Thursday, 18 February 2016

Deadpool: a Philosophical Take

A Loose Analysis of the Anti-Hero, Merc with a Mouth. Regenerating Degenerate Phenom

by J. Albert Barr

"For I do not exist: there exist but the thousands of mirrors that reflect me. With every acquaintance I make, the population of phantoms resembling me increases. Somewhere they live, somewhere they multiply. I alone do not exist." - Vladimir Nabokov: "The Eye"

The Deadpool movie opened to huge box-office numbers over its first weekend of release, taking in an estimated $135,000,000, domestically. I saw it twice, actually, and enjoyed it very much for the most part. It was great, irreverent, high-octane entertainment. And, to echo the seeming consensus I've been observing on-line, Ryan Reynolds was indeed born to play Deadpool! In fact, he apparently agrees with everyone else too, because he'd been trying to get this film made for nearly a dozen years!

As we all know, Reynolds already portrayed (many believe betrayed) the Deadpool character in 2009's best-forgotten, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Well, seven years later it emphatically appears that he has more than made amends with his latest portrayal of Deadpool, who is now featured in his very own movie, and has also been quickly green-lit for, at least, another one in a couple of years. Importantly, this rendition of Deadpool is infinitely more faithful to the original, Marvel-published source material, in look, tone and, well, loquaciousness. The "merc with a mouth" is on display in full-throttle, or should I say "full-throattle", here, I can assure you.

February is also a rather fitting month to release Deadpool in, because it marks the 25th anniversary of this very postmodern character's debut. He first appeared in the February issue of The New Mutants #98 in 1991. He was created by the polarizing and controversial artist, Rob Liefeld and Argentinian writer, Fabian Nicieza. Why is Rob Liefeld so "polarizing and controversial"? That would take a fair amount of unpacking to adequately enough explain, as I would have to cover a lot of bases regarding the major changes and innovations that happened to comic books and the industry, in general, following the monumental releases of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen in 1986-87, and that's not my focus here at present. Suffice it to say, Rob Liefeld basically took the visual "bad-assery" depicted in Miller's and Moore's game-changing works, and discarded with their respective, narrative substance and realism. And perhaps most obvious, Liefeld took extreme liberties with the notion of "anatomical realism" and panel structure shortly after establishing himself as a hot new artist at the beginning of the 90s. His character physiques are ridiculously exaggerated and all out of proportion, featuring massive torsos, arms and shoulders, with little feet and heads (perhaps none more notorious than his Captain America rendition). And his panel layouts are known for their excessive use of "splash pages" and "money shots" - subtlety was never Liefeld's "strong-suit", nor was it meant to be, I'm sure. After Miller and Moore (quickly followed by the exemplary likes of Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, etc) essentially forced comic books to "grow up", Liefeld (and his less awful, but still guilty, pack of hot new "all-stars": Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, etc) suddenly became all the rage with comic book readers, particularly the younger ones, and even casual readers/speculative bubble collectors when the comic book boom happened during the first half of the 90s. What was great about comic books in the 90s, particularly, was represented by the former group, and what was bad about them emanated from the latter group, in my opinion.

However, of all the comic books he worked on, and the characters and titles he created or co-created, I feel there's little doubt that Liefeld's single best contribution to comic books, and certainly "super-hero comics", was, and is, Deadpool; in collaboration with writer, Fabian Nicieza, of course, who gave the character his motor-mouthed, iconoclastic and saucy demeanor.

With more than a passing visual resemblance to Spider-man (who's also known for his patented wise-cracking), Deadpool was actually modelled after DC's resident, bad-ass and villainous mercenary, Deathstroke; created in 1980 and first appearing in New Teen Titans #2. The Marvel-echoing of Deathstroke was so obvious that Deadpool's creators decided to not be bashful about it by giving Deadpool's alter-ego a very similar name to that of Deathstroke's Slade Wilson. They called him Wade Wilson! - wink! wink! DC!

