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Is Deadpool Taking Toxic Masculinity Down a Peg? Or Is It Just Making Dick Jokes?

Heh. Down a peg.


Spoilers for Deadpool to follow. Lots and lots of spoilers. If you aren’t sure whether or not you want to see the film, check out our two spoiler-free reviews: the pro and the con.

Even though I’ve dreaded the cinematic adaptation of Deadpool out of fear that it would result in nothing more than a string of unfunny sexist and homophobic jokes (or worse), there was never any real question that I’d end up seeing it. I wrote at length a few months back about how some interpretations of Deadpool have been surprisingly subversive, and how certain pockets of the character’s fandom have a decidedly progressive read on the character … even if Wade Wilson’s own creators have mixed feelings about that.

Why do people like Deadpool, anyway? It’s not a bad question, and it’s one I’ve had to ask myself a lot since writing my original essay about Deadpool’s better qualities. Although I leaned pretty heavily on the aspects of the character that work when I wrote that essay, it’s undeniable that there are many things about Deadpool that don’t work – many people find him grating, annoying, obnoxious, and so on. He also makes a lot of jokes about masturbation. And Alien. And I guess I find that … relatable.

Deadpool‘s physicality is central to his story. On the surface level, that means jokes about his bodily fluids and “putting balls in holes” (that’s the way Deadpool describes skeeball in the movie, and no, that isn’t a sex act, unless you want it to be, in which case Deadpool’s definitely up for it). On a deeper level, it has to do with the character’s physical and emotional scars. And on yet another level, the movie acknowledges Ryan Reynolds’ physical presence as a known quantity — a hyper-masculine action star with an undeniably recognizable physical appearance.

I’ve seen plenty of complaints about Deadpool thus far, all well-deserved. One complaint I’ve seen that makes somewhat less sense to me, however, is about the break-up between Wade Wilson and his girlfriend Vanessa. Rebecca Watson put it this way in her otherwise fairly positive review of the film: “There was no actual reason why Wade wouldn’t have gone straight back to Vanessa when he escaped, because their relationship was obviously way stronger than physical deformation.”

Let’s recap: after getting diagnosed with a terminal case of cancer, Wade breaks up with Vanessa, because he doesn’t want her to have to watch him die. Then, he chooses to undergo an experimental treatment that ends out giving him superpowers, but also significant physical and emotional scars. In other words, he’s now unrecognizable to himself. Although Wade cracks jokes about his trauma throughout, it’s clear that he’s been deeply wounded in every sense by what has happened to him. It’s like that old annoying adage: you can’t love anyone else until you learn to love yourself. Or something.

That’s the in-story explanation for why Wade waits so long before mustering up the courage to speak to Vanessa, at any rate. That explanation sat just fine with me. But also, on a higher level, that story served as a metaphor: Ryan Reynolds, the actor, clearly felt some anxiety about whether or not audiences would accept his performance as a disfigured character who remains masked for almost the entire film. Indeed, this joke gets spelled out by Deadpool himself during the film; at one point, Wade quips that no one respects Ryan Reynolds for his acting prowess, and that he’s only ever gotten gigs because of his looks.

The scene in which Wade Wilson walks down the street towards Vanessa’s apartment, trying to psych himself up to reveal to his ex-girlfriend that he’s alive (if somewhat changed by his survival), makes that sentiment literal in a beautiful way. As Wade walks down the street, the camera shows everyone on the street openly staring at him in disgust, fear, and/or mockery. He huddles down further and further into his hood, eventually deciding not to speak to Vanessa after all. I can’t understand Deadpool’s unusual experience (I mean … can anyone?), but as a person who struggles with social anxiety, I interpreted this scene as a representation of a paranoia that everyone is looking at you and judging you – even if they really aren’t. I think Wade assumed that other people hated and feared him, even if they really didn’t notice him as much as he’d thought they had. Their reactions were a reflection of how he already felt about himself, and that intense shame and self-consciousness prevented him from reaching out to Vanessa. It’s not that he was worried Vanessa would reject him, per se — he had already rejected himself. That scene is one of the few emotionally poignant and quiet moments that we see with Wade, and it ended up being one of the strongest parts of the movie for me … almost enough to redeem the movie’s large shortcomings. (But … not quite. I’ll get to that later.)

