"And believe it or not, Deadpool 2 is a family film. True story. And every big family film starts... with a vicious murder. Bambi, The Lion King, Saw 7." --Deadpool, Deadpool 2
Postmodernism is a central topic around these parts. Understanding postmodernism is key to understanding our current moment. Postmodernism is, or rather can be, many things.
It’s a historical period, marked by the rise of networked technologies and surveillance, the end of colonialism and the rise of postcolonial states, and the total domination of global capitalism. It's the flow of goods (real and virtual) the world over where cultures mix, intermingle, and often fight.
Postmodernism is also a cultural mood. It’s the sense of living in a post-historical state. Postmodernism often brings with it an ambivalent, ambiguous, often grey tone. It also however shows remarkable nostalgia and creative desires to remix, re-purpose, and reuse art and imagery and ideas from previous eras.
Postmodernism is also a movement in philosophy, particularly aesthetic and linguistics. Postmodern ideas have influenced architecture, design, literature, and music, as well as for our purposes film, especially pop culture.
Postmodernism is also the source of many social and political movements for greater diversity and attacks on the oppression and corruption of the modern era.
But one thing (in its better moments) that postmodernism is, or rather is based in, is a structure of human consciousness. Postmodernism grows out of a development in rationality and perspective taking of a rather complex nature.
Postmodernism has many limitations as well as partial strengths. In our insanely polarized world though postmodernism tends not to get a fair assessment of both its pros and cons. Liberal, pluralist, multicultural types are often unwilling to face the dark sides of their own thinking, thereby becoming highly ideological and closed off. The anti-PC anti-leftist reaction that has gained steamed in the last few years makes the same basic mistake in the opposite direction: only focusing on the negatives without recognizing the values of postmodernism.
Into this confused and chaotic landscape one film franchise stands out as a perfect encapsulation—a triumph of the postmodern spirit. That film (or rather films) is Deadpool.
In this philosophical movie review we’re going to explore how Deadpool is the perfect postmodern character—his ability to hold to the strengths of postmodernism without falling into the limitations is brilliant. Along the way we’ll cover 4th wall breaks and self-reflective consciousness, heterogeneity, as well as gender and sexual diversity, all perfectly encapsulated in the films. Both the original Deadpool and the sequel will get air time in this analysis.
Spoilers + Maximum Effort Ahead.
4th Wall Break and Looping Self-Reflective Pomo Consciousness
“That’s a Fourth Wall break inside a Fourth Wall Break. That’s like 16 walls.” —Deadpool
This is the most obvious place to begin. The Fourth Wall refers to the invisible wall between stage performers and an audience—the first three walls being the three physical walls behind and to the sides of the performers. Performers traditionally imagine a (4th) wall between them and the audience.
While Deadpool wasn’t the first comic character to break the 4th wall, he did bring it to an art form and this becomes a repeated gag throughout the two films.
What breaking the Fourth Wall really represents is the ability of a character to double their own self-identity. They simultaneously realize they are in a created reality while also performing their role within the creation. When Deadpool makes jokes about Fox studio’s low budget tendencies or calls Josh Brolin’s Cable Thanos or One Eyed Willie the point is that Deadpool can hold in his mind that he’s a comic book character in a fictional universe while simultaneously capable of real emotional feeling and motivation within his particular simulation.
It’s that double or looping self-referential quality that is characteristic of postmodern consciousness. In the lingo, this is referred to as going “meta”. Meta means greater than or beyond. So the meta here is being meta-self reflective. In other words, it actually requires a greater (“meta”) mental capacity to simultaneously hold oneself as a product of culturally generated forces and an individual with choice in one’s own experiential reality.
Deadpool’s snark, cynicism, and ironic self-distancing are all a consequence of holding that meta-position, to see oneself from outside of oneself while simultaneously being inside one’s own experience.
The danger associated with that ironic humor and constant sarcasm is eventually to end up in nihilism. As we’ll explore later the dangerous slide towards nihilism and meaninglessness is very real. It’s a dangerous tendency Deadpool flirts deeply with in both films actually but in the end I believe (just) manages to avoid.
Postmodern consciousness brought forward the idea that life is co-constructed and contextually-dependent. In modernist anthropology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Western anthropologists saw themselves as dispassionately describing so-called “primitive cultures”. Modernist epistemology believed the human to be a blank slate, a kind of neutral camera, on which the outer world simply projected sense impressions.
