Deadpool vs. 'Deadpool': From '90s comics punk to 2016 blockbuster star
1. Deadpool’s first appearance was in New Mutants #98. The issue was co-written by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza, and illustrated by Liefeld. The same issue introduced Domino (a cool bounty hunter) and Gideon (a long-forgotten bad guy with a ponytail). By 1991, New Mutants starred Cable, Rictor, Boom-Boom, Cannonball, and Sunspot.
2. More than two decades later, a character from New Mutants #98 appeared in a movie for the first time. That character was Sunspot, who you might remember as one of several People With Energy Powers in the background of X-Men: Days of Future Past. And now, Deadpool will be in a movie, too.
3. Brief pause to point out that we recorded a podcast about Deadpool. Give it a listen:
3. Deadpool was co-created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza. The word “co-created” looms large and lingering in comic book history. Some people claim Deadpool was created as a direct parody of a DC comics character, Deathstroke the Terminator. (Assassin, check. Carries guns and swords, check. Mask covers entire head, check. Deathstroke’s real name is Slade Wilson; Deadpool is “Wade Wilson.”) Over the weekend, Liefeld told The New York Times, “If a janitor scripted New Mutants 98, he’d be the co-creator — that’s how it works, buddy…Deadpool does not exist in any way, shape or form without me.” Liefeld has already described the Times story as a “hit piece,” and Nicieza tweeted his support of Liefeld.
4. I am in a somewhat unique position, with Deadpool the character and Deadpool the movie. I have never read a single Deadpool-featuring comic book written or illustrated by Rob Liefeld, and I haven’t really read any Deadpool comics in 17 years. This would seem to make me something of a Deadpool novice.
5. But, counterargument: Maybe I’m a Deadpool expert. Because I am a zealot for the three-year run on Deadpool scripted by Joe Kelly and illustrated by Ed McGuinness, Pete Woods, Shannon Denton, Walter McDaniel, and Steve Harris, among others.
6. Kelly and McGuinness launched Deadpool’s first solo ongoing series with Deadpool #1 in January 1997. Kelly departed the book with Deadpool #33 in late 1999. Along with a few special issues and annuals, that run comprises one of the great weird comic book arcs of the 1990s. Deadpool travels back in time and body-swaps with Peter Parker. He falls in love with Death. He kicks Captain America in the crotch. He saves humanity. He steals Girl Scout cookies from actual Girl Scouts. The whole Joe Kelly era is available on Amazon. It’s a steal at any price.
7. Many of the key foundational elements in the Deadpool film derive directly from the Joe Kelly era. In Deadpool #1, Ryan Reynolds has a sassy roommate named Blind Al, and he frequently visits a bar where the clientele is all mercenaries. In Deadpool/Death 1998, we flash back to Deadpool’s early days, when he was a cancer-stricken lab rat abused by a monstrous character named Ajax, whose real name is Francis.
8. That’s all in the movie. Not the Death stuff. But there’s Blind Al, and the merc bar. Ajax was a relatively minor bad guy in the Joe Kelly run — he was introduced in issue #14 and killed off five issues later — but he’s the movie’s freaking villain.
9. One element the movie didn’t get from Joe Kelly: The women. This is kind of a bummer. As written by Kelly, Deadpool had a series of troubled relationships with female characters. Early in the series, he had a lovesick crush on Siryn, a B-list X-person who was variously annoyed with Deadpool, completely freaked out by Deadpool, and poignantly concerned about Deadpool’s sanity. I mentioned that Deadpool fell in love with Death, but I should have further clarified that Death fell in love with Deadpool.
10. The Deadpool movie has two female characters. One is Vanessa, played by Morena Baccarin. Vanessa was also created by Liefeld and Nicieza — although they named her Copycat, because she was a blue mutant shapeshifter, like Mystique but, um, different. Like the Comic Vanessa, Baccarin is a stripper slash maybe prostitute. Unlike Comic Vanessa, Baccarin isn’t a shapeshifter. Maybe they’re saving that for Deadpool 2. Maybe it says something about a movie when you transplant a character from the comic books, and you think her shapeshifting is less essential than her stripping.
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11. The other female character in Deadpool is Negasonic Teenage Warhead. The movie character has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with her comic book inspiration, partially because the Comic Negasonic Teenage Warhead first appeared in New X-Men #115 and who coincidentally died on New X-Men #115. Comic NTW never interacted with Deadpool. And also, the movie’s NTW has completely different powers.
