Film in Oxford: The masked conservatism of Deadpool

Deadpool has been peddled as one of a kind in the ever-growing Marvel cinematic canon. To some extent, the pitch is a fair one. It is difficult to imagine a member of The Avengers freely dropping F-bombs, slicing up enemies with a pair of katana swords, or discussing flatpack furniture with their blind octogenarian housemate. The humour-to-action ratio of Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy may have been anomalous, but neither came close to the gleefully raised middle finger of Deadpool’s severed hand.

Beyond bearing its R-rating as a badge of pride, Deadpool has a few other tricks hidden up its tight red sleeve. As in the comic source material, the title character knows that he is a fictional construct, and that he is starring in his own film (apparently after doing Wolverine a favour or two). He frequently turns to the audience to provide additional commentary, and litters his speech with self-referential jokes, often at the expense of Ryan Reynolds (the actor behind the suit) or the X-Men franchise, which Deadpool is attached to.

But while these knowing quirks set Deadpool apart from his more straight-laced superhero peers, they operate within a relatively conventional structure. The opening credits remind us of some generic clichés: there is The British Villain, The Moody Teen, The Gratuitous Cameo (Stan Lee, of course), and The CGI Character. The implication is that Deadpool is aware of these stale tropes, and is about to subvert them. Instead, the supporting characters all act and interact much as we would expect them to in a standard superhero film.

The plot arc, too, is wholly familiar. The action crescendos to a final big boss fight, with the hero assisted by a duo of stock sidekicks. Deadpool is keen to convince us that this is primarily a love story — and at its core, it is. All he wants is for life with his long-term partner, Vanessa, to return to how it used to be. In this respect, all can be reduced to a ‘guy gets girl’ scenario, in which the principal obstacle faced is the fear of romantic rejection.

Despite the centrality of Deadpool and Vanessa’s heteronormative relationship, much of the press surrounding Deadpool drew attention to its protagonist’s pansexuality, both before and following the film’s release. His orientation may be apparent in the comics, but there was little evidence for – or mention of – this onscreen. Instead, we see a brief scene of Deadpool and Vanessa pegging, another fleeting moment involving a lone Deadpool and a toy unicorn, and a rape jibe directed at a young male adversary.

Each example here serves a primarily comic purpose. None address Deadpool’s sexuality with any seriousness, or show willingness to delve into his complex preferences, unless for reasons of humour. The only behaviour that could be described as homoerotic is played for laughs and tied to violence, from pretending to teabag a henchman to expressing his arousal post-slaughter. The result is that most references to non-heteronormative desire are problematically presented as the actions and words of a sadist.

Many will argue that Deadpool is a breath of fresh air, and that the presence of a pansexual superhero in a blockbuster is progress in itself. It is possible that the film was testing the waters to see how far cautious studio backers could be pushed, in which case the answer, for now, is not far enough. Deadpool may break the sixteenth wall, in the character’s words “Fourth-wall break inside a fourth-wall break” – but it still remains shackled to the structure and conservatism of the Marvel box-office behemoths that it mocks.

Tinkering around the edges of this formula, adding crude punchlines and bloody violence, does not constitute a ground-breaking shift. Hopefully, now that Deadpool has proven that risks can lead to critical and commercial success, the inevitable sequel will up the stakes. The Merc with a Mouth still has a great deal left to say.

John Wadsworth

‘Deadpool’ is currently running in cinemas, rated 15.

Earlier versions of this article are available at The Draft Man’s Contract.

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