*Warning – contains some spoilers. Mostly of punchlines*
I’m not much of a comic book fan, I have to confess. In recent years I’ve read and mostly enjoyed a few of the acclaimed graphic novels (Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Civil War,) but growing up, the only real comic that piqued my interest was the Marvel UK run of Transformers.
That was a slightly odd state of affairs. Marvel UK reprinted the Marvel US comics, but the American series was published monthly and the British, weekly. As such, Simon Furman, a writer for Marvel UK, started creating original stories to fill the gaps in material. These stories were often as good as, if not better, than the American tales. Indeed, Furman eventually took over writing the American title. However, as much as the 8 year old me loved the Transformers characters, I became aware of a few things in the comic world that annoy me to this day.
The first is the multiple continuities that exist between comics, cartoons, film adaptations, etc. For instance, in the Transformers cartoon, their young human ally is named Spike Witwicky. In the comics however, it’s Buster, for no clear reason. Later on, the comics retconned Spike in as Buster’s brother. I wouldn’t even bother counting how many different versions of the Transformers story currently exist; it’s probably around 30, including Beast Wars. I’m not going to explain to you what Beast Wars is, as I honestly don’t have a clue.
Secondly, and partly leading on from point 2, popular characters and titles go on for so long that writers run out of halfway sensible things to happen, and begin resorting to ever more outlandish plots and twists to keep things fresh. Captain America, for instance, has been around for 75 years. I’ll just leave this here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_versions_of_Captain_America. The same thing pretty much happened to the Simpsons, which has been in terminal decline for about 20 years now, and which seems to recycle entire episodes nowadays.
I have pretty much always enjoyed film adaptation of comic books however, mainly because they tend to start off as origin stories, eschewing the bewildering multiverse stuff, and focussing on a clear, concise distillation of the character’s story. There have been many such big-screen adaptations during my life; Tim Burton’s Batman was one of the first, but Captain America has been a favourite character of mine since I saw the Matt Salinger film in the early 90s. Through the rest of the decade, super-hero films were a bit camp and ludicrous, culminating in the massive clusterfuck that was Batman and Robin in 1997. Since then, comic book movies have gone through cycles of getting more realistic, then a little funnier, then grittier again. Most of the major studios are steadily creating cinematic versions of the massive multiverses featured in the comics, with Marvel/Disney having the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Warner Brothers responding with the DC Expanded Universe, and Fox the X-Men continuity. It’s clear that comic book adaptations are big business, but not all are created equal. Fox’s Fantastic 4 (2015) and Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man (2012) weren’t brilliantly received, although there’s probably good reason for that. Likewise, while the Hulk is well-received in Avengers films, it seems unlikely there’ll be another standalone film anytime soon.
So, in short, I find comics a little bit labyrinthine, and their plots bordering on soap-operaish. But I like the idea of superheroes. As such, I enjoy a good comic book film adaptation, at least until they lose the plot and start adding too many characters and generally getting too clever for their own good and emulating what I don’t like in the comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 3 I’m looking at you. But enjoying a comic-book film requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. The events are generally too daft to process otherwise. That’s probably why I was intrigued by the concept of Deadpool.
I first became aware of the merc with a mouth due to the now-disowned by everyone X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which featured a bastardised version of the character. I mean, really bastardised. Let us never speak of it again. If you’re not familiar with Deadpool, he’s a mercenary who underwent medical experimentation to cure his cancer/turn him into a superweapon. The side effect of this successful(ish) procedure was heavy scarring and insanity. But Deadpool’s USP is that his insanity allows him to realise he’s a comic book character, resulting in him not only breaking the fourth wall, but carrying out some sort of unspeakable sex act on it, probably involving root vegetables.
We can tell we have something different in store from the very first shot of the film; instead of the normal opening titles, the main characters, producers, writers and director are introduced by a series of joke pen portraits (Reynolds is God’s Perfect Idiot, and the film is apparently directed by ‘an overpaid douche’.) The montage that charts the progression of Wade’s relationship with girlfriend Vanessa is done via holiday related sex-scenes (Wade’s girlfriend Vanessa wielding a strap-on for International Women’s Day.) And then you have Deadpool’s fourth-wall mangling – some characters in film break the fourth wall a little, but very rarely to this extent. As a result, the film feels in many ways a reaction; to Wolverine (the film), certainly, but perhaps the rest of the comic book movie industry.
I think what drew me into the character is that Deadpool is essentially a hyper-realised everyman. He deconstructs and playfully mocks comic books, while at the same time using all the usual tropes. Suspending disbelief is less of an issue here, because Deadpool hangs a lampshade on all the ridiculous aspects of the genre. At one point in the film, he heads to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to seek help from Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. “This is quite a big building,” he muses. “Weird that I keep only bumping into you two. Almost like the producers couldn’t afford another X-Man.” Which is exactly the case. In fact, Deadpool is a reasonably low-budget film. It had a budget of only $58 million, compared to X-Men Apocalypse’s $200m, and $100m for last year’s Fantastic Four flop; in fact, there are only 2 or 3 real action set-pieces in the entire film. Most of the rest of the script is stupid jokes, but they’re pretty funny and what fight scenes there are are certainly up to scratch. It’s a film that does mock comic book films, but in a loving way. It might well be a vanity project for Ryan Reynolds, but I think he’s put enough work into getting the film made over the last seven years or so that it counts as a labour of love as well. Fair play to him, he’s earned it; as I write this, in the first week of March, Deadpool has made back over 10 times its production budget. On Rotten Tomatoes, it currently scores 6.9/10 with critics, and has a 93% approval rating with audiences.
So, much as I genuinely enjoyed Deadpool, laughing as much as I did during the second showing as I did in the first (as well as catching jokes I missed the first time,) it does raise a question – how am I going to take the next comic book adaptation I see seriously? Currently, that’s pencilled in to be Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Oh dear. I have thought about picking up a Deadpool comic book, to see if 25 years of the character’s adventures in comics entertain me as much as the film, but, you know, I’m not sure where to start…