Last month, Disney chief executive Bob Iger sat down for an interview with the BBC and uttered a sentence that horrified most of the film world's highbrow crowd – or at least those who consider themselves above the pleasures of a superhero blockbuster: "[With] Marvel, you're dealing with thousands and thousands of characters – that will go on forever." Forever, yes.
Nobody should have been surprised by Iger's statement; the man is in the business of making comic-book movies, and his company is obviously going to keep doing so until it has exploited every possible avenue of profit. But that doesn't mean we're all doomed to an eternity of rote superhero formulaics – films where the wisecracking, white-bread hero saves the day while doing everything right, for all the right reasons.
Like any other cinematic genre, the superhero movie is one ripe with opportunity for invention – even subversion. Hollywood may envision a never-ending future of spandex-heavy adventures, but, like the once-inescapable and once-beloved western, the superhero film can be twisted and torqued to last for decades. We've already witnessed some mild pivots: the sleek and gory vision of Guillermo del Toro's Blade II, for instance, or the crude and immoral antics of Kick-Ass. As some filmmakers – and the daring or possibly oblivious studios behind them – have come to realize, if we must live in an era of superheroes, let's at least make things interesting.
To call the new film Deadpool merely interesting, though, would be an understatement. It stars not a patriotic Ubermensch out to protect the world, but a reprehensible killing machine interested only in literally saving his own face. His superpowers aren't flashy, just gross. And his weapons of choice aren't mighty fists that knock out – yet never kill – but assault rifles, grenades and swords soaked in enemy blood.
In short, Deadpool is everything that Hollywood has raised audiences to believe heroes are not: crass, selfish and with a vocabulary that would have made George Carlin blush. Yet here he is on the big screen, slicing and dicing his way through his own origin story, one that somehow exists within the squeaky-clean X-Men cinematic universe (but not, I should note, the "official" Marvel Cinematic Universe that houses the Avengers and Groot the talking tree; I could explain why that is, but let's not bog things down here with a long legal history of inter-studio warfare).
The plot is refreshingly simple and low-stakes. Deadpool (a.k.a. Wade Wilson, a.k.a. the walking, talking smirk that is actor Ryan Reynolds) is a simple mercenary who's out for revenge after a generic British bad guy (Ed Skrein) mutates him, leaving his face a scarred, Freddy Krueger-like wreck. There are a few side characters in the mix – including a disappointingly one-note hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend played with verve by Morena Baccarin – and amusing cameos, but this is mostly Deadpool's show, and he's eager to steal it.
The film has long been a passion project for Reynolds – who played a watered-down version of the same character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine – and the actor clearly relishes the opportunity. His Deadpool is an irrepressibly charming madman – as if a standup comedian decided one day to drop the mic and pick up a Glock. If Reynolds lays it on a bit thick here and there and everywhere, it's only because he's scared 20th Century Fox will wake up and realize what they've unleashed upon the world, and he'll never get such a chance again. (It's not every day that a major studio film, for instance, features a love scene in which the hero is sodomized by his girlfriend in a loving act of sexual exploration.)
Yet it would be dishonest to call Deadpool something truly subversive. Sure, the title character often pauses the violent action to break the fourth wall, and there are many winking meta-references to the genre as a whole, including Reynolds' disastrous outing as Green Lantern. But first-time feature director Tim Miller has created a work that's both aggressive and not aggressive enough.
Deadpool is a cold-blooded killer, but one who still must save a damsel in distress. He's a smart-ass, but only about half of his jokes land. And while the film's violence takes squishy delight in showing how real-world bodies would react to otherworldly superpowers, the action is strangely muted in sections and poorly executed in others. It's cultural irreverence designed for the mainstream.
Still, as Iger and the rest of Hollywood prepare for an endless era of comic-book franchises, it's heartening to glimpse a future where not everything is wrapped up in a tidy package. As Deadpool himself well knows, sometimes you just have to play dirty.