‘Deadpool’: Marvel’s Bastard Stepchild Is Movies’ Most Subversive Superhero Yet

The first superhero movie to explore alpha male insecurity is also the most self-aware yet. Deadpool knows we’re watching—and that the audience is just another voice in his head.

Deadpool knows you’re watching him. That’s part of the charm of the wisecracking antihero, who commented on his own adventures from the pages of Marvel’s comics and does just that throughout Fox’s R-rated superhero stand-alone of the same name. As he slices and snarks his way through his first starring vehicle, the meta-gaze takes on a life of its own. Are we watching Deadpool watching us watching him?

Deadpool is at once a welcome antidote to the played out superhero universe and an anomaly, destined to be trapped in its spandexed outliers as a stand-alone even if future X-Men ensembles dare to weave him in for jokey ensemble asides and fourth wall breaks. Compared to the market-dominating blockbusters of Disney’s Avengers franchise, the Batman and Superman-led flicks hot on their heels at Warner Bros., Sony’s Spider-Man reboots, and Fox’s own X-Men films, it’s wildly subversive, if slight when it comes to story.

Ryan Reynolds nails it as Wade Wilson, the ex-Special Forces mercenary with a stellar kill record and quick wit who finds himself facing an impossible fate. The vain but likable douche has recently let love into his life, in the form of a feisty but damaged hooker named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). But just when he asks her to marry him, he’s diagnosed with cancer.

Rather than let his lady watch him wither and die from the disease, Wilson runs away into the sinister arms of a laboratory whose shady operators promise a cure. They pump him full of chemo-like chemicals and subject him to extreme physical torture to “trigger” the mutation that will ultimately save him. Alas, when Wilson wakes up cancer-free and indestructible, he discovers a trade-off that horrifies him: His entire body is so scarred, he looks like someone peeled the skin off a human grape.

Worse, the guy who did it to him is a sadistic and utterly handsome science bro named Ajax (Ed Skrein), himself a graduate of the Weapon X program. As he plots to make Ajax give him back his hot bod, Wilson takes the name Deadpool and sews himself a red-and-black body suit while performing his own rap theme song in a lively montage. (Mercifully, the film chooses to ignore the first time Reynolds played Deadpool as a sort of mute superhuman brute in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.)

The constant barrage of self-referential dialogue and gag pop culture references veer from grating to lukewarm to inspired. Liam Neeson, Rosie O’Donnell, and rapper DMX get memorable shouts-out from Deadpool in his impish Canadian lilt, Reynolds a natural fit for this kind of winking deadpan dialogue.

T.J. Miller is even better as Deadpool’s bar owner bestie Weasel, who delivers a barrage of seemingly improvised, straight-faced digs at his friend’s new baconface. When a shadowy figure enters the joint looking for Wilson, Weasel drops a throwaway line that’ll earn chuckles from the audience. “I don’t know,” he shrugs, pointing Wilson to the stranger who’ll recruit him for mutation therapy. “It might further the plot.”

Ajax’s special powers include not feeling emotion—a super masculine power, indeed. The neurotic Deadpool clearly feels too much. The self-conscious shame he feels for his new body fuels his decision to stay away from Vanessa, who thinks he’s dead. Instead, he applies himself to becoming a hero by default, vengeance in his long-game sights, by taking his frustration out on bad guys as he kills his way back to Ajax.

Point in fact: Deadpool refers to himself not once but twice as a “butterface,” making this the first superhero movie to explore the ramifications of alpha male insecurity and suggest that, perhaps, he’s overcompensating by cutting a violent swath through countless criminals.

Deadpool’s world opens up with the arrival of X-Men staple Colossus (voiced by Stefan Capicic), the hulking, metal-skinned hero assigned to stop Deadpool from wreaking too much havoc in his vengeance quest. He brings with him a young charge, Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianne Hildebrand), a pouty Hot Topic millennial mutant with the ability to conjure devastating nuclear firepower.

Colossus makes a memorable entrance as he arrives with NTW on a carnage-strewn bridge to keep an eye on Deadpool, who doesn’t realize his is the side adventure of a fringe character. This quest, and this film, might be Deadpool’s defining adventure—but it’s just another dutiful weekday chore for the X-Men.

The film stretches a lot of movie out of Deadpool’s fairly conventional origin plot, jumping back and forth from the bridge to the past to the present to a big set piece at the end that, in any bigger superhero tent pole, would feel criminally minor.

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In the film’s press notes, “Deadpool” himself (at least, a marketing dept. version of Deadpool) describes the film as “a moderately priced, three-quadrant, February-opening, tent-pole blockbuster superhero movie.” It feels far less grandiose in the theater, where the constraints of a relatively small budget—by superhero movie standards—and the legal mess of making a Marvel film outside of Disney are not only written onscreen, they’re written into the script.

The best parts of Deadpool aren’t watching Reynolds bask in the character’s snark or the underwhelming, over-CGIed, soft-R fight scenes. Like Deadpool, audiences are smarter than most studio blockbusters give them credit for being. (“Is it sexist to hit you, or is it more sexist not to hit you?” he asks a female villain, mid-battle.) And in the age of peak schadenfreude, the most satisfying bits of Deadpool land when Deadpool throws shade at all those other, bigger, more popular superhero franchises.

Spider-Man, Wolverine, and X-Men—the franchise Deadpool is being shoved into as Fox charts a course in parallel to Disney, Warner Bros., and Sony—get the Deadpool treatment, because even in his own movie, Deadpool knows he’s the studio’s bastard superhero stepchild. Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese perhaps deserve the most kudos for these insidery jokes, including a knowing line Deadpool drops when he shows up at Professor X’s mansion to fetch Colossus and NTW for his ultimate mission—only to find none of the other X-Men are home.

If you get bored with the simplistic plot and tired of Deadpool’s constant running commentary, consider the curious questions raised by the performative awareness of Marvel’s truthseer, who breaks the fourth wall as many times as he, in one cringe-inducing scene, breaks his own appendages. Is he—Deadpool, Wade Wilson, Ryan Reynolds, whoever—playing up the Merc with a Mouth persona because we in the cineplex are watching? Is the audience just another of the myriad voices yelling in Wade Wilson’s schizophrenic brain? Will the Hollywood movie machine ever again truly know such purity between message and receiver, or watch a superhero take a night off to spank it on the couch while wearing a pair of Crocs?