When it comes to the box office, superhero movies are king. Three of the top ten grossing films of all time are from Marvel Studios. In 2016, fully half of the top ten domestic earners featured super-powered protagonists. But when awards season rolls around, superhero films are typically shut out of the major categories, and end up being recognized for their technical achievements.
That may have started to change -- On Dec. 11, Tim Miller’s “Deadpool” won Best Musical or Comedy at the Critic’s Choice Awards, while star Ryan Reynolds walked away with the trophy for Best Actor in the same category. The following morning, “Deadpool” was once again nominated in these same two categories when the Golden Globe finalists were announced. Given that the Golden Globes are often predictors of Academy Awards glory, fans are wondering whether “Deadpool” is the superhero movie that can break the Oscar curse.
The Oscars have a single Best Motion Picture category, which usually favors dramas, but occasionally rewards comedies and musicals. Sometimes it’ll even reward a genre picture, like “The Return of the King,” the final film in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The Critic’s Choice Awards and the Golden Globes rightly split the honors in two, recognizing that dramas aren’t the only game in town. In the immortal words of Heath Ledger—who won a posthumous Academy Award for his turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight”— they ask, “Why so serious?” and parse their choices accordingly.
While “Deadpool” certainly fits the bill as a comedy, it’s not the first superhero flick to play up the laughs. Marvel Studios’ “Ant-Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were billed as action comedies, reaped gold office gold and were well received by critics -- but neither earned the kind of recognition that Deadpool is getting.
If more than laughs are in play, the first clue may be in the three films’ respective age ratings. “Ant-Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were both PG-13. Deadpool was rated R.
Like all of Marvel Studios’ output, “Ant-Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were family friendly (more or less) romps with just enough action to keep viewers glued to their seats, without traumatizing them. The violence only went so far, and the gore was kept to a cartoonish minimum. The blood and guts were sanitized, even when Starlord and his cohorts were frying Ronin the Accuser with the Power Stone on Xandar.
The same can’t be said of “Deadpool.” Throughout his movie, the Merc with a Mouth dispatches his enemies with brutal and bloody precision. Wade Wilson’s transformation and the violence that ensues, while nowhere near as gory as what passes muster in horror movies, goes beyond anything ever shown in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It may be cartoonish, but it's ramped up and closer to the aesthetic of Quentin Tarantino films. This may explain why some fans are clamoring for the “Pulp Fiction” and “The Hateful Eight” auteur to direct the sequel.
Director Tim Miller may share some aesthetic quirks with Tarantino, including a love of non-linear storytelling. He may even prove to be an auteur with future films. But auteurial intent hasn’t helped Zack Snyder or Christopher Nolan win any awards. The darkness of their superhero epics—which Deadpool shares—didn’t help much either.
This brings us back to laughter. Snyder and Nolan may be stylistic opposites, with the “Dawn of Justice” director favoring comic book braggadocio over “The Dark Knight” helmer’s realism, but neither used more than a pinch of humor in their films. In contrast, the Marvel movies are built on laughs.
The shining epicenter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, with the actor playing the industrialist as a wisecracking cad. Tony often does the right things for the wrong reason, and when he messes up, he falls back on self-deprecating humor. He may be lovable, and even admirable, but Tony is a bit of a jerk, and that’s part of his charm.
In contrast, “Deadpool’s” Wade Wilson is a total asshole, played with relish by Ryan Reynolds. This is what makes him so irresistible.
Audiences and critics love unsympathetic protagonists. Jack Nicholson won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Melvin Udall, a misanthropic novelist who has to shape up to find love, in Albert L. Brooks’ comedy, “As Good as It Gets.” Anthony Hopkins also took home an Oscar for his portrayal of everyone’s favorite serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
The payoff for audiences is obvious -- unsympathetic protagonists offer a win/win scenario. We rejoice when their reprehensible behavior causes their downfall. We applaud when their lack of social graces, or their reluctance to comply with conventions, allow them to tackle bigger bullies, or to give comeuppance to goody-two-shoes. We cheer when they overcome their obvious deficiencies to triumph against adversity. We’re even happy when their conniving ways allow them to skulk away unnoticed with the loot, or the love interest, at the end of the picture. We admire their moral ambiguity and their shamelessness.
To be fair, Deadpool is not irredeemable, but he is a killer for hire, and is interesting because he is not a model hero. Fox could have shoehorned the Merc with a Mouth into a PG-13 family-friendly popcorn film, but the R-rating allowed Miller to deliver the grown-up superhero movie audiences have been craving. He did it by combining everything we love about everyone else’s superhero movies with everything that they weren’t allowed to do. Unlike his contemporaries, he made a superhero film that was fun and transgressive, because he didn’t have to be serious to be an adult.Miller’s merc has a potty mouth, and an even filthier mind. While Zack Snyder was constrained to having his Superman murder Zod in the PG-13 “Man of Steel,” Miller allowed his Wilson to be “pegged” by the love of his life. Would a kid-friendly movie show the protagonist’s romance with his escort girlfriend as a montage of sex scenes? Would a healing Wolverine have twigged to the use of a regenerating hand imagined by Deadpool?
It’s not just the sex, the foul language, and the violence that have made “Deadpool” a critical favorite, and the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time (adjusted for inflation). It is the pitch black comedy, which is based on pain.
Every superhero origin story is borne of trauma. Superman’s parents launched him into space as the planet Krypton exploded. Batman witnessed his parents’ murder. Deadpool agreed to experimental mutation as a cure to his terminal cancer.
Above all else, this is what sets the film apart.
We’ve all seen the standard melodramas about terminal diseases. The protagonist, who may be a bit of a jerk, or who is perfectly well adjusted, has a happy life that is shattered by the diagnosis. What follows is a stereotypical journey through the Kübler-Ross stages of death—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. There’s shouting. There’s crying. Valuable life lessons are learned and imparted. People get drunk and stoned. If the protagonist is young, virginity is lost. A once-in-a-lifetime adventure follows, the main character acquires immense wisdom, mellows out, and drops dead.
Thankfully that’s not what happens in “Deadpool.” Yes, it's a film about a man coming to grips with a deadly disease, albeit with a twist, in someone else’s gut, with twin katanas, while occasionally breaking the fourth wall between the screen and the audience.
While “Deadpool” stands on its own merits, another “serious” film may have cleared its path to awards season greatness. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman” won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography at the 2015 Academy Awards. Michael Keaton was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of a washed-up movie star famous for the portrayal of the titular superhero Birdman. The black comedy mirrored Keaton’s own career as Batman, and he pointedly asked the director whether he was making fun of him before accepting the role.
Ironically, Keaton’s next role is the Vulture in John Watts’ “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
I can sum up “Deadpool” with my own immediate reaction upon exiting the theatre. I felt like I was thirteen again, when I’d discovered the thrill of French sci-fi comics at the Montreal Children’s Library. To my delight, some misguided soul had assumed that all comic books were for kids and had stocked the shelves with various tomes containing ultra-violence, nudity and sex. It was a far cry from the pages of Spider-Man, the kind of stuff that filled the pages of Heavy Metal magazine, which had just launched in North America, and which retailers stocked on magazine racks I wasn’t allowed to reach.
My partner John, who doesn’t read comics, but who enjoys comic book movies summed it up perfectly as he left the cinema with a big grin, and proclaimed, “That was excellent! It was filthy!”
For once, the critics agree with us. Let us hope that “Deadpool” and Ryan Reynolds can finally break the Oscars' superhero curse and bring home nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture.