Superhero films have created a cultural space to deal with remarkably deep issues in a way that no other film genre has. This is not so much a compliment as a description. But the genre is gradually becoming more important while less artistically interesting.
The best stories are not the best because they deal with a complex issue or dissect a social problem. One could say “The Godfather” is supposed to be a critique of crony capitalism (which isn’t capitalism but corporatism, or what the Clintons call capitalism). Or maybe one could say it’s a meditation on family, violence, the American dream, or any number of complex themes.
But theme isn’t what makes a film great. “The Godfather” is great because it is great. The plot, the characters, everything in that film melds together so perfectly that it almost avoids analysis.
The weighty themes of that film give us intellectual permission to praise it so highly, but at the end of the day it is admired and loved for its dramatic excellence, not how thought-provoking it is. Ultimately we love it for emotional, not intellectual, reasons. Weighty themes may make a film deep, but deep and great aren’t always the same thing.
In fact, often they are at odds with each other. “The Matrix” films are shockingly deep, involving a ridiculous amount of philosophy. But few people would say they are great films. They have too much depth. The story and characters are swallowed up in an abyss of meaning.
This is where superhero films like “Deadpool” and “Deadpool 2” are more important culturally than most of us realize. They present themselves as shallow films not really worthy of deep critical attention. But then they feed the viewers deep issues in rather overt ways.
This sort of thing has always been the province of the X-Men franchise. Since inception they have always been meant as a metaphor for what today’s political left would call intersectionality. The superhero genre has this bizarre ability to be extremely obvious on these points yet usually it doesn’t seem corny. On some level, we just get that these characters are already metaphors and archetypes, so when they live out these morality plays it feels appropriate. Andrew Klavan thinks this tendency is infantilizing. But there is no mistaking that it is powerful.
It does seem many people do go to comics looking for morality. Comic-book writer Kevin Smith has often said his immense fondness for Batman is driven by the character’s unwavering moral compass. He thinks Batman is good for young boys, especially, because he teaches us right from wrong. Smith’s take on the first Deadpool film was that despite its deeply offensive content it was trying to teach a good moral. He thought the message was that outward beauty shouldn’t define you. I suppose that is there. But there were several other much more profound themes at play.
“Deadpool” was essentially about male mental health connected to shame. Body dysmorphia is a thing men deal with, but generally not to the same degree that women do. But in that film Deadpool isn’t a Quasimodo looking for societal acceptance. He’s trying to abide by one of the most poisonous aphorisms ever coined for men. “Happy wife, happy life.”
Before becoming Deadpool, Wade Wilson discovers that he has cancer and leaves his live-in girlfriend Vanessa, without discussing it with her, to try to cure it on his own. This is basically the same journey that “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White underwent, except that Deadpool’s path was more humorous and viciously scatological.
Here’s the basic plot: Man finds out he’s going to die. Man decides to deal with it himself and shut out those closest to him. Man finds a horribly self-destructive but extremely interesting (from a storytelling perspective) way to deal with his death.
Wilson did it by leaving. White began a double life as a crime lord. But essentially they both entered shame spirals. They both took a big problem and made it a lot worse. Women struggle with being sex objects. Men struggle with being success objects. And there’s no greater failure than death, especially towards those who love us.
This is why “happy wife, happy life” is such a vicious lie. It sounds good. It sounds like the Apostle Paul’s “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” But it can actually be the opposite.
When men treat this mantra as their life’s foundation they can destroy themselves. Then they blame the wife, or excuse their horrible decisions by saying it was all for her. But it’s not all for her. It’s all for these men.
What Vanessa wanted was Wade. Because Wade loved her, he wanted her to be happy, which is of course a good thing! But he decided that instead of risk Vanessa’s decision to experience real love with real pain he would control Vanessa’s happiness. This is manipulative and selfish.
People find themselves saying things like “I couldn’t live with myself if I hurt the people I love.” This is the statement of a selfish child simply trying to get what he wants from life. To love someone is to experience pain and hurt.
This theme repeats itself throughout superhero stories. It’s Spiderman’s central chorus. It’s why superheroes wear masks. If super-villains find out who the superheroes care for, they inevitably use that against them. So they push away and lie, and sometimes this seems tragic but heroic.
The realization that these stories are where we do our moral thinking today should fill us with both hope and dread. “Deadpool 2” dealt with even more psychology, worldview, and similar themes than its predecessor. Strangely enough, that deep stuff will be taken more seriously because it wasn’t in a great film. It was in a film that tons of young people will see, and they won’t realize they’re being shaped by it.
“Deadpool 2” was good but not great. I give it about a 7/10. If you like these movies, you’ll probably enjoy it. It’s just as disgusting as the first one was and a little less funny. Most of these superhero films are going to be in that middle sphere of quality from now on. They just need to be good enough now, and not have some glaring “plot hole” for the Internet trolls to obsess over. It’s become an established genre just like the Western or rom-coms.
We all mostly know what to expect, and that’s why the moral platform these films occupy is both dangerous and virtuous. It means they can be used for good. They can speak to complex moral issues. When they do, their objective quality won’t matter as much as how moral they are. But if something can be used for good, then it can usually be used for bad. Both are on display in “Deadpool 2.”