The Philosophy of Deadpool

Welcome to the description for the very special Wisecrack Edition on Deadpool. We’re exploring the smack talking merc with a mouth and what he represents as a postmodern work…you know, what with all that ironic distance, cynicism, and f*ck it attitude! Just watch the video!

Written by: Alec Opperman
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Jacob Salamon

The Philosophy of Deadpool

Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Today we’ve got a self-­aware, fourth­-wall-­breaking spectacular for you. That’s right, we’re talking about Deadpool.

Deadpool is experiencing unprecedented popularity in mainstream media. The film had the biggest opening for an R­-rated movie ever, and the biggest opening for Ryan Reynolds, but I guess that part isn’t a surprise. How has this film achieved such success despite shirking the traditional superhero formula for success? Fighting for the greater good? Nope. Selfless? Not really. Fun for the whole family? Uh… no.

For a Marvel character who is an overt ripoff of a DC competitor that constantly makes fun of the medium that he inhabits, the merc with a mouth is doing pretty well for himself.

Deadpool’s popularity represents a trend in media that may be gaining steam as of late, but is otherwise quite old. And it all has to do with a 400 year old book, sort of.

I’m an overpaid tool and Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Deadpool.

There are a few defining features that set Deadpool apart from the rest of the Marvel universe. He’s an inveterate wiseass, he knows he’s a superhero and is, as a result, constantly breaking the fourth wall and commenting on comic book tropes and culture. Deadpool takes nothing seriously. Even the ad campaign for the film was imagined in an entirely Deadpoolian fashion. The film’s Valentine’s Day ads were simultaneously a great way to troll soon­-to-­be furious partners and a set­up for a self­-referential joke. They even created a Tinder profile.

Perhaps the best way to describe Deadpool is as a postmodern work. Let me explain.

Postmodernism is a movement in the arts and philosophy that typically rejects the kind of grand narratives used to make sense of the world in the good old days. For instance, the battle of good against evil, democracy against communism, the inherent promise of technological progress, science or divine salvation, the very idea of “the good old days” ­­ you get the idea. Postmodern works are quick to thumb their nose at tradition and have a tendency to embrace being “meta” and self­-reference.

Deadpool is hyper-­aware of himself and his place in the superhero genre. The film is full of Ryan Reynolds jokes, like the reference to the cinematic abomination “The Green Lantern, his face on People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” or the face of his vastly more appreciated counterpart ­ also on People Magazine.

If the grand narrative that permeates superhero films is the triumph of good over evil, Deadpool, in good postmodern fashion, says “fuck it ­ let’s go bowling,” I mean, killing. Wrong movie – same idea. There is no grand battle of good over evil, just a guy out there killing a bunch of people for revenge and love.

This tension, between the old world and postmodernism, is played out in a couple different ways in the film. Colossus is constantly asking Deadpool to cut out the shenanigans and join the X­Men, as if to rope him into the role of a good superhero ­ family friendly, righteous, and so on. Likewise, the Dopinder subplot subverts classic narratives of courtly love. Win the heart of your beloved through chivalry and compassion? Nah. It’s more effective to to just kidnap her current lover and stuff him in the trunk. Even Blind Al is essentially a deranged version of a classic narrative.
Deformed protagonist who takes refuge with a benevolent blind benefactor? Yep sounds familiar, except this time… Not to mention that the apple of our hero’s eye isn’t a fair maiden. She’s a stripper/prostitute.

In this way, Deadpool can be seen as a spiritual successor to a 400 ­year-­old novel that also made fun of the heroes of its eras, employed meta-narratives, and is called by some a proto­-postmodern work: Don Quixote. Remember that the story of Don Quixote is the tale of a fictional author who discovered the fictional accounts of Don Quixote, a story within a story, way before The Blair Witch project ruined hiking in the woods. Don Quixote understands he is being written about, and the fictional author retelling his tale constantly breaks the fourth wall. At one point in Don Quixote, the story
just cuts off when the fictional author claims the rest of the story was lost. We’re not saying this parallel is intentional, but it’s worth noting that Deadpool kills Don Quixote in the comic books.

To understand Don Quixote’s relationship to Deadpool, we have to understand its historical context. Don Quixote was written at a time when radical skepticism of the existing order started to bud in popular society. It was written just before the Enlightenment gripped Europe, which would respond to this skepticism by touting the virtues of rationality and science. But Don Quixote wasn’t setting out to invent a new ideology: he just wanted to have a few laughs at the expense of Spanish society.

Deadpool signals a similar disenchantment with all those old righteous narratives in our society. But this time it’s a little different, and whether or not it’s a good thing is up for debate.

There are two ways to grapple with this disillusionment. You can become a cynical shut­in who calls strangers on the internet “sheeple,” or you can go about creating something new. So which one is Deadpool?

In a recent interview, Joss Whedon, the man behind such self­-aware titles as Firefly, Buffy and the Avengers, finds in Indiana Jones a microcosm for all that’s wrong with today’s culture.

In the original Indiana Jones film, our protagonist famously deals with a gratuitous display of swordsmanship with a modest display of marksmanship. In the Temple of Doom, we’re confronted with a similar scene but, oh my, there’s now two swordsmen. Indie reaches for his gun, but it’s not there. He delivers a shit­eating-­grin to the audience, as if to say, “see what I did there? You saw that last movie, and I made an inside joke about it. I’m so glad we had this moment together, now that you feel like you’re in on this collective joke that doesn’t even make sense because Temple of Doom is a fucking prequel.” That moment of self-­reference for the sake of self-­reference, Whedon says, has engulfed our culture. Film, tv, literature ­ it’s all becoming that moment. He says this isn’t a good thing, but then again he’s the guy who apologizes for asking the audience to suspend disbelief.

