In America, popularity has a prestige all its own and in 2016 the extreme in popular vulgarity entered the halls of American artistic prestige. I mean the movie “Deadpool,” released almost a year back, resurfacing now in the news for awards season. This gives us a chance to discuss its new departure for individualism in the ethic and ontology of orphanhood.
This is not merely being bought and sold, enjoyed and emoted to, but is now considered a worthy contender for such awards as America can bestow. Here’s what is really at stake in the story and what its success says about hidden changes in American individualism.
The Lonely Despair of Revenge and Individualism
Now that anti-establishment electioneering has won and is supposed to make a new establishment, we should pay attention to the revenge of the periphery, so to speak, at the movies, too. We will find the intellectual form of populism and the cause of popular anguish: individualism. Individualism, Alexis de Tocqueville said, is a sickness of the heart—an inability to care about others and to live with them in human associations. It’s loneliness transmogrified into a new society.
America has had generations of attempts to deal with democratic individualism, which has rejected politics and roams society to fight vainly the old ennui. Democracy first moved to popular music in the 1960s. A concert became the essential democratic experience of togetherness and genuine feeling, nothing to do with voting or electing representatives, much less participating in self-government.
It has since been moving among the various precincts of what we wrongly call culture or popular culture, as well as the laboratories of technology that are supposed to change America and, thereby, the world. One important part of democracy is now working itself out in popular movies. I can’t say the cause, but I can point to the effects.
Let’s Start with the Facts
“Deadpool” grossed more than $360 million in America and more than $780 million worldwide, on a budget of less than $60 million. It is of course already getting a sequel. Although R-rated, it is not the most successful R-rated movie in American history. It’s perched at number two in the top R-rated movie list, snugly between Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” both movies of moral intensity, which America’s commercial pieties banished to an R rating. Of the different facets of American life these films portray, the most vulgar is the most successful worldwide and the one with the guaranteed economic future.
The American cinema that reliably fails globally is comedy. There is an exception for animations, which have replaced family films in America, and a partial exception for superhero movies, which have replaced stories about manliness in America. But those modes of moviemaking do not emphasize comedy or look for daring comic conceits. “Deadpool” has changed that. Its comic conceits dominate everything else.
“Deadpool” is the kind of movie that wins MTV Movie Awards and Teen Choice Awards. This is because it appeals to the political heroism of democracy: transgression, fighting against rules, doing what one is told not to do. The people may not know the path to happiness, but they certainly want to burst through every door marked “Do Not Enter.” They will not be denied.
In short, what people call cool is really gussied up shenanigans and hijinks. Very expensive stuff, but utterly mediocre. Polished, maybe, but fake: pranks belong to private life, where they retain a certain innocence.
‘Deadpool’ Overreacts to Prudes By Glorifying Vulgarity
Many of us cannot admit openly to sympathy with the savage Huck Finn, who was named for the huckleberry, which grows wild. That inability to be honest has created a backlash against what we call political correctness, but used to call enlightenment. That creates its own problem: this elective affinity, this boyish humor, is now politicized—hence these kinds of awards. What should be a private pleasure instead turns into publicly thumbing a nose at whatever vestiges are left of our public morality. This births a counter-morality whereby most vulgar is best loved, as with “Deadpool.” It is a cult, as so many other things in America, from Scientology to Apple, but domesticated by the market.
“Deadpool” is a success because it makes superheroes super-vulgar. It reduces humor to sarcasm. It replaces the supreme pride of comedy, plot craftsmanship, with the outrage that always underlies sarcasm’s childish form of cleverness. It does this with Hollywood polish. In short, young American men have finally found themselves beautified in the person of Canadian heartthrob Ryan Reynolds, who has hitherto failed as a leading man.
Reynolds is a tall, pretty boy of 40 who has made a career of spouting sarcasm he cannot withstand and a body that resembles a Greek statue bereft of manliness. Now, he has achieved his greatest success in a story about his misery and physical mutilation. The peculiar celebrity worship of our democratic age extracts its price.
I bring all this to your attention because a new shift in democracy is occurring before our eyes. “Deadpool” has been nominated for both Golden Globes and Writers’ Guild Awards. These are, of course, the kinds of awards that cannot count on much prestige compared to the Oscars. If the Oscars are where the winners go, only the losers in Hollywood can covet these others.
