The Oscar’s don’t like comedies. They really don’t. So if you want your comedy to get the Best Picture nomination it has to be exceptionally good. Like Annie Hall good. And there appears to be a school of thought that Deadpool was in this underpopulated category.1 But yesterdays nominations proved all this speculation wrong.
‘Okay’ I hear you, the affable and attractive reader say. ‘The Oscars have their biases. Some movies are really great but stand no chance of winning. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to. Deadpool might have never actually had a chance, but it’s still one of the best films of the year. Even if it would never realistically make the list, it still rightfully has a place on that list of 2016’s Best Picture.’ And to that I say ehhhh, not really. It’s okay. But there are some way better comedies this year which also didn’t come close to getting nominated.2
Comedy can be such a powerful storytelling device. Think of The Big Lebowski dismantling the preposterous male id in all it’s different guises. Think of how 40 Year Old Virgin examined the ways we can hide from the things we want the most. Think of how Borat so perfectly married the visceral, base humour with a biting social satire showcasing the ridiculous contradictions of xenophobia. These films masterfully use humour as a tool to achieve a larger effect. It’s why so many of the most emotionally powerful films are the funniest as well (Manchester By The Sea executed this beautifully). But Deadpool’s irony serves no such purpose.
The film that compares most directly would be Shaun of The Dead. There are a million reasons it works so well, most of which people smarter than me have been listing off since it was released well over a decade ago. But let’s look at some of the most important differences. It’s worth noting that on a pure jokes-per-minute level their wouldn’t be much in it, and both have some hilarious performances. But it’s the fundamental story points which makes Shaun of the Dead on a whole different level.
- It provides pastiche without straight rip off.
Shaun of the Dead mimics no specific zombie plot and all of them at the same time. By taking an element from everything, it actually ends up with something new in the process (this is also how a lot of heart-wrenching drama come to be). There’s no one-to-one, beat-by-beat, match you could make with any film and yet it fees like a… zombie film.
And as an action film Shaun of the Dead is kind of well done. It tells a story that’s refreshing without rewriting the book. But where ‘Shaun’ looked forward on this front, Deadpool looks back. Instead of taking all of the superhero elements and building something new with them, we’re offered a rehash of some of the oldest and most boring elements of the genre. We have the mysterious government experiment to bring about superpowers, the garden variety side characters, and a very basic and uninteresting revenge plot. And just because Deadpool knows all of these things are generic doesn’t justify their use. But we’ll get onto that later. Shaun Of The Dead embraces the genre coming from a place of love, whereas Deadpool only apologises for it’s weaknesses.
2. It uses all different kinds of comedy.
Shaun of the Dead is full of a huge variety in its humour. On top of the irony, you have comedy from surrealism, physical gags and misdirection to name a few. It keeps coming up with new, creative ways to present the jokes, so you can never second guess what’s going to come next, and keeps the story engaging throughout.
But in Deadpool, the same joke is repeated over and over again. It’s only held together by Ryan Reynold’s impeccable delivery. After about fifteen minutes in you know exactly what you’re going to get. And this does lead to a problem though when it tries to sell some honest-to-god action sequences. It’s impossible to get into any sense of pace and rhythm when you know you might get some wink and nudge at any given point. Sometimes it seems to forget it’s making fun of these things.
3. More than anything it’s about friendship.
This is the most important one. The closing shot of Shaun of the Dead is Shaun and zombie Ed playing Playstation together. It’s both a joke and a sweet moment. Whereas Deadpool closes to another ironic joke. There’s no catharsis. He just kissed his girlfriend, but the film then needs to comment on how generic and overplayed this. Just because you know you’re being lazy doesn’t mean you can get away with it.
And because of this laziness it ends up suffering from the same problems so many superhero movies do. It gets bogged down in a forever long origin story. There’s a middle section of about ten jokeless minutes in the middle where it seems you want to take it seriously for a second. But it’s so surrounded by this empty pandering humour that there’s no room for any impact. Everything that’s been set up so far it’s that Deadpool is a carefree nihilist, even from before his superhero inception. The origin story should show how he became that way, but it serves to make it clear he was already that way. He’s the exact same dude all the way through, but he gains superpowers at one point. Yes he lost his girlfriend, but was that really anything other than an excuse to plot forward? And if you say it’s making fun of the cheap and empty devices other Marvel devices use for plot forwarding you’re missing the point. Shaun Of The Dead demonstrates how making a pastiche doesn’t give you an excuse to make a bad movie. You want to use the best elements to make something great, not the worst ones to excuse laziness. The constant smugness in Deadpool is plainly unwarranted.
This brand of irony is a cheap trick. It’s a regressive look at culture. It moves nothing forward, but only peels the curtain back to laugh at ourselves.3 I want to stress that comedies can absolutely be serious, important, boundary pushing works of art. Deadpool peters into averageness not because it’s a comedy, but because it offers nothing beyond the jokes. Let’s take another random ‘Shaun of the Dead’ example. When they have the first zombie in the garden Nick Frost winds his disposable camera to take a picture. The sound effect is timed to perfect comedic effect, but this also gives us new information about both characters (Simon Pegg stops him), while offering a larger commentary of our 21st voyeurist culture. It’s not exactly Proust, but it’s there. I’m not saying every single joke has to have some hidden deeper meaning, but overall the film should tonally be heading somewhere, and the jokes shouldn’t just be jokes: they should serve the story function by moving the plot forward, revealing new character information or contributing to the larger themes. After the first two jokes we literally know everything about the kind of gags Deadpool: will make. He’ll make fun of Superhero movie tropes through himself and subvert the action. That’s it, over and over again. And like I said, they have some clever one-liners and Ryan Reynolds is really good. But that’s not enough.
Deadpool isn’t alone on this. Overly ironic comedies are a problem that’s been fermenting for a while to explode in the last couple of years (looking at you 22 Jump Street). It’s okay for our culture to look back at itself once in a while, but this should be a means for a larger purpose. Adaptation proved that meta-self references can be used to make profound and thematic larger statements about art and the world. But in Deadpool these are all just self-reference for the sake of it. They go nothing beyond the cheap gag. It’s recognition of these lazy tropes descends into essentially an apology for them. It ends up saying ‘we know superhero movies use dumb, convoluted origin stories, but we need this to get to the fun parts’. Can’t we strive for something better instead? Origin stories don’t need to be boring, and peppering them with dick jokes does nothing to help with that.
1 Yes, I’ll spend most of it talking about Shaun of the Dead, which didn’t come close to winning any Oscars, but that’s more of a problem with the Oscars in general. But you could substitute Oscars for ‘A great movie that will stand the test of time’ and these points would be equally valid: very few comedies are remembered for long, let alone considered ‘classic’ (especially when compared to dramas and the like). Deadpool’s not about to be one of them.
2 The Nice Guys, Swiss Army Man, Sing Street
3 For more on this I highly recommend David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘E Pluribus Unam’4
4 Yes, my use of footnotes is aping his