Postmodernity realized that there is no such things as a neutral position in the observation of other. Postmodernism correctly understood that the very act of witnessing something changes the behavior of those being witnessed. Furthermore the very cultural modes of knowing that the observer brings changes what they notice, interpret, and understand of the other.
In both these ways the human is a camera. When we are on camera we always act with at least a partial recognition we’re being photographed or filmed. Also the lens or filters that we impose upon the world shape the way the world appears in our worldview or reality. (Think Instagram or Pinterest or FB).
Deadpool constantly pokes fun at the entire genre of comic books (and particularly comic book film), which is deeply authentic to the Deadpool tradition. Authenticity being a key postmodern value, going back at least to Heidegger. DP understands himself to the be product of a (sub)cultural creation.
In the same way, on much larger scales, we all live with this insight. That we are products of cultural, linguistic, historical, economic, and class forces. While also being individuals seeking to find our soul purpose (like Dopinder) or looking to find a family (DP, Vanessa, and the X-Men).
The rise of conspiracy culture, alternative research, and gnostic spiritualities also fit into this larger postmodern frame. Particularly when we see the co-created reality we are living in less a snarky, sarcastic, ironic manner, but rather as a dark simulation.
Or as Deadpool would have it:
“So dark, you sure you’re not from the DC Universe?”
The self-referential and self-conscious looping or doubling quality of postmodernism is nowhere more on display than with Ryan Reynolds himself. In both films Deadpool repeatedly takes shots at Ryan Reynolds. In the post-credits scene to the second film Deadpool actually travels back in time and literally takes a shot at Ryan Reynolds, to his head, “murdering” Reynolds (NSFW) before he can make Green Lantern. Deadpool ends by saying "you're welcome Canada."
Ryan Reynolds not only is the actor portraying Deadpool (making fun of Ryan Reynolds), Reynolds is one of the writers of the film. So he writes jokes about a character (Deadpool) that he portrays, who then murders himself in the movie—with Reynolds of course playing himself as murdered and murderer simultaneously.
The Fourth Wall break symbolizes the move to 4th person perspective taking. Third person perspective taking is the source of modernist philosophy with it’s notion of neutrality and pure distanced objectivity. Traditional theater and art holds to the reality of the three walls and pretends as if the 4th Wall maintains separation.
Postmodernism creates a 4th-person perspective where we can reflect on our own filters and choices that shape and mold what we see and how we interpret it. Postmodernism realizes that the 4th Wall is constructed by humans and therefore filters the very way in which we see “the play”, while also allowing the performs within the play to realize they are simultaneously in the play and being watched. All of us being both performers and audience in a double looping manner in every moment.
The constant self-looping quality brings us to our second major point of postmodernism in DP: (re)mixing.
After all the double entendres and Fourth Wall Breaks, the other major thing that pops out from the very first scene of the original Deadpool, is the graphic violence. The original Deadpool was the first superhero movie to receive an R rating. The violence (and later sex) is so shockingly juxtaposed with the playful, humorous, sardonic tone. It creates real anxiety, confusion, and mental dissonance.
Or to quote Deadpool himself:
So basically you’re Dave Matthews.
At the beginning of the first film, Deadpool is drawing a cartoon of himself killing bad guys while rhyming along to Salt n’ Pepa’s Shoop (again NSFW). DP then proceeds to go about killing said individuals in an extremely horrific manner that at points is so absurd it basically becomes cartoonish (again notice the doubling).
There’s something very Looney Tunes about Deadpool. The Looney Tunes Universe was filled with psycho characters running around with axes trying to chop heads off or trigger happy rednecks ready to blow some poor sucker away, or an obsessed coyote seeking to blow up a bird with a freaking rocket (himself, like DP falling to his “death” multiple times over). All these characters exist in a universe with a subtle, sly, social commentary as background.
In terms of a possible forerunner film to Deadpool, my vote would be Army of Darkness, the cult classic Sam Raimi 90s film starring the incredible Bruce Campbell. Army of Darkness is a supernatural horror film mixed with slapstick and deadpan dumb comedy. It’s genius. Deadpool isn’t so much supernatural horror but there definitely is the gore factor that has been strong more recently in horror. The humor in Deadpool is also more ironic and meta but like Army of Darkness it combines brilliant comedy and horror (of a variety) together into one, thereby dissolving the boundaries between those otherwise separated genres.
In the modern era the aesthetic elite claimed high art and low brow art were to be totally hermetically sealed off from each other. (Though the actual history is more mixed, take for example Mozart’s The Magic Flute or opera more broadly as essentially pop music of that era).
