Once upon a time superheroes on screen were of the camp ‘Kerpow!’ variety. Strictly two-dimensional with no nod to the post-war shadows that gave them their birth in print. It wasn’t until 1978 with Superman convincing the studios that men (and women) in lycra saving the world could make an initial $55 million gamble pay off in the multi millions. It’s a marvelous triptych of a film in three parts starting with the crystalline beauty of Krypton, moving to the Edward Hopper inspired landscape of Smallville before the familiar 2D characters are made part-flesh, part-cartoon in the glorious technicolor finale set in Metropolis. It set the standard below which so many in coming years would fall. Including all the others in that particular series.
Batman – of course – was always a more complicated guy with nastier adversaries. But in common with the Man of Steel the first in the re-boot series (this time in the 80s with a scenery-digesting Jack Nicholson) was always going to prove the law of diminishing returns.
Hollywood muddled around for a few years, losing its superhero way until the perfect storm happened with comic book geeks coming of film-making age; the advent of CGI and the cinema money-men advising that all the spending power was with young men. Plus there was the curious phenomenon of geek-chic. People whose only experience of hanging around musty-smelling comic book stores with even mustier-smelling socially-inadequate guys being done vicariously through The Big Bang Theory. People whose only tactile pleasure of the genre was handling the decidedly chic-less Marvel satchels, mugs, key-rings and ring-binders cluttering up the supermarket dump-bins. Superheroes were being seriously devalued.
As a result Batman got darker and darker (coupled with the real-life tragedies of an actor’s death and a cinema massacre) until he disappeared up his Buddhist Master’s timeline. Time for the existential kick-back with Watchmen, Kick-Ass and the excellent, no-budget Super. Well, we all need a bit of deconstruction – don’t we? But that soon got the whiff of possessing the T-shirt that had been through the wash quite a few times…
So it was with more than a tad of apprehension that I approached Deadpool. I mean – how knowingly arch and genre-referencing can you be? But from the playful anonymous opening credits (‘some English dude playing the villain’ to the real talent being in the writing) to the slo-mo visceral gore which is just a bit slower and a bit gorier to underline – yeah, we know what we’re doing and we’re doing it better – this is genre rebuilding and reassuringly good stuff. Billed as a love story – it actually is – it works on so many levels with layers and layers of references not only from recent popular culture but from classic literature and fairy tales. The most obvious are Frankenstein (Deadpool as victim of a medical experiment / becoming the housemate of an elderly blind woman) and Beauty and the Beast. But there’s also Rumpelstiltskin (‘What’s my name?’) and the heroine being encased in a glass casket a la Snow White. It’s intelligent, funny, violent, with scatter-gun pop-culture references aplenty (remember the Spin Doctors anyone?) but most of all it’s got a massive big romantic – and vengeful – heart. If you haven’t seen it already – do yourself a favour and go see!
Also while you’re at it – check out this Guardian article on the (pan)sexuality of Deadpool and various other comic book characters. I particularly loved the Tank Girl references!