12. And yet, the presence of Negasonic Teenage Warhead actually strikes me as the most ineffably Deadpool-esque thing about Deadpool. One of the great things about the Joe Kelly version of Deadpool is how Kelly managed to use the title’s tremendous unimportance to his advantage. “With Deadpool, we could do anything we wanted,” he later told Newsarama, “Because everybody just expected the book to be cancelled every five seconds, so nobody was paying attention.” There was a virtuous modesty in how much drama Kelly conjured out of people like Siryn and Typhoid Mary, or how he brought in comical bench-players like the Great Lakes Avengers for multi-issue arcs.
13. Kelly’s run also took Deadpool’s fourth-wall-breaking and injected it with an aggressive self-awareness that could be both funny and weirdly profound. In Deadpool #11 — the best issue of the whole run — Deadpool time-travels to an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man from 1967. It’s a showcase for Pete Woods’ art, and you can enjoy it just for the funny inside-baseball meta-riffs. (Deadpool is the first comic book character to point out that Norman Osborn’s hair is insane.) But there’s also a genuine love for comic book tropes, a sense of taking comic book history and building on it. Deadpool #11 is what happens when you take the attack-dog punk rock of mid-’80s comics — Grant Morrison, Frank Miller, Alan Moore — and play it for laughs.
14. You wouldn’t be wrong in describing the first 11 issues of Joe Kelly’s Deadpool as comic book punk-pop, which used to sound like an insult and now is sort of a compliment. Kelly’s Deadpool is snarky the way 14-year-old dudes are snarky: They think they know everything because they know more than a seventh grader.
15. The genius of Kelly’s Deadpool really kicks in during his second year, when what had been a playful riff on superherodom becomes a bleak season-6-of-Sopranos descent into apocalyptic despair but also simultaneously a heady season-6-of-Lost ascent into messianic cosmic awareness. At one point, Deadpool is told that his mission in life is to kill an alien Antichrist to make way for an intergalactic Messiah. Then Deadpool learns that the Messiah is only a Messiah because it takes away free will. This Messiah can pacify an entire global population, making them blissful and orderly and ignorant and brain-dead. At one point, in Deadpool #25, the Messiah takes over Captain America’s brain, which leads to that aforementioned moment with Deadpool and Cap and the crotch-kick. Deadpool saves the world, but he’s misunderstood: Everyone sees him, a known bad guy, attacking heroic Captain America and destroying an alien being that everyone else assumes was bringing them eternal happiness. So Deadpool is a world-saving hero, and also kind of the Antichrist. At no point in Kelly’s run do you get the sense that he is selling you on big themes, but the point feels unmissable: Some people prefer blissful, brain-dead ignorance.
16. This new Deadpool movie does nothing remotely akin to everything I just said in #15, which is totally fine. I stopped reading comic book regularly not long after Kelly left Deadpool. Since then, Deadpool has become a kind of mascot for a certain kind of superhero fan. As comic book universes have become ever-more delicately curated, with long-running story arcs running across years of tie-in comics, it’s nice to have an in-universe voice of madness. A new Deadpool series launched a few years back to rave reviews.
17. I can’t speak to how much or how little the Deadpool movie honors the last decade or so of the character’s comics history. But I can say that the Deadpool movie zeroes in on the idea that Deadpool’s main character trait is being a vulgar but lovable clown, which is disappointing only if you’re someone who likes everything I described in #15.
18. Much has been made about how this film is rated R, and there is lots of blood and boobs and swears. If, like me, you think the PG-13 is the single worst thing to happen in Hollywood mainstream cinema, there is something undeniably pleasant about a superhero movie where people break their arms when they punch a giant metal man, a superhero movie with more blood than any random two minutes of The Walking Dead.
19. Most superhero movies are set in a plastic worlds sealed off from anything resembling actual reality. When Captain America: The Winter Soldier references Star Wars/Trek, or Guardians of the Galaxy references Footloose, it can be funny, and it can also feel like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a universe where everyone likes the same three generally-accepted-as-popular things from 30 years ago. So there’s something so utterly freeing about how Deadpool adds layers within layers of playful referentiality. Deadpool has an Adventure Time watch. He talks about Ryan Reynolds’ other (bad) superhero movies. At one point, Colossus tells him that it’s time to meet Professor X. “Stewart or McAvoy?”
