Deadpool begins with a slow-motion fly-through of an over-the-top, absurdist comic book action tableau. The camera pulls back through a three-dimensional freeze frame showing Deadpool tumbling out of a crashing vehicle packed with jostled henchmen. There are bullets flying, bodies flailing, underwear being pulled — and even a brief nod to star Ryan Reynolds's previous attempt to launch a comic-based movie franchise, the ill-fated Green Lantern. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an epic, ridiculous splash page.
It’s also a credits sequence, sort of. The gimmick is that the names of the movie’s stars and creative team have been replaced with snide references to the roles they play — the hot chick, the European villain, the moody teen, the computer-generated character, the comic relief, the surprise cameo. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are credited as the "real heroes here," while director Tim Miller gets billed as an "overpaid tool." It's glib and ridiculous, just like the film's title character.
Deadpool, as Marco Rubio might say, knows exactly what it’s doing, and exactly what its audience expects. The first of at least seven comic-based movies slated for release in 2016, it arrives as superhero films have practically taken over Hollywood, and at times it feels like an exuberant, irreverent, spectacularly vulgar critique of the genre. Audiences, in turn, have responded with wild enthusiasm, turning Deadpool into a record-breaking box office smash.
Although the movie does relatively little to seriously challenge those expectations — it’s essentially a crass comic origin story with a little bit of chronological juggling — it at least acknowledges them. And in doing so it serves as a reminder of how formulaic superhero movies have become in both tone and story, and how much space remains for expansion and experimentation in the genre.
Deadpool has more in common with Blade than it does with most modern superhero films
Deadpool’s clearest divergence from the mainstays of the superhero film comes from its R rating, which is uncommon in a genre that tends to stay pretty strictly within the maximally accessible bounds of the PG-13 rating. And that in itself is a reminder that part of the genesis of the modern wave of superhero films was in an R-rated comic book adaptation: Blade.
Released in August of 1998, Blade wasn’t sold as a comic book movie so much as an effects-driven supernatural action film and a star vehicle for the particular talents of its lead actor, Wesley Snipes. And why would it have been?
Aside from the struggling Batman franchise, which at the time was plumbing the depths of cornball irony under the direction of Joel Schumacher, superhero movies weren’t really a going concern in Hollywood. Rumors of big-budget comic-based films had circulated for years (James Cameron even wrote a script for a Spider-Man movie), but by the late '90s, comic books themselves increasingly looked like a fad that had passed. The comic book sales bubble that peaked earlier in the decade had popped, with newsstand sales effectively nil and the entire market reduced to a relatively small number of specialty shops. Less than two years earlier, at the end of 1996, Marvel Comics, where the Blade character originated, had filed for bankruptcy.
But Blade was a modest hit, grossing $70 million on a budget in the range of $40 million. And part of what it made it work was that it actually felt like a comic book — or at least an adult’s conception of one. It was dark, grim, and unapologetically violent. Director Stephen Norrington’s martial arts–inspired action scenes were kinetic, balletic, and not strictly limited by the rules of physics, hinting at the sorts of impossibly acrobatic sequences the Wachowskis would give us in The Matrix less than a year later.
Visually, the film was stylish and slick, casting its vampire villains as a privileged, club-going urban elite intent on exploiting the weak human underclass. The film’s world building was, if not quite as extensive as a modern interconnected movie universe, interesting and reasonably well-conceived.
Watching Blade now, part of what’s interesting is how little it sticks to the conventions of the superhero film as we know it: There’s a brief nod to the character’s origin, but it’s not really an origin story; there’s no connection to a larger comic book universe or even the idea of other superheroes and villains; there are computer-generated sequences, but much of the action is driven by real human actors, aided by Hong Kong–inspired wire work; the stakes of the finale are apocalyptic, but the action revolves around an acrobatic sword fight with the main villain (Stephen Dorff’s Deacon Frost) rather than an overproduced spectacle of urban destruction. It is a film that endeavors to tell a single, relatively small story, and to tell it well.
What connects Blade to the modern superhero film, though, is that it took its concept seriously rather than treating it as a joke. Sure, it’s cheeky at times, but only in service of the character. That’s a big part of why the movie still holds up today, and why it remains a touchstone in the development of the superhero film.