Vanessa seems less like a character in the movie and more like a symbol — in that scene, she serves as the audience stand-in. When Deadpool is worried about Vanessa accepting him, that’s a reflection of Ryan Reynolds’ own anxiety that audiences won’t accept him – and, much like Vanessa, we’ve all clearly proven otherwise by throwing a lot of money at Deadpool. Still, the movie takes some pretty significant risks by putting a ton of makeup and a mask on its A-list star for the majority of its runtime. The movie also takes some risks when it comes to its portrayal of masculine norms.

As I’ve written previously, in many earlier issues, Deadpool served as a critique of the military industrial complex, the lack of support for veterans (with regard to both emotional and physical scarring), and the weird comic book worship of certain gritty heroic tropes. Unlike other characters with a healing factor (e.g. Wolverine), Deadpool retains visual evidence of every scar he has experienced. Although Deadpool can nominally heal from anything, the inherent subversion of his character is that he can’t quite reset back to zero in the same way that his more heroic counterparts do. He feels things, and that makes him embarrassing and uncool. (At one point in the comics, Deadpool ends up cursed with a face like Tom Cruise for a little while — and he soon realizes that having a movie star-type face is almost as irritating as having his old disfigured face, albeit for very different reasons. I assume Ryan Reynolds read all of those issues.)

The inclusion of Deadpool’s canonical pansexuality and his magical “mental illness” – both of which have been treated as jokes by many Deadpool writers, typically with disastrous results – do make him into a tricky character to discuss. In some ways, the fandom has reclaimed these elements and done their best to ignore the missteps made. At the same time, though, I can understand why most fans want to reject the character outright because they don’t like the way that these elements have been presented. Some days, I agree. But other days, I don’t, because seeing those elements in my pre-feminist days helped me to better relate to the character and gave me a some weird sense of belonging. And because Deadpool is a comic book character, that means some writers have done a better job than others at approaching these elements of his characterization – and it also means I have hope for the future that these aspects of his character will get the respect and care that they deserve.

So, clearly, I’m not willing to throw Deadpool out the window just because his canon contains a lot of regrettable issues. By that same token, I’m not sure I want to throw out Ryan Reynolds’ interpretation of Deadpool, either – even though the movie contains a lot of regrettable scenes.

Aside from a couple of jokes about Deadpool’s crush on Wolverine, we don’t get to see much reference to the character’s pansexuality in the movie (the “mental illness” stuff is also largely ignored, unless I missed something — I’ve only seen the movie once and I’m relying on memory here). I imagine that’s because the filmmakers didn’t feel that audiences would accept Deadpool’s sexuality as anything other than a joke. After all, the comics do the same thing – Deadpool’s sexuality has always been the subject of throwaway jokes, and in the end, he’s only ever had serious relationships with women (and most of those women end up dead, because comic books). Speaking of which, Vanessa’s counterpart in the comics also dies, so don’t expect her character to live too long in the movies either. She may have survived this one, but I don’t have high hopes for her living through the series of planned Deadpool sequels. This is part of the iceberg-sized problem with adapting Deadpool: the source material is already full of weird problems. The fact that the movie is largely faithful to that source material is both its strength and its failing, since that source material often can’t decide how it feels about its protagonist.

Nor can the movie. The film features a joke about pegging – but what most people have failed to mention is that the “joke” is that Wade Wilson tries pegging and then doesn’t enjoy it. I mean, at least he tries it? But … were the screenwriters afraid that if he actually liked butt-play, that would somehow be too gay? Another weird throwaway line: in the proposal scene, Vanessa jokingly suggests to Wade that they try anal sex with Wade on top. The implication is that they’ve somehow never tried this before — I don’t buy it. Here’s another weird choice: early on in the movie, Wade gets a kick out of ordering a drink called a “blow job” at the bar, but only so he can provoke a homophobia-fueled fight between two of his male peers. While I’m listing off regrettable jokes, there’s at least one rape joke in the movie that I can remember – Wade threatens another man, realizes that what he said could be unintentionally interpreted as a rape threat, and then decides he’s okay with that. Masculinity, folks! It sure is an insecure beast, ain’t it?