It is not hard to see why these other organizations would be resentful. This leads them constantly to seek ways to attract attention, to find something new, to foresee the future by going where the Academy disdains to go: to the people. They have found something now that no one understands, including themselves.
Why ‘Deadpool’s’ Successful Coarseness Matters
What is far and away the most successful kind of spectacle in America (and therefore the world)? The superhero story. Who would have thought that the nerds would be our prophets! What is at the core of the superhero story that now dominates the movies and television, including the new online series? The origin story.
Why does that matter? It starts with the most obvious fact about our new pagan demigods: they are orphans. Think of Batman, Superman, and so on. This connects to our self-interest because we want them to be revealed to be Everyman. A main character can do so when his past is unknown or amorphous. The audience can then imagine it as their own. “Deadpool” has figured out how to reach the modern audience: through the comic gospel of orphanhood.
The most successful stories for young people produced in America, aside from superhero stories, are now called young adult fiction, whose success has changed Hollywood by creating new celebrities. They mythologize American youth as literally sacrificed, murdered, and exploited by society in the guise of old people, that is, people over 30.
This fake moral drama is rehearsed, but also turned upside down in “Deadpool.” In a movie without much of a plot, that’s the plot. The same abuse happens, but the protagonists brag about having first been abused by their families in horrifying ways, all while they make bedroom eyes at each other. I promise you this accurately describes the movie. Therefore, the abuse that’s shown, as opposed to the abuse talked about, really turns out to be about humorous defiance.
Orphanhood is the image American movies now use to talk about individualism, that is, feeling existentially lonely for life, not just for a minute or a day. It is about not being able to live together with other human beings. Desecrating the natural origin of ties to other people in the family is a necessary step in affirming loneliness or individualism. “Deadpool” does that with abandon.
This is not an accident, and not just because so many other popular stories for kids rehearse the orphanhood and abandonment tropes, but because it speaks to something deep. Family is a part of life that is not a choice and is the beginning of experience. It is one of the “origin stories” of American freedom. Now, movies deploy the resources of American individual freedom to advertise orphanhood and revel in abuse to reconstitute even family as a matter of choice.
At Least Orphans Don’t Have to Deal With Family
Deadpool’s origin story includes a separate origin for his name: his friends bet he’d die. Hence the dead pool. They are all trying to live lives as uncivilized and unconventional as their sarcasm announces, so they act like they don’t believe there is any future. They’re free from the past and free from the future, too, and they live by choice as opposed to conformism to the social order. It’s not really surprising that this kind of posture of radical freedom is really about death.
Young adult fiction is despised by very many people who nevertheless admire Marvel, who owns and helped create Deadpool. That by itself shows a different audience and different social perspective on class or status, as well as economic activity.
Another very recent Marvel property developed to worldwide success is “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which has all of the humor and none of the R rating of “Deadpool.” It is more all-American, more moral, less vulgar. It does not have the same prestige, nor was it quite as successful, but it comes from the same thinking and corporate strategy to turn Marvel comics into the vaunted Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is also a superhero story about orphanhood, but this time there are five separate characters whose origin stories involve horrifying suffering. There’s variety in this case! (1) The hero is a boy who sees his mother die of cancer and later learns that he is a bastard after spending his life as an orphan among people who are trying to kill him. (2) The green girl he loves is an assassin raised by a monster who slaughtered her family and mutilates everyone he touches, body and soul. (3) The other human is not himself an orphan, but his family was also slaughtered by the same monster. He is alone, too, and seeks revenge. (4) Next is a sarcastic, insane talking raccoon whose creator is neither God nor nature, but a monstrous scientist who also mutilates everything he touches. (5) The possible exception is a magical tree, but then again, that’s also an image of supreme loneliness and is rather on the inhuman side. Creation and family are savaged relentlessly in every case.
This movie cost more than $170 million to make and grossed about as much as “Deadpool”: over $330 million in America and $770 million worldwide. It also is getting sequels, starting this year. So expect the storyline of democratic individualism to be about orphanhood for a while longer. This is where young people learn about suffering and the dark origin of its assertion of freedom. This is the new face of Everyman that no one wants to talk about.