For an irreverent send-up of Hollywood superhero tropes, “Deadpool 2” is oddly reverent.
This isn't to say that fans of the first “Deadpool” — which grossed close to $783 million worldwide —will be disappointed. On the contrary, the sequel, premiering on May 18, has all the poop jokes, meta-superhero film references and preposterous cartoon mega-violence a fan could desire. If you want to see anti-hero Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) quip to the camera about the film's poor plotting or see him get bloodily torn in half and or wander around without pants to the hilarious disgust of friends and coworkers — this is the film for you. There's even a sneering Green Lantern reference. In other words, rest assured that the original formula hasn't changed.
That formula is feeling more and more universally formulaic, though. “Deadpool” isn't successful because it's a different kind of superhero movie. It's successful because it's exactly the same kind of superhero movie that we expect.
The “Deadpool” franchise sets itself up as a self-aware commentary on superhero tropes. But it reproduces those tropes with careful fidelity.
The “Deadpool” franchise sets itself up as a self-aware commentary on superhero tropes. But it reproduces those tropes with careful fidelity. In “Deadpool 2,” the hero opens the film by beating the crap out of a series of evil, mostly non-white "traffickers." Multiple heroes lose loved ones (the technical term is "fridged") in order to motivate revenge and uber-violence. There are choreographed, CGI-abetted fight scenes, lots of explosions and a sentimental realization about the importance of love and friendship.
“Deadpool” was, in theory, meant to be a comedy with dramatic action bits. In practice, however, it looks a lot like “Thor: Ragnarok:” a dramatic action film with comedy bits. Both movies wink at the audience by mocking and undermining their heroes and the concept of heroism early in order to dramatize the importance of bravery, sacrifice and self-actualization in the film's final act.
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“Deadpool” and “Thor” both have their cake and eat it too, making fun of the superhero genre while delivering all of the genre pleasures.
Superhero parodies haven't always been so devoted to the superhero blueprint. Bob Burden's 1980s “Flaming Carrot,” featuring a man in a carrot mask fighting clones of Hitler's boots, was outright surreal, focused more on throwing out ridiculous ideas than on any kind of narrative of self-discovery or triumph. The famous Harvey Kurtzman/Wally Wood 1953 Mad Magazine parody “Superduperman” was bracingly cynical, presenting superheroes as pitiful dopes motivated by money and sex rather than altruism.
Perhaps the most successful example is the Adam West “Batman” television series, which is remembered today as silly, campy fluff. But despite its G-rated approach, the show was quietly a lot more cynical about superherodom than today's supposedly adult interpretations.
In the very first “Batman” television episode, for example, Adam West as Bruce Wayne launches into a soliloquy about his murdered parents. West's delivery is, as always, tongue-in-cheek, and his monologue is presented as both unmotivated and narcissistic; the show essentially mocks Bruce's childhood trauma. “Deadpool 2” wants you to be sorry for its hero's loss. “Batman” wanted you to laugh at tragedy, on the reasonable grounds that killing off a character's parents to get him to dress up as a bat for the rest of his life is ridiculous.
Similarly, in “Batman: The Movie” (1966), the big screen Adam West film, the hero actually doesn't save the day. The villains concoct a wacky plot to turn the United Nations security council members into dehydrated piles of dust. Batman uses his superscientific knowledge to restore them. But the dust gets mixed together, and the brains of the diplomats end up in the wrong bodies — not that anyone really notices, since the diplomats just go on with their endless arguments.
Rather than a self-sacrificing heroic savior, Adam West’s Batman was a doofus who only partially restores a world order that looks like it might not have been worth restoring in the first place.
There have been more recent — if less mainstream — irreverent superhero parodies too. The manga and anime webcomic “One-Punch Man,” released initially in 2009 by Japanese artist ONE, is about a superhero who is so much more powerful than everyone else that it only takes him one punch to defeat any enemy.
The adventures are an extended anti-climax — a sardonic commentary on the pointlessness of pretending there's suspense in a story where you know the heroes are always going to win. You even start to feel sorry for the twisted villains, who you know are doomed as soon as they show up. Meanwhile, One-Punch Man himself defeats everyone so easily that he doesn't get any credit for his heroics.
The current endless superhero movie moment is built around getting audiences to watch the same kinds of superhero films over and over and over.
“One-Punch Man” is so aggressively meaningless and pedestrian that it makes every other superhero narrative look meaningless and pedestrian too. These stories are all the same, so why even bother with them?
That's not a question “Deadpool 2” is willing to ask, for obvious reasons. The current endless superhero movie moment is built around getting audiences to watch the same kinds of superhero films over and over and over. That doesn't mean that those films are bad — “Deadpool 2” is quite entertaining. But it does mean that there's a fairly strict limit on how skeptical or pointed today's American superhero films are going to be. Even “The Lego Batman Movie” fulfills the tropes; Batman fights bad guys, faces setbacks, and attains victory after learning the virtues of teamwork. It's pretty much the same script as “Deadpool 2,” with slightly different (and more family-friendly) gags.
When people go to a big tentpole superhero movie, they know what they want: spectacular fights, explosions, some sarcasm and victorious heroes. You can tweak the proportions here and there, or even delay the inevitable win to set up a sequel as in “Avengers: Infinity War.” But with so much money on the line, even Deadpool has to behave himself.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."