Irony has been the basis of humor since the age of Socrates and probably long before. It’s not hard to imagine an early human, reacting to a cavemate’s taking a pratfall by muttering, “That was graceful.”
During the late 1960s, such humor assumed a special place in U.S. popular culture when it became the primary tool for comedians to mock traditional American attitudes. To many Americans, still used to that all-pervasive sense of exceptionalism left over from World War II, it was shocking to see, say, a photo of Richard Nixon carrying the tagline “Your friendly used-care salesman”
The humor there, of course, involves the notion that such a presumed symbol of trust – a former U.S. vice president – would screw you on a car deal. You look at one thing (supposed trusted figure) but see the opposite (ostensible crook).
These days, no one has to explain such a contradiction. We live in an age so Seinfeldian that it’s often hard to tell the difference between something meant to be taken seriously – say, a Michael Bay film about Benghazi – and something that plays like an ongoing cartoon. Say, a Michael Bay film about Benghazi.
Which helps explain why the movie “Deadpool” is so enjoyable. Mired in self-referential asides, all perfectly delivered by snark-master Ryan Reynolds, “Deadpool” is the perfect blend of superhero and anti-superhero movie. You get all the classic tropes of the genre accompanied by a wink-wink nod to the understanding that nothing you see is meant to be taken seriously. Or, and here is the further contradiction, maybe underneath the jokey posing something serious does lurk.
Whatever, as directed by first-timer Tim Miller – described in the hilarious opening credits as “an overpaid tool” – “Deadpool” is based on a Marvel Comics character famous both for his antiheroic attitudes and his tendency to break the fourth wall. Which, of course, is a fancy way of saying that, on occasion, he turns away from the ongoing narrative and addresses us, his audience, directly.
That narrative involves his actual identity, former mercenary Wade Wilson (played by Reynolds), whose love affair with the beautiful Vanessa (played by the beautiful Morena Baccarin), has been disrupted. The first problem: a diagnosis of cancer. The second: a diabolical procedure that gives him the mutant self-healing powers of virtual indestructability but that leaves him looking like he has been set on fire and then stomped out by someone wearing golf spikes.
After adopting the cool alias of Deadpool, Wade chooses to accept two missions: one is to find and punish the guy who mutated him, a character who calls himself Ajax (played by Ed Skrein) but whose given name is Francis. The other is to protect Vanessa, who naturally becomes a target of Deadpool’s enemies.
A lot of graphic kinds of play follow involving guns, blades, fists and what have you, along with a lot of dark humor, mostly in the form of jokes that whiz by so fast it’s easy to overlook the attendant cultural commentary.
Hmmm, dark jokes disguising a possibly serious subtext. Now, isn’t that ironic?