20. I’m not a fan of referentiality for its own sake, and there are moments when Deadpool crosses the line into that Family Guy place, where it assumes that just saying “Wham” over and over counts as a joke. But the movie’s puckish opening credits are set to “Angel of the Morning” by Juice Newton, and the movie’s use of the song rises from hilarious irony to glorious exultation. It’s a pop culture moment. Following so soon after Guardians‘ use of pop music, it makes you feel like superhero cinema is getting better as it lightens up, as the filmmakers realize that not everything needs to sound like a bargain-brand Hans Zimmer.
21. But Deadpool has the same problem as Guardians of the Galaxy. It wants, badly, to be a post-superhero movie. It casts a charming caddish lead whose character specifically doesn’t want to be a hero. It drifts a lot of humor off the idea of putting a hilarious clown in the middle of a movie that would usually require some Hemsworth or other. But Guardians ultimately gave into the Marvel Studios formula: Spaceships attacking a city, noble sacrifice that isn’t really a sacrifice, see you in two years! And after a brilliant opening sequence, Deadpool circles back around to spill a long, long, long origin story.
22. It’s in the origin story that you start to realize a fundamental truth about these superhero movies we keep getting: They’re inoffensive, even when they’re R-rated. In Kelly’s Deadpool #1, Deadpool steals from those Girls Scouts. Onscreen, Ryan Reynolds — playing, remember, a mercenary — is introduced telling a stalker to stop stalking a nice high school girl. (Reynolds gives the stalker a really stern warning. Comic Deadpool would’ve tied him to a missile and launched him to the moon.)
23. The movie presents Vanessa and Wade as an utterly perfect couple with no problems whatsoever. Baccarin and Reynolds have a lot of chemistry, but you only notice that when the movie keeps them apart for most of the running time. They are apart because Wilson gets cancer and leaves Vanessa seeking treatment — a scene that actually appeared in Deadpool Minus One, written by guess who. Wade gets cured of cancer, but his face looks like Robert De Niro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The only way to get his original, Reynolds-looking face back is to track down Ajax. And so the whole entire plot of Deadpool gets set in motion because Deadpool is worried his girlfriend will think he’s unattractive. I’m all for low stakes in superhero movies — the world is never at risk! — but there are cut-rate, third-string rom-coms with more emotional stakes than Deadpool.
24. I guess the counterargument to any complaints about Deadpool is that it’s kind of a miracle that this movie got made at all, after long years in development hell. I’m sure some people will say what we usually say when superhero movies are disappointing: They’re gonna get to the real good/crazy stuff in the sequel. I happily welcome Deadpool 2 and would love to know what the filmmakers will do when they can get a villain who isn’t freaking Ajax.
25. But there’s a counter-counterargument: This is the movie that the studio thought was too weird, or dangerous, or offensive? Deadpool takes a few playful jabs at the X-Men film series, but they’re the jabs of a colleague at a workplace roast. (The movie makes fun of Wolverine but only to remind you how sexy Hugh Jackman is.) The film takes some playful potshots at the tropes of superhero movies, but crucially, it does nothing remotely to actually challenge those tropes. In Joe Kelly’s vision, Deadpool was lovable, but he was also a genuine maniac, driving away everyone who could ever love him. In Deadpool‘s vision, Deadpool is a handsome grown-up dork. (He loves Voltron! And Star Wars! And other things that are 30 years old!) Deadpool uses guns, but Deadpool‘s safety is on.
26. Which, fine. Deadpool plays great if you’re bored of superhero movies and you want something a little wilder, a little more ribald. There are plentiful bits of fan service. The names of the co-creators flash onscreen. (Look, there’s Stan Lee, having a Stan Lee cameo, but in strip club, because we’re R-rated!) It is definitely more fun than most X-Men movies, and the mere fact that Deadpool shares a universe with 2013’s mournful The Wolverine makes you think that Superhero Films as a genre are finally reaching the point when genuine radical experimentation is possible.
27. Anyhow, maybe we like our superhero movies orderly, blissful. In the ’90s, Deadpool felt like a rebel. Every rebellion becomes the establishment, eventually. And every heroic Antichrist becomes the cosmic squid-rock brain-deadening Messiah, eventually.