Directors used to have more leeway to make superhero properties their own
It’s possible to imagine a film like Blade spawning an entire subgenre of sleek, grisly, midbudget, R-rated superhero films, especially given how much the film foreshadowed the style and sensibility of The Matrix. But obvious candidates for the R-rated treatment like Ghost Rider and Daredevil eventually became PG-13 romps, starring Nicolas Cage and Ben Affleck, respectively, with predictably poor results. Both were bland, underdeveloped films that could have benefited from a rougher edge and a tougher sensibility. (One exception: 2004’s The Punisher, which did receive an R rating but failed for other reasons, including its struggle to portray its powerless, gun-toting vigilante as a superhero.)
Instead, starting in the 2000s, Hollywood set about developing more conventional properties — X-Men, Spider-Man, The Hulk — all of which paved the way for the massive superhero franchises we have today. But even those films don’t quite fit the current mold, if only because they have distinct individual personalities: Spider-Man (and perhaps even more, its sequel) is very much a crowd-pleasing, big-budget blockbuster, but it also feels like a product of director Sam Raimi's very specific directorial sensibility, a movie that could only have been made by the same person who made Darkman (essentially a proto-Marvel movie) and Army of Darkness. Bryan Singer's X-Men followed up on some of the same themes as his previous film, Apt Pupil (which, like X-Men, also starred Ian McKellen). And, for better or worse, Ang Lee turned The Hulk into a psychodrama of familial angst and repression — in other words, an Ang Lee film.
Even the Blade series followed the same basic path, with a 2002 sequel directed by Guillermo del Toro, who at the time had gained some notice for films like Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone but was far from widely known. His follow-up is arguably an improvement on the original, a tense, moody, witty action-horror picture that expands the Blade universe and gives it an air of gothic pathos that can only be described as del Toro–esque.
To be sure, X-Men, Spider-Man, and The Hulk weren’t art films. But they were all helmed by directors who had already made clever little movies that had garnered critical praise and cult followings, and were then given a chance not only to take part in a big studio production, but to do so in a way that reflected their personal sensibility.
Deadpool feels unique because it successfully tweaks the modern superhero formula
The problem with this approach, at least from a studio’s perspective, is that sometimes you get Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, but sometimes you get Ang Lee’s The Hulk.
And so, over time, the unique voice of the director has waned somewhat, if not disappeared entirely, as studios have exerted more control. Sure, The Avengers feels like a sure-footed Joss Whedon film (that’s a big part of what makes it so great). But the sequel feels like a battle between Whedon and his studio overlords (it was), and a film like Thor is hardly recognizable as a Kenneth Branagh movie, despite the source material’s obvious Shakespearean possibilities.
After Singer left the third X-Men film midway through development, it was taken over by Brett Ratner, and it barely feels like it was directed by anyone. The Incredible Hulk, a competent but forgettable 2008 follow-up to Lee’s Hulk directed by action hand Louis Leterrier, similarly plays like it’s been thoroughly sanded of any individual personality. And the less said about any of the Fantastic Four movies, the better.
The contrast to those films is what makes Deadpool feel so fun and fresh: It has a clear and distinct personality, driven by its foul-mouthed main character. Like Blade, it’s not afraid to take the story and the tone wherever it needs to serve its protagonist (even if that mostly means going off on tangents). And while it’s not exactly an auteur’s vision of a superhero movie, it certainly serves as a showcase for first-time director Miller’s flair for innovative animation and effects work.
Essentially, it’s a small but successful variation on the superhero formula — and a reminder that not all superhero stories have to look the same. They certainly don’t in comics, where superhero publishers have long experimented with books that vary wildly in tone, structure, and format — sometimes even within the same series — allowing different creative teams to try out wildly different approaches to the same character.
Some of this sort of experimentation is already happening, of course, particularly on the small screen, where shows like Daredevil, The Flash, Supergirl, and Jessica Jones have expanded the range of what a filmed superhero story can be. (DC’s best animated series, from Batman: The Animated Series to Justice League Unlimited, have arguably done even more on this front.) Deadpool helps expand those boundaries too, if only a little bit. Even more importantly, it reminds us that those boundaries exist, and should be broken.