Friday, February 12, 2016

On Deadpool

I miss opening credits. They were the show openers, and superhero movies had some great ones. The opening of Superman began with a young boy reading Action Comics #1.  The camera pans up to outer space and we see the cast and crew named one-by-one, through silver three-dimensional font that shoots on the screen in laser effect. Soundtrack: John Williams. Batman Returns is more gonzo/gothic. The shadow of baby Penguin's carriage looms through the sewers of Gotham. Soundtrack: Danny Elfman. The opening credits of Spider-Man 2 was a montage of Alex Ross paintings. Soundtrack: Elfman, again.

There are opening credits for Deadpool, but I found that odd, as the superhero movies of the past ten years, the movies it parodies, don't have opening credits or memorable scores. The camera shifts around a still of a set-piece action scene in the movie. A car filled with goons is suspended in air, Deadpool with them.  The camera captures every CGI detail, the bullet, the blood and the in-jokes. The credits don't name anyone but the archetypes that we know from superhero movies, like the "British villain", the "moody teenager", and the "comic relief." The movie is directed by "some douchebag." I wanted to engage with the spectacle and I wanted to laugh. I really really wanted to laugh, but I couldn't.


I got into Marvel Comics when I was in fifth grade in 1991, which was the nadir in the history of Marvel Comics. Its most celebrated artist at the time was Todd McFarlane, who turned Spider-Man into a dumb jock, diminished his wit and accentuated his sadism. There was a new character named Cable who was just a big guy with guns. My mom didn't want me reading any of the violent comics. I read them anyway, in secret, though I honestly didn't like them that much. I preferred the reprints of the '60s comics, the humanism of Jack Kirby, or my brother's comics from the '80s, the S and M of Claremont's X-Men. (When I got older, I realized that Claremont is a miserable writer.) 

I stopped reading comics when I was in sixth grade. I wanted to spend my money on CDs. The comics all started sounding the same, and the plots weren't that imaginative. I wanted to read "real books." I read The Sun Also Rises when I was in seventh grade and I related more to Robert Cohn's pathetic attempts at heroism than I did Peter Parker's. I got back into comics when I was in college, and I loved Mark Millar's take on the X-Men and the Avengers (Ultimates) and Bendis's Spider-Man. 

So I more or less skipped over the age of Deadpool in the '90s. I picked up an issue a few years ago just to see what it was all about and I saw the in-jokes, the breaking of the fourth wall, and I thought, these jokes are old. They are literally 60 years old. Self-reflexivity has been part of superhero comics since at least the 1940s, when Clark Kent and Lois Lane walked into a movie theater and watched a Max Fleischer Superman cartoon.  Deadpool's breaking of the fourth wall, his hipster jokes about the superhero genre, weren't that clever. Alan Moore's were better. 

The comics did have some good violence, but I wasn't that into it. It's not that I was opposed to violence. I rocked out to A Clockwork Orange and Reservoir Dogs like everyone else, and later on, Blood Meridian became my favorite novel for about two months, but Marvel Comics violence in that era was rarely placed well within the genre. There was no ritual around it. It was random, empty. 
We don't just love violence. We love violence that is designed, placed within a narrative. We love it when the Bride slices off the limbs of the Crazy 88s, and we love Darryl Hannah's short-circuit in Blade Runner because Tarantino and Ridley Scott, respectively, have been preparing that dance, the moment when these human characters get their Gene Kelly moment, and become something sublime.  You remember the ending of Bonnie and Clyde because the entire two hours of the movie has been building towards a moment in which hundreds of squib shots destroy a beautiful young couple. 

The violence of Deadpool is constant, random and meaningless. Or rather, it's only meaning lies in its meaninglessness, of the constant joking from Deadpool that it's just fun to watch and that it is meaningless. The violence in Deadpool all comes from CGI. It looks like a computer game. Nothing is at stake in Deadpool and it offers you no physical sensations, because CGI fails the body genre.  And the movie remains fully aware of that fact, and it can't stop joking about it. It's like a frat boy who tells racist jokes, and laughs at them as post-racism, all as a protection against his actual racism. 

The best joke in the movie may or may not be intentional, and lies in the hilarious cheapness of its CGI Colossus, a reminder that this is a low-rent Marvel movie, one that, Deadpool reminds us, can't afford more than the rights to two X-Men characters. The movie tells jokes about Ryan Reynolds's poor acting, and how its hot-chick lead fits every nerd desire, and it drops the names of Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy and alludes to some homoerotic weirdness with Hugh Jackman, and not one of those jokes has any wit. It makes fun of the Reynolds's animated costume in Green Lantern, which in itself, is a joke on the animated awfulness of Deadpool.  

I guess this is all the point of the movie, and it's your choice to surrender to the pandering, the violence, and the meta-ness. Well, I don't really want to surrender to it. I have enough faith that someone besides Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi can still make a fun and interesting superhero movie, and I don't want to accept a movie that celebrates the genre's badness and tries to convince you that it's not actually bad.

It's been almost 20 years since the Marvel revival began with Blade, and that's long enough ago that we can have something bordering on nostalgia for that sorta-kinda-golden-age-compared-to-what-we-have-now.  And, frankly, just as comics have always been self-reflexive, superhero movies have been telling jokes about themselves since Clark Kent couldn't find a phone booth in the first Superman movie.  So if you want wit, I'll give you wit. I'll give you evidence that you can be amused by something semi-intelligent in a moment of extreme tension, that you can have something of what Claude Rains has in Casablanca buried right there in a superhero movie.  

In the denouement in X-Men, Magneto faces off with Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm and Phoenix in the Statue of Liberty:

Cyclops: Storm, fry him!
Magneto: Oh yes! A bolt of lightning through a copper conductor. I thought you lived at a school?

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