Superpowers, alienation and Deadpool

Oh, yeah. We’re gonna do a think-piece on Deadpool, baby. Grab a chimichanga and buckle up.

I admit, I didn’t see Deadpool in theaters, and only had a passing knowledge of the character to begin with. However, I’ve seen the movie several times on video – twice courtesy of United Airlines, where at least some things are still free besides dry-mouth and turbulence. And since I’m in the midst of writing about superheroes, of a sort, in the MAJESTIC-12 series, I have thoughts.

Ready? Cue the music. 

We’re in a golden age of superhero movies, though some would argue it’s become a commercialized, sterilized stew of meticulously planned commercial attractions. If you’re in the latter camp, Deadpool had to have been a breath of fresh air. And if you’re not….well, same thing, really.

I would say over half of the superhero movies out there do a half-assed job with character motivation. The origin stories are very predictable: There’s a tragedy, there’s a singular event that gifts the hero with abilities, and then the hero is motivated by the tragedy to suit up and bring justice to all. Boom. That’s it.

Yes, there are exceptions, but ultimately the empowered character becomes a hero and stays a hero, and those “enhanced” folks who become villains stay villains. Yes, we’re talking about movies based on comic books, and those books started several decades ago. But still…what would you do if you had superpowers?

We all think we’d do awesome things, right? Save the day, over and over. But I’m betting that you know someone in your life who really shouldn’t get superpowers, because they’d be a selfish jerk. Not evil or anything, just selfish.

Walk through walls? Dude. Banks are insured these days, amirite? Walk in after hours, grab some cash and walk out. You’re set for life and the bank’s insurer (or its shareholders or the government) is on the hook rather than the bank or the everyday folks who deposited the cash in the bank.

It’s wrong of course, and I don’t advocate theft. Plus, you can’t walk through walls, not even with…wait for it…maximum effort. These are comic books, though, and in comic books, heroes just don’t do that. In real life, Bruce Wayne would’ve grown up and either become a philanthropist in his dead parents’ name or a wastrel in constant therapy. Dressing up in a Bat-Suit is not a typical option.

Yes, we get a bit of nuance in films these days. But not a heap. And yet I would argue that Deadpool has all kinds of nuance in its character development. Wade Wilson is a former special forces operative turned mercenary who gets cancer and volunteers for a super-sketchy medical procedure so he can stay alive. The experiment cures him and gives him strength, speed and super-fast healing, but turns his face into pizza. It also kind of makes him unhinged.

And why wouldn’t it? Good Lord, you think you’re gonna die, then you go through amazingly intense pain and agony in order to live, then your face becomes  gross…and the guy who did it to you leaves you for dead in a fire because he’s just not very nice.

How do you go from that to rescuing kittens from trees or stopping muggers from assaulting little old ladies? You don’t. You just don’t.

Deadpool got two basic elements right about Wade Wilson’s origin: His whole ordeal sends him on a bloody revenge spree, and it leaves him seriously messed up in the head. We laugh, of course, because Deadpool is unhinged in a very, very funny way, and Ryan Reynolds plays the laughs perfectly. But Reynolds – “God’s Perfect Idiot” in the credits – also captures Wilson’s psychotic pain and anger, too. It’s a fine line, and while the film errs on the side of laughs and carnage, there’s enough nuance there to leave me impressed.

Deadpool doesn’t accept his fate and swear to use his powers for good. No way, Mama June. He’s angry and he’s messed up and he doesn’t care who he hurts. That’s not really nice, but it’s far more realistic

As I wrote on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog, getting superpowers would be a supremely life-changing experience. You gotta wrap your head around it. You gotta figure out how such a crazy thing fits into your whole self-image, your life and how you live it. It’s going to make you look at other people differently, and the result of that isn’t always going to make you feel like a benevolent protector, because sometimes other people suck.

Deadpool got that part right, and for that, I think it’s one of the best superhero movies of the current crop. Because for some people, superpowers don’t make them superheroes. Superpowers just make them feel alienated, or angry, or any number of very normal things.


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