This self­awareness is increasingly taking a cynical tone. It’s almost everywhere you look. In the new Tarzan trailer, a remake of a film nobody asked for, Jane overtly references the fact that she’s playing the tired role of a damsel in distress. What really chaps my ass about this is that the film is recognizing that it’s using tired recycled tropes, but instead of doing something new, it simply apologizes for it, and expects us to perceive this self awareness as something clever and new. The end of Star Trek into Darkness is just an excuse to say “Hey ­ remember this great scene in cinema? Now it’s opposite day!” 22 Jump Street is the same exact plot of 21 Jump Street, but it’s ok, because we can collectively identify with Ice Cube for calling them out on their bullshit. Or, as South Park frames it:

As if to out­-meta each other, this cynical attitude has transcended self­-reference into self-­effacement. Hollywood, that decrepit machine fueled by the ideas of yesteryear, is always stuck referencing itself. In an effort reinvent itself while still remaining the same, it gleefully acknowledges its lazy cliches, with a wink and a nod, like in Tarzan, or by employing irony to undercut a dramatic moment. Deadpool does both.

It breaks the fourth wall to let us in on the joke and it avoids serious drama like the plague. Hollywood still employs familiar structures and tropes, but uses irony to distance the audience from any kind of sincerity so that it feels new. Is this Hollywood version of #sorrynotsorry gratifying for the viewer, or have we just come to terms with the fact that there is nothing new to say?

Deadpool’s humor is largely driven by this sense of cynicism and ironic distance. Whether he’s being tortured, or about to be gruesomely maimed, Deadpool remains unphased in the face of what would normally be considered high stakes situations. Even the tension of combat scenes are undercut by self­aware humor. Also ­ he can’t die so that probably helps. If Deadpool is immune to criticism, it’s because he is defined by his cynicism. He relentlessly deconstructs any trope that would endow meaning to film. Deadpool is more or less Wade Wilson’s journey to become hot again, itself a shallow endeavor, even if to reclaim his lost love­ or lust. Deadpool evades criticism become he has no moral scruples or values to defend, his identity is purely reactionary.

He risks nothing. He just makes fun of everything. Deadpool doesn’t claim to be a good guy. The film also has 0 fucks to give. Its ad campaign doesn’t take itself seriously and the movie points out its glaring flaws: The overuse of superhero tropes, or the obvious budgetary constraints. I mean, Negasonic Warhead is the Marvel Universe equivalent of a Walmart bargain bin DVD. But just because the movie is aware of, and sort of apologizes for, it’s lacking qualities, does that make it good?

I have to admit, I’m conflicted here. On the one hand, I find Deadpool’s self­reflective edgy commentary to be undeniably enjoyable. At the end of the day, Ryan Reynolds is damn charming, the action is awesome, and the jokes are disarming and quite fun. But then again, should we really give so much praise to a movie that essentially functions like an Honest Trailer for other comic book movies?

Therein lies a danger with this trend: it never creates anything. An obsession
with being meta that devolves into an endless spiral of meta. In this way, Deadpool isn’t entirely dissimilar from another cultural movement: one that ironically loves the cliche, endlessly recycles culture and constantly positions itself against the mainstream­­-hipsters.

As Douglas Haddow once aptly noted, the danger of the hipster is the end of Western civilization itself, “a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning.”

Deadpool isn’t reinventing the superhero genre, it can only exist to make fun of the genre. Here’s the real problem with Deadpool and other films like it. Bashing the system may feel good, it may make us laugh, but it’s ultimately powerless­ it doesn’t change the system at all.

As our old friend and alleged Mark Hamill body­double Slavoj Zizek notes, “cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally.” Baudrillard, too, notes that parody is rendered ineffectual by a system that is already a parody of itself. Hipsters fancy themselves members of the counterculture by drinking PBR and having ironic mustaches. Deadpool fancies itself a countercultural movie by celebrating its own played-­out cliches and an overused storyline, the cinematic equivalents of gross hipster mustaches and non-­prescription glasses.

This cultural impasse reflects a society that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. We beat the Commies, our music, film and literature dominate the world market, and as a society we’re not exactly on the brink of collapse ­ despite what political pundits are telling you.

If Deadpool can say “Fuck it,” it’s because he doesn’t fear death. How can he really be afraid of loss when he can’t lose anything? Can life be sacred when it has become limitless? Hell, if the superhero genre survived these dumpster fires, then maybe it can’t die either­ so fuck it. Why not break all the rules?

Interestingly, the very sanctity-­breaking of the comic book was inspired a similar problem. Except, rather than feeling that Deadpool the comic was uncancellable, they felt it would be cancelled at any minute. What ensued was a similar attitude of “fuck it,” if the comic was already dead, why not write it like nothing mattered?

If we, as a society, can say “fuck it,” it’s because death has become either so distance, or so close that we no longer care.

So where does Deadpool land in our cultural landscape? Does it just use the fourth wall breaking to put a shiny makeover over the same old shit? Is it the ultimate cynical film? Or does it actually achieve something new? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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