There was something about waiting for Deadpool to start that reminded me of a college party. Maybe it was the row of people cheering and pulling beers from their backpacks, or the smell of someone smoking a joint in the back, or the happy mingling of groups sitting next to each other while sharing their mutual love of comic books. Even before the film started playing, this experience was all about the audience for me. So when the film began satirizing superhero movie stereotypes, I remembered my own position as a viewer enough to think: “How do other people see this? What does this satire, this irony of using the clichés it criticizes, look like to them?” Though Deadpool (2016) attempts to use humor to point out stereotypes common in American superhero films, it ultimately relies on “irony” as an excuse to further perpetuate these same stereotypes.
Deadpool is based on the story of the Marvel comic book character of the same name. Directed by Tim Miller, the film follows Wade Wilson — a morally-questionable ex-special forces operative — as he finds love with a woman named Vanessa Carlysle, only to find out he has terminal cancer after he proposes to her. Not wanting her to see him die, Wilson leaves Vanessa to undergo unique treatment from someone who claims to be able to cure his cancer, but ends up completely scarred, and has newfound special abilities. By creating a “superhero” suit and assuming the name Deadpool, Wilson seeks revenge and the cure for his scars so that he can win back Vanessa. In every way, Deadpool follows the American superhero genre formula: a tragic backstory paired with obtaining new powers, a mission, and a love interest just for some extra flavor. Bam. A superhero film is born.
The thing that sets Deadpool apart from other superhero films is its blatant acknowledgment of the ridiculousness of these clichés, mostly through “breaking the fourth wall”. Deadpool doesn’t just allude to genre stereotypes; it laughs at them, shoves them in your face. Deadpool constantly talks to the audience, at one point even going as far as acknowledging a fourth wall break within a fourth wall break:
“A fourth wall break within a fourth wall break? That’s, like, sixteen walls!” – Deadpool
The opening credits of the film best exemplifies this; rather than listing the names of people involved in the film, they sarcastically list the stereotypical roles they fill:
“Twentieth Century Fox Presents: Some douchebag’s film, starring God’s perfect idiot, a hot chick, a British villain, the comic relief, a moody teen, a CGI character, a gratuitous cameo, produced by asshats, written by the real heroes here, directed by an overpaid tool”
Wade Wilson himself is both an attempt to deviate from a stereotype — the moral “hero” — and an attempt to feed into another stereotype — the hypermasculine sarcastic bad boy (or asshole, if you will). He’s morally-questionable, incredibly violent, (originally) physically attractive, full of sexual innuendos, and of course, muscular as hell. He’s really the complete image of ideal masculinity, is he not?
Vanessa Carlysle’s character is also an attempt to deviate from and feed into a stereotype. Breaking away from the “damsel in distress” trope too often seen in superhero films (I’m looking at you, Mary Jane), Deadpool opts for a “strong” female character. She’s independent, funny, and also incredibly sexual. Honestly, that wouldn’t be a problem for me if it didn’t perpetuate the problematic idea that only sexually promiscuous women are truly “strong female characters.” Just like Wade’s specific brand of gender expression wouldn’t bother me if it didn’t perpetuate unhealthy standards of ideal masculinity.
The way Deadpool handles genre stereotypes reminds me of the argument for having objectified women fill lad magazines: irony. According to Mooney, “The claim to irony is indefensible textually and politically. In fact, what ‘irony’ means in this context is problematic; it seems that “irony” is used as a virtual synonym for ‘humour’” (248). In other words, Deadpool uses irony and humor as excuses for including genre stereotypes, and because the representations are “ironic,” the film is supposedly exempt from the blame of perpetuating the stereotypes. But it’s not that easy. Truly criticizing and rejecting genre stereotypes would require portraying something else as “heroic” or “strong” — a sensitive non-muscular hero, for example, or an independent heroine that’s not traditionally sexually attractive (or, better yet, let’s have a female superhero be the star for once, and not have a woman there simply for the romantic subplot).
However, Mooney also said, “Irony depends on the interpreter” (257). And like I said, this film is all about the audience. Its fourth-wall-breaking style forces active viewing as Deadpool directly addresses the audience, or a magazine with Ryan Reynold’s face appears in the background, or there are subtle allusions to Ryan Reynold’s other superhero role (Green Lantern, 2011). These things remind us that the film is an illusion. Mulvey theorizes about the three “looks” of cinema: “that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion” (843). However, to maintain the illusion of a film, these looks must be unnoticeable. Breaking a “fourth wall” — especially when a character no longer just looks at other characters, but at the camera, at the audience — effectively reminds us of our position as scopophilic viewers (Mulvey 835). When we’re forced out of the illusion of the film, we also break away from submitting to the story and accepting it as fact. We become even more active thinkers and critics while viewing. So for me, breaking the fourth wall made me extra aware of its perpetuation of stereotypes, while someone else may engage differently with the text. Deadpool reminded me of the importance of viewer readings, and watching in a group setting made a difference on how I perceived the film.
The public viewing experience – does it make a difference?
In my experience, the audiences of superhero movies tend to have more of a camaraderie feel than other films, even if simply because they share a common interest. At one point before the film started, for instance, two audience members high-fived about their matching Deadpool T-shirts as they walked past each other in the aisle. This camaraderie created a group-viewing effect that exaggerated our reactions to the film itself. Jokes are suddenly funnier when 20 people behind you laugh hysterically; gore seems more violent when everyone around you voices their disgust; and the continuous pop-culture references throughout the film made it seem like the audience had their own collective inside joke. My reactions to Deadpool wouldn’t have been nearly as pronounced if I had watched the film alone.
I saw Deadpool at the St. Anthony Main theater in Minneapolis, a small independent cinema that draws in a wide variety of people. Because of its proximity to the University of Minnesota campus and its $6 student discount tickets — which is what I paid to see the film — St. Anthony Main is often filled with college-age audiences. For Deadpool specifically, I think the generally young audience I saw was a combination of the proximity to campus, the ticket price, and the age of the Deadpool fan-base in general. Marvel comics are by no means exclusive to one age group, but Deadpool seemed to be created for a specific subset of their fan-base, most obviously through the R rating.
Long story short: the setting makes all the difference. Especially for a movie like Deadpool, which relies on audience interaction and fandom-based jokes. It just goes to show: active viewing is one thing, but collective active viewing reaches a whole new level of constructed interpretations.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.
Mooney, Annabelle. “Boys Will Be Boys.” Feminist Media Studies 8.3 (2008): 247-65. DOI: 10.1080/14680770802217287