Coming along just in time for Generation X's full fruition into alternative rock's zeitgeist of the 1990s, Deadpool was the perfect badboy embodiment for irony-laden, alternative rock loving comic book readers. He was first introduced as a "villain" in the soon-to-be-cancelled pages of The New Mutants. But, as the thoroughly postmodern decade progressed, and alternative rock was wholly co-opted by the mainstream, Deadpool's popularity increased to the point where he was given several more appearances in other Marvel titles, and even a couple of limited-series of his own before, finally, in 1997, he was given his first on-going series.

It actually wasn't until 1999, in issue #28 of Deadpool's first on-going series, that he would "break the fourth wall". It happened during an encounter with Bullseye, who is best known for being one of the top villains in Daredevil's rogue's gallery. Here was the point when the Deadpool character went full-on meta with his self-referentiality and pop culture referencing. From this point, no other comic book character breaks the fourth wall more often than Deadpool, and with such pop cultural pastiche and panache. In one of the most outrageous and bizarre examples of just how meta-fictional Deadpool got, he once killed every Marvel character by way of attacking the Marvel writers themselves! Not only does Deadpool's regenerative healing factor make him virtually immortal, and ultimately immune to death, but his meta-fictional awareness that he is essentially a comic book character and conscious of all the dynamics of that medium, he can therefore manipulate and take full advantage of his straddling both universes! But, come on, that's cheating! Hey, that's Deadpool. And that's the kind of world we live in right now.

Deadpool is perhaps the most flexible, malleable and adaptable comic book character currently in circulation here in the early stages of the 21st century. He is also highly marketable; and he wouldn't want it any other way. He's been virtually everywhere since the millennium, and in more ways than one. Deadpool is a capitalist entrepreneur's wet-dream. As a glaring reflection of late capitalism gone off the rails, Deadpool is an insatiable opportunist who will and can and has exploited every angle he can muster to make a buck and create more exposure for himself. He is capitalism incarnate, ironically enough, given his ultimately fictional status. But then so is the very currency that allows capitalism to flourish, like Deadpool, with seeming impunity.

Like DC, Marvel comics has been messing around with "multiple universes", and alternate realities, over the course of the last couple of decades, for better or worse (worse, in the opinion of this writer). As a result, Deadpool has multiplied in a vast series of "Deadpool-like clones": Lady Deadpool, the Deadpool Kid, Major Deadpool, Deadstroke (yep), Dreadpool, Ultimate Deadpool, Panda Pool, Golden Age Deadpool, Deadpool Pulp, Dino-Pool, Gopher-Pool, Venom-Pool, Deadpool the Duck, Logan-Pool (the Wolverine version, of course), Kidpool, Galacti-Pool, Cess-Pool, Beard of Bees Pool, Zombie Deadpool (although many Marvel characters got the inevitable "zombie treatment" eventually), and, yes, even Deadpool Pony (after My Little Pony!).

What I find fascinating, and considerably disturbing, about Deadpool's evolution, and his overall presentation in today's parlance, is just how much he actually reflects much of contemporary society - our rampant narcissism, materialism, and obsession with self-promotion. He therefore represents a certain ideal image we harbor within ourselves, and project outwardly through pop cultural examples like Deadpool. He's everything we'd like to be, which is to say, a completely narcissistic capitalist who does pretty much what he wants, and says anything he wants at any time, regardless of tact, discretion, consequence or sense. And he appears to have a complete disregard for history, for the passing of time, because he has a tendency to incur a loss of memory, likely due to the many head wounds he's sustained over the course of his time as a Marvel character. In conjunction with his unbridled ego, he has the convenience of not remembering the results of his, usually ultra-violent, exploits, as well as his social encounters. This means he is not only immune to serious injury, if not death outright, but is also immune to any or all culpability regarding his social behaviour.

