kind of commentary on superhero films that is desperately needed in the current cinematic landscape, commentary that I have been giving for some time. For example, there is a scene towards the end of the film where Angel Dust jumps from the deck of a docked aircraft carrier, but not before Deadpool predicts that she is going to do the famous "superhero landing" and draws the attention of Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead to the spectacle. And, sure enough, Angel Dust proceeds to leap from the deck and slam into the ground in an earth-shattering fashion, her fist planted firmly in the pavement, her form displaying a degree of subtle cartoonishness, betraying the amount of CGI that went into the sequence. Deadpool's point here has been long overdue in Hollywood; superhero movies have become so cliche to the point of being predictable, which ultimately undermines the genre insofar as predictability steals away some of the excitement and action from a superhero film.
          Perhaps even more interesting than its exploration of parody, Deadpool re-introduces the "anti-hero" into mainstream cinema. Revisiting the notion of the anti-hero is something I have been a proponent of for a long time - in a cinematic and literary landscape dominated by the cliched and generic plot of "good vs evil" or "good guys win, bad guys die", which hardly ever reflects the actual complexities of conflicts in the world, it is easy to see just how detached and impersonal most stories are. I have always felt that the anti-hero was a literary or film device that is often underutilized, and allows for an entirely new dimension in the narrative that readers or viewers can relate to. And for those who aren't familiar with the concept, an "anti-hero" is a character that is distinct from a "villain", yet not quite a "hero", a character that may do all of the right things, but for all of the wrong reasons, or may do all of the right things, but not in the same way that a hero might do them. Lisbeth Salander again serves as a great example here: as a world-renowned computer hacker with a questionable sense of morality, her persona doesn't lend itself well to society's established notions of a "hero". However, her uncanny ability to use her eidetic memory and computer skill to help Mikael Blomkvist uncover the details of a young woman's disappearance nonetheless lend themselves to what many would consider to be a good cause. And such is the case with Deadpool; Deadpool seeks revenge against the man that tortured and disfigured him, violently cutting down any henchmen in his way with a gay bravado, ultimately splattering Francis' brain across the pavement, despite the protests of X-Man Colossus. It just also happens that this man was an international arms dealer on the black market, fueling international conflict. Earlier on during the flashback scene, Wade Wilson threatens to beat down on a young pizza delivery guy, but we find out later that this guy was stalking a young woman who paid Wilson to intimidate him. Again, nothing about this situation would normally sound appealing - a woman hires a merc to assault a pizza delivery boy who turns out to be a stalker - but the end result is ultimately that a stalker leaves a woman alone, so we suppose that's ok. There are many people in the world who, much like Wade or Salander, mean well, but don't necessarily exhibit the virtues that are expected of them. In many ways, the anti-hero is a more relatable character for them; Lisbeth Salander is nothing like Rey from The Force Awakens (other than both of them being female), but the idea that Rey is the only kind of character that we should appreciate or look up to (i.e. the "hero" archetype) is wholly impersonal, detached from the actual happenings of the world.
          Much in the same way that it was difficult to highlight the pros of Deadpool, it is also difficult to highlight the cons. Perhaps this is due to the fact that there really isn't a point of comparison - as I mentioned, most would likely point to films like the Scary Movie series as the high-mark of parody these days, but comparing Deadpool to the likes of those films is like comparing Stephen King or Charles Dickens to the various writers of Star Wars fan fiction, i.e. wholly inappropriate. The question then becomes "what can we evaluate Deadpool on?" Well, I do think that Deadpool, at times, was trying too hard to be funny. Many of the various similes throughout the film give way to this. For example, Weasel's famous simile after first seeing Wade Wilson again, that he looks like "Freddy Krueger fucked a topographical map of Utah", quite frankly, is arbitrary and makes little sense. It hints at that species of "random humor" that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Humor, when done correctly, is tactful and precise, and may contain some random elements in it, but is never solely based on randomness. I have never been attracted to the idea that simply "being random" is funny, and, much like the people that find the Scary Movie films entertaining, the people that are amused by "random" humor have always perplexed me. It doesn't take a whole of skill or talent or purpose to devise random humor, and random humor often carries little depth or meaning. Weasel's expression that Wade "looks like Freddy Krueger fucked a topographical map of Utah" is about as artful and tactful as me saying "your face looks like a walrus fist-fucked a bowl of Chinese food", which quickly loses its impact. Perhaps another area where Deadpool missed a good opportunity is in its use of violence. Specifically, I don't think there was enough violence; Deadpool had the opportunity to really make a mockery of superhero action violence, and violence in general, by going over the top, a la Robert Rodriguez' Machete or Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but didn't. What we got instead was only a slightly gorier version of what we typically see in superhero films and action films. Deadpool speeding away from an exploding vehicle while shooting terrorists is something we would expect of Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible, but if Deadpool really wanted to live up to the expectations of parody, then we should have seen something similar to that scene from Machete where Machete swings from hospital floor to hospital floor using a henchman's intestines, or the ending scene from Inglourious Basterds where the Jewish-American soldiers are gunning down a flaming theater full of Nazis and their French sympathizers while Shosanna Dreyfus' face maniacally laughs in the background. But this may be nitpicking. I suppose the upside to these criticisms is that they leave something to improve on if Fox Studios decides at any point to produce a sequel.
          Overall, Deadpool gets my recommendation and serves as a jumpstart to a year in cinema that will hopefully rival its predecessor. Again, the best part about Deadpool is that it reintroduces us to the notions of parody (particularly, "parody with a purpose") and the anti-hero, in a time where these devices have fallen by the wayside in the current cinematic landscape. It is something we really needed; many science fiction and action series over that past several years have presented us with very complex and immersive world (i.e. Star Wars, The Avengers, and Hunger Games), which is a very good thing. But every once in a while, we need something that brings us back down to earth, and provides a different kind of antidote to the monotony in our lives that is distinct from the kind of escapism that the aforementioned series provide. Instead of immersing ourselves in the tales of epic heroes and the fables of distant planets, perhaps we sometimes just need to watch people have wild sex and then blow each other's brains out while old people do cocaine in the background. And I am ok with this.

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