The postmodern era cut right though that high vs. low art boundary like Deadpool’s Katana Blades slice through throats and spleens (his blades incidentally are named after Bea Arthur of Golden Girls fame). In the postmodern era all genres, art forms, and styles can be blended together. Andy Warhol could make Campbell’s Soup into art, Run DMC turned an Aerosmith rock song into a hip hop classic.
In a time where Hugh Jackman is both Wolverine and Jean Valjean, then all such high vs. low art distinctions no longer hold (Deadpool of course makes multiple jokes about both of those Jackman roles). References to so-called high or low cinema can be mashed together in one film.
The Deadpool movies are full of pop culture reference after pop culture reference. The pop culture references are something like the bass line of the films. To support that idea in Deadpool 2 there’s a running joke about dubstep, very possibly the most postmodern form of music ever.
The great Marshall McLuhan (hello again Canada!) argued that the postmodern age would be one he termed “acoustic”. By acoustic he didn’t mean that it be audio-dominant but rather than media would surround us in a 360 degree fashion like sound bouncing off the walls of a cave or a cathedral. We would be constantly surrounded by media.
Deadpool is a character in a comic book movie who knows he is in a comic book movie and yet goes about interpreting his character arc and development by reference to other great hero tales (e.g. Star Wars). He is a perfect representation of living in a totally mediated age.
Minority Rights and Pluralization
Living in a totally mediated age of remixing reveals the ways in which life is socially constructed. And that construction includes, among many other aspects, gender identity and sexual orientation.
As a result, postmodernism is also deeply connected with the rise of feminism, as well as movements for aboriginal rights, GLBTQ rights, and diversity broadly speaking. The modern era created a series strict and often oppressive hierarchies: male over female, straight over gay, white over people of color, etc. Postmodernist movements seek to overturn those hierarchies.
This aspect is strongest in Deadpool 2, though there are two important scenes in the original Deadpool that establish this theme in the franchise.
First, a pre-Deadpool Wade Wilson takes on a mercenary case of a young woman being stalked by a pizza delivery guy (as always NSFW). Wilson breaks into another man’s house, orders a pizza, and then threatens the delivery guy, exacting a promise he will leave her alone. Wilson then brings some Polaroids he’s taken of the terrified young creep to the girl being stalked. She tells Wilson, “you’re my hero.” Wilson replies, “Now, that I ain’t.” Wilson (and by extension) Deadpool is going to assume the postmodern anti-hero icon but at root he does have a strong heart (a point to keep in mind).
Second in the (in)famous holiday sex scene Wilson and his love Vanessa enact a series of sexual fantasies timed to the yearly calendar (brilliantly spoofing romantic comedy montages of a deepening relationship). During that sequence there’s a moment where Vanessa is behind Wilson wearing a strap-on. She whispers to him, “Happy International Women’s Day” as she then proceeds to peg him. It’s the most Deadpool-iest way of inverting the traditional gender hierarchy imaginable.
In Deadpool 2 the theme of gender and sexual diversity takes on an even more central role, especially in the creation of the superhero team X-Force. When Deadpool forms X-Force he specifically mentions on two occasions the patriarchal nature of still calling a superhero group X-Men. X-Force he says will be a “gender neutral, forward thinking” outfit.
Also in the second film Negasonic Teenage Warhead begins dating Yukio, another woman mutant, creating an openly lesbian super heroine couple.
Further X-Force’s main character is Domino, a black superheroine. She’s the only original member of X-Force to survive the film. Domino is brilliantly portrayed by Zazie Beetz and her character is in many ways the surprise hit of the film. I think in large part because she’s not tokenized, either for her gender or biracial identity. As Deadpool later admits (after initial skepticism) she turns out to be a real badass.
Not to mention of course Blind Al (seriously NSFW clip). She checks a lot of boxes: blind, elder, black, woman with a man's name with the mouth of a sailor, just to name a few.
The central plot of Deadpool 2 revolves around the plight of a young mutant named Firefist, whose being raised in an orphanage which turns out to be practicing religious, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of children. Deadpool and the X-Force (plus X-Men members like Colossus, Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Yukio) seek to save him while the time-traveling cyborg Cable potentially seeks to murder the boy so that Firefist will not grow up into the psychopathic killer he later does (in Cable’s original timeline) thereby murdering Cable’s daughter and wife.
