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deadpool and consumer scepticism: a different kind of superhero

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Superheroes are in vogue. In 2016 alone, Hollywood will release films about Wonder Woman, Doctor Strange, the X-Men, Captain America versus the Avengers, and Batman versus Superman. The capes are back, with ripples of American pride flowing underneath. This outpour amounts to an endless bag of stale popcorn packaged in a picture of Chris Hemsworth’s chest. There’s only so much you can eat.

Deadpool cuts through the formulaic superhero genre to clean up the mess. The film represents Marvel’s very own ‘How very unMacdonald’s’ campaign, except this one works. In reading and responding to cultural trends, Deadpool has established a brand that purports to reject inauthenticity and respect its otherwise over-saturated audience.

Deadpool, directed by Tim Miller, follows the story of a mercenary turned mutant. Protagonist Wade Winston Wilson adopts the pseudonym Deadpool after being tortured and mutated by a sadist slave trader who calls himself Ajax (Ed Skrein). He no longer feels pain, and heals or regenerates from any wound. He withstands broken bones, gun shots, an impaling, severe burns and grows his arm back after cutting it off. Despite the changes, Deadpool retains his wit and a soft spot for fiancé, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). In his chase for revenge on Ajax, he makes wise crack jokes, befriends some X-Men and saves the damsel in distress.

On paper, this reads like a predictable superhero movie. However, the film turns a mirror onto its formulaic genre, and frames the protagonist as an antihero. In doing so, Deadpool acknowledges its audience as engaged and intelligent. Viewers are not treated as sponges who watch and absorb movies, but as critical, subjective interpreters who therein participate in the meaning making process.

This reflects a trend in marketing that adapts to heightened skepticism among consumers. Communications and branding scholar Douglas Holt argues that historically brands developed to ‘educate the consumer about the product’s basic value’ and to convey the manufacturer’s ‘legitimacy, prestige and stability.’ For example, a company might advertise a consistent public image of itself as a reliable expert in producing traditional romance films. These claims were presented as unquestionable; the company presented itself as though it sought only to communicate the truth about its strengths to potential customers.

Australian communications scholar Nicholas Carah describes how this changed in response to the 1960s counter-culture movement. Realising that consumers were savvy enough to see through their manipulative tactics, brand advertisements started to interact with consumers. They explicitly acknowledged their persuasive tactics to build a brand image that effectively told consumers: we respect that you can see through persuasive tactics, and we’re intelligent enough to make fun of them with you. This positioned their brand as more relatable and in tune with audiences than competitors. A series of advertisements for shower gel, Old Spice, for example, frame the company’s ridiculous claims as hilariously absurd. The ad gained popularity and positioned the Old Spice brand as modern and in tune with audiences.

In film, this looks like characters breaking the fourth wall. More subtly, it could involve jokes that acknowledge audiences’ awareness of the reality of film-making, or those aimed at the industry or genre to which the film belongs. Deadpool is an excellent example of all of these things.

From the opening credits, viewers are hit with truths about the superhero genre. Characters are named as ‘the British villain’, ’the comedic relief’, ’the hot chick’, and ‘overpaid’; each instance highlighting how archetypal superhero films have become. Thereon, Deadpool directly addresses the audience. In the opening fight scene, Deadpool says, ‘You’re probably thinking, “I thought this was meant to be a superhero movie. Did he just turn that guy into a kebab?” Surprise! This is a different kind of superhero story.’

Deadpool seeks to differentiate itself by engaging the audience in a seemingly more authentic conversation. The character is positioned as a funny friend making wise cracks about the movie as though he were watching it beside us. Deadpool is also more believable as a character, undercutting the archetype of superheroes as infallible moral arbiters. He is crass, selfish and self-deprecating.

Ironically, in pointing out that the movie is just a movie, Deadpool conveys a greater sense of authenticity that appeals to young adults. The film shocks and excites viewers through realistic depictions of violence and sex. Villains are beheaded and quartered, and there’s an abundance of masturbation jokes. The plot line is also heavier, epitomised by a scene detailing the torture of Deadpool and friends. That Deadpool consistently breaks the social rules governing Hollywood film will no doubt make it appealing to young adults who find it relatable and want to feel like cool rule-breakers by proxy.

Deadpool also breaks some entrenched gender conventions. Foremost among these is the false dichotomy between a superhero with a fucked up past and hardships, and his innocent romantic partner. Deadpool’s fiance is a stripper who demonstrates sexual autonomy and hints at a complex, dark personal history. For most of the film, the pair exhibit an equal relationship as their ‘crazy’ fits them together ‘like jigsaw pieces’.

Unlike traditional superhero movies, Deadpool does not embody a hyper-masculine stereotype. On the one hand, he is depicted as strong, and sometimes aggressive, but on the other, he is openly emotional and accepts vulnerability. Deadpool snuggles a soft toy, is ashamed of his appearance and is at one point penetrated by Vanessa. Another male superhero, Colossus, is deeply committed to pacifism, which is often associated with femininity. He is however, sometimes degraded for this, including being laughed at by Deadpool. Overall, masculinity and femininity are depicted as nuanced in this film, with men and women embodying different traits.

There are, however, moments that will make feminists cringe, demonstrating the confusing role women play in this film. Though a female is cast as the world’s strongest person, and all three female characters hold their own in fights throughout the film, the female lead ultimately takes the role of distressed damsel.

Deadpool asks us to engage with and relate to the film, and therein establishes our consumer loyalty. In doing so, it breathes fresh air into an old genre. Though not a feminist ideal, Deadpool takes strides in gender equality when compared to other superhero flicks.

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