What’s depressing is that Deadpool could have taken the opportunity to undo some of these assumptions, rather than lean into them. Is there a version of the sex scene montage in which Wade does express interest in some form of butt-play (either top or bottom)? Is there a version of the “blow job” drink ordering scene in which Wade drinks the shot himself and smacks his lips with a grin — or are we meant to assume that Wade would never engage in butt stuff and also would never give anyone a blow job? And, about that “blow job” drink scene — are we meant to be laughing at the homophobic guys who initiate a fight to the death over the drink? Or are we laughing at the idea of a man performing a blow job?

The movie doesn’t seem entirely sure where to land on this, and that confusion results in some of its biggest missteps – such as the story-line with the cab driver. Dopinder, who is also a huge Deadpool fanboy, keeps a picture of his ex-girlfriend in his cab at all times, which provokes Deadpool into asking him what happened between the two of them. Apparently, said ex-girlfriend has begun to date Dopinder’s cousin. Deadpool gives Dopinder some very bad advice: kill your cousin, kidnap the girl. (By the way, this advice seems pretty out-of-character, even for Deadpool, and it’s left intentionally unclear in the moment whether Wade is joking.) Dopinder is such a huge fan of Deadpool that he ends up taking the advice — which ends in complete disaster for him. The implication at the end of the movie is that Dopinder is about to get caught for attempted murder/kidnapping. It’s … depressing and disturbing, to say the least, and the fact that Dopinder is one of the few non-white characters in the movie certainly doesn’t help things.

Dopinder’s story is a pretty significant B-plot in the movie. If I were being charitable, I’d say that this story-line spells out the danger of any fan who takes Deadpool’s “revenge fantasy” narrative too seriously. But I’m not sure that message was an intentional one, especially since Deadpool’s own revenge fantasy does pan out just fine for him. He kills the bad guy, he saves Vanessa, and even gets the girl at the end right before the credits roll.

The pat, cliché ending – followed by a quick Ferris Bueller joke after the credits – is the most un-Deadpool part of the Deadpool movie. I didn’t want Vanessa to die like she does in the comics, but ending with a kiss before the credits roll? It didn’t seem like the correct ending. I’m not sure what the correct ending is, but that might be because I’m not sure what message or theme Deadpool hoped to convey.

It seemed as though Ryan Reynolds mostly wanted to prove to himself that it could be done in the first place – that a successful A-list action hero and occasional romantic comedy star could slather on some make-up, put on a mask, stick a dildo up his butt, slap on an R-rating, and still top the box office. It seems pretty risky on paper, but in practice, Deadpool is actually quite restrained. It could have punched up a lot further than it did. If you want to lampoon superheroes, you’ve got to lampoon masculinity – and, by extension, homophobia and femmephobia and misogyny.

Instead, we ended up with a lot of great jokes about masturbation, some compelling reflections on Ryan Reynolds’ – err, Wade Wilson’s – insecurities in his quest for self-acceptance after losing his hyper-masculine good looks, and a by-the-numbers revenge fantasy plot about saving a hot gal from a bad guy. I went in with very low expectations, so I managed to leave the movie with a smile on my face – but that doesn’t mean I don’t still wish it had been a bit more coherent.

I want this movie to be better than it is, and for that reason, I may be cutting it too much slack. I care so much about Deadpool personally and relate so much to him as a socially awkward and obnoxious, anxious outsider that I can’t not like him, a little bit, even when he’s committing a bunch of murders and causing a massive multi-car pile-up on a massive interstate. I have a soft spot for the guy, because I know that when he points his comedy lasers in the right direction, the results can be oh-so-satisfying.

My favorite joke had to be the part when Wade Wilson woke up in the middle of the night and tells Vanessa that he had another nightmare about Liam Neeson. “He’s made so many of those Taken movies,” Wade wonders aloud. “You have to wonder at this point: is he just a bad parent?” The central irony of this joke is that the entirety of Deadpool is about women getting kidnapped and serving as objects that further the male hero’s goals. But, hey. I don’t even know if that joke was intentional.

I laughed anyway.

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