The headmaster of the orphanage is a religious bigot and zealot preaching hell fire and brimstone and the evilness of being a mutant (essentially in our contemporary world code for being gay). The film is socially cognizant of living in an era of the widespread revelation of the pervasiveness of childhood abuse—e.g. in the Catholic Church, residential schools, even Hollywood.
Whether intentional or not there’s also a link here to aboriginal rights and postcolonial postmodern movements. Firefist’s human name in the film is Russell Collins who is described as a New Zealander. In real life the actor portraying Firefirst, Julian Dennison is of Maori descent. And for good measure Russell at one point states that he couldn’t be a superhero because he was too obese (a subtle nod to able-ism critiques and the body positive anti-fat shaming movement, another branch of postmodern thought).
Continuing with this theme there’s also a number of times that Deadpool seeks to pin Cable as a racist, without very much success (but it is quite funny). For example, in a fight with Deadpool Cable ends up accidentally shooting and killing another mutant “Black” Tom Cassidy whose actually white. In response Deadpool accuses Cable of racism.
Consider DP’s “dying” words to Cable are (“dying” in quotes because he doesn’t actually die):
Cable, you get back to your family and you tell them Wade says hi. And promise me, promise me one thing: that you'll start judging people not by the color of the skin but by the content of their character.
Also earlier in the film, Cable wants to turn off the radio in the taxi, playing Indian pop (it’s Dopinder’s cab) which again brings out charges of covert racism by DP against Cable. At this point Cable interestingly responds that he’s not a racist. In fact in addition to coming back in time to save his family he also returned because as he says,
“Your entire generation will fuck this planet into a coma.”
Cable later decides to stay in the present (our) timeline to “prevent the world from shitting itself into oblivion.”
Cable becomes in essence an eco-warrior. Environmentalism and the green movement is another of the great postmodern movements, completing the postmodern progressive vision.
This strong sensitivity and care for diversity ties into our fourth and final postmodern motif reflected in the Deadpool films: belonging (esp. family). In the original film Vanessa and Wade bond over their equally brutal and abusive childhoods. The second film focuses on family. At the beginning of the film DP and Vanessa discuss having a child of their own. Vanessa tragically is murdered. DP has multiple visions of her in the afterlife state saying his heart isn’t in the right place. She implores DP to rescue Firefist.
“Children offer us a chance to be better than we were” she says.
After Vanessa’s death, DP spirals into a suicidal despair—a despair made worse by the fact that no matter how hard he tries DP can’t kill himself because he has instant regenerative healing powers. He jumps off a building, blows himself up, and survives them all. Colossus takes him to the X-Mansion and tells him, “We may not be the family you wanted. But we are the family you need.”
At the beginning of the film DP remarks “Family used to be a F word for me.” The creation of X-Force and his connection with Colossus, TNW, and Yukio (plus Cable + Dopinder) form a chosen set of family for DP.
One of the dangers with postmodernism is that with all the emphasis on diversity, plurality, and respecting differences, social isolation and fragmentation can increase. Loneliness and a sense of meaninglessness are rampant in the postmodern era.
Deadpool struggles in both films with the lure of nihilism—an always spectre-like (non)presence haunting our postmodern age. In the original film, due to his shame and self-consciousness at his horrible disfigurement in his mutation process, Deadpool is too scared to tell Vanessa he’s alive. In the second film after Vanessa's murder, he goes into the dark well of suicidal grief and despair. Even at the end as he saves Firefist, he’s happy that’s he going to die for real. Even though he’s developed this strong bond he wants to die so he can go back to the astral afterlife plane and reunite with Vanessa. She’s his deepest home and belonging. She tells him to go back, that this isn’t his time.
He returns to his earthly chosen family. Chosen family and belonging are key themes of the postmodern era, especially for those who don’t fit into regular “normie” society whatever their particular mutant quality might be it: sexual, racial, gender, etc.
It’s this last quality of heart and belonging that I believe prevents Deadpool from sliding into the problematic sides of postmodernism, namely moral relativism and philosophical nihilism. Deadpool manages to navigate the strengths of the postmodern path without falling into its ditches. Contrast that with the recent Star Wars films which have sunk into a profoundly postmodern morass (especially Episode 8). That Deadpool manages to evade that negative tendency is a er marvel (wink, wink).
In summary, Deadpool is the quintessential postmodern film. It’s all there: 4th Wall Breaks and meta-self consciousness; pop cultural saturation and re-mixing; gender, racial, and sexual diversity; and the desire for belonging. That it manages to hold all those points in view while not falling into the flawed sides of postmodernism is an incredible achievement.