Granted, in the Deadpool film, he is given more of a sense of humanity and purpose, which ultimately shines a more positive light on the way he's perceived by the movie-going audience, who, generally speaking, like their hero's to evince, well, heroic and redeemable qualities. I really didn't see much, if any, of that in the Deadpool comics I read while preparing for this article. In the beginning of the character's existence in the Marvel universe back in the early 90s he was, again, cast as a villain, but his instant popularity was so unexpected, and the demand to see more and more of him so unrelenting, the editors at Marvel were compelled to rehabilitate the character by degrees to re-cast him as an "anti-hero" of sorts, that the readers could more easily pull for and cheer on. Deadpool perfectly reflected the sensibilities of Generation X: jaded, ironic, self-conscious, pop culturally savvy, and internally scarred. Now with the Millennial tendency towards social and emotional detachment, Deadpool, at least in the comics, is a full-blown sociopath, with psychopathic urges to boot, with nary a single, solitary fuck to give, in the end. It's ultimately ALL about him; just like it is for so many Millennials and irreparably wounded and bitter Gen Xers.

But it's not necessarily the fault of these specific generations that so much rampant narcissism and internal aggression abounds in contemporary society. We are all susceptible to what is marginally known as semiotic chaos. Essentially, what this is is a collective rupture in language and identity itself, which is now helplessly bleeding out unstable, disparate universes that have thrown everything we know, and thought to have understood about our world willy-nilly (this has actually been developing for some time now, and I hope to better explain it more thoroughly in a future article). The very fabric of what had, however seemingly precarious it seemed to those discerning and conscious few, held together the world's identity - at least here in the "first world" -  has utterly given way to the inhuman bottom-line of late capitalism, and its unconscionable manipulation and exploitation of our very language itself, simply to expand, endlessly, the GDP, and ever-perpetuating profits simply for its own sake. And, in order to maintain such a maddening process, consumerism, and consumers themselves, must remain in a collectively sick state, especially internally, where we must all always feel voids in our respective lives that can only be medicated with an utterly endless supply of shallow products to beef up our illusory and deluded sense of self, regardless of how mentally and emotionally starving we are, and how ugly we've allowed ourselves to become, just like Deadpool is under his mask and costume.

What can I say? Like a delicious, nutrient-free dessert, the Deadpool movie was a frivolously good time at the cineplex, no doubt. Ryan Reynolds, and his Deadpool character, were a real hoot, to be sure. I laughed pretty much all through the film, but it also left me with a relatively empty feeling, that what I watched retained little value, substance-wise (I know, I know, it's "just a comic book movie", to which I would respond with: "Uh, no, it isn't"). It tasted great, ironically enough, seeing as Deadpool apparently tastes awful, at least to zombies, as I understand from my researching the character. As I said earlier, the Deadpool film did kinda go out of its way to humanize its titular "anti-hero" (and didn't really succeed in being the "anarchist" product it seems to think it is), but the comic book rendition of Deadpool, despite popular opinion espousing his "cool factor", is a troubling addition to contemporary comic books (especially super-hero comics), and pop culture, in general, because of the societal mirror reflection he casts towards our equally troubling society and its increasing number of detached individuals so frighteningly obsessed with themselves to the seeming detriment of everyone else, close to them or not, truth be told.

I think I read somewhere in a Deadpool issue, likely meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek (or was it?), that "he is not the hero we want, but the hero we need" (a popular sentiment nowadays regarding morally ambiguous characters we admire). This is not the case at all, of course - Deadpool is exactly the "hero" we WANT.



  1. don't know to much about Deadpool until I watch his movie. But after watch Full Movie. I am became fan of this crazy superhero. He is most funniest superhero I watch in movies. Right now I am so excited about his new upcoming movie. I alreadyWatch deadpool 2 online funny and crazy videos and trailers.

  2. Well, I'm glad you find Deadpool entertaining and to your liking. He's a fascinating character to be sure. Any thoughts and/or opinions on my article by any chance?