Emotional Masculinity and Lost Opportunities: Why Deadpool 2 is Better Than You Think (But Not As Good As It Could Have Been)

ALL THE SPOILERS seriously I’m gonna talk about every beat of this movie and you don’t want that, not if you’re planning to see it, so only read this without seeing the movie if you’re that person who seriously loves spoilers and thinks they make movies better, you know who you are.

Watch the movie first. It’s worth it. Or you know, don’t. I’m not the boss of you.

So hey let’s talk about Deadpool 2 and male heroes doing emotional work.

From the start, way back with the pre-publicity around the first Deadpool movie, the production team has played around with Deadpool’s alternative take on heroic masculinity — mostly for laughs, but it’s still significant in the history of pop culture. Many of the posters used provovative poses usually reserved for women, the first movie was released on Valentine’s Day and pitched as a date movie and a romance, and so on. This was also with the promotions around Deadpool 2. Movie Deadpool’s public image started to look a lot like the Hawkeye Initiative… except made by dudes.

Then we come to Deadpool 2, in which Wade Wilson’s girlfriend Vanessa is murdered in the cold open. Which is a problem.

Women in Refrigerators as a trope has been widely discussed for over two decades. If you missed that conversation, you really don’t know enough about superheroes. Which is disturbing because apparently the screenwriters of the movie didn’t actually know that was a thing.

It doesn’t matter how good your movie/comic/book is, if you have a female character die in order to progress the plot & emotional narrative of the male hero, you’re contributing to this super problematic trope. And it’s a common one. So common that it automatically makes your story LESS INTERESTING to people who have seen it as many times as they probably have. Once we’ve seen it, we can’t unsee it.

Frustratingly, Deadpool 2 uses this trope really, really well and does some very interesting things with it.

I’d add that Gail Simone, originator of the Women in Refrigerator conversation, has talked on Twitter about how she doesn’t think Vanessa’s death in Deadpool 2 matches up completely with the most problematic aspect of trope, largely because WiR is about a woman disappearing from the narrative to push the male hero’s story forward… and Vanessa does not disappear, continuing to play a role in the story & to have a voice of her own. I look forward to hearing more of Gail’s thoughts on this when she is less conscious of spoiling the movie.

Let’s start with Vanessa’s death, which happens directly after a scene in which our hero and his sweetie are celebrating their anniversary and about to embark on some epic babymaking. Yes, really. I should add at this point that Deadpool literally refers to lazy writing in this script at least twice, but not in relation to this plotline. Probably because, as mentioned above, the screenwriters didn’t realise they were being lazy because they had never heard of Women in Refrigerators.

Vanessa is killed by a stray bullet, Deadpool immediately gets his revenge on all relevant perpetrators, and the credits roll with comedy James Bond pastiche poses, challenging Deadpool’s “heroic” status while calling attention to what they just did with a series of text jokes that make it clear they know what they just did.

(Except of course, they don’t ACTUALLY know what they just did)

What I think THEY think they did was to satirise the heroic journey in which a hero’s gf/wife/baby mama is murdered, sending him on a spiral of righteous vengeance.

Unfortunately they did this by replicating that filming tradition so closely that… well. They did the thing.

Vanessa, who was so great in the first movie as Wade’s raunchy soulmate, a rare female character whose comedic dialogue is allowed to be as gross as that of the dude is relegated to an Angel in the House, a soft focus version of herself who posthumously teaches Wade about the value of love and the importance of his heart.

Yeah, that kind of sucks.

It really annoys me how much I loved the movie anyway.

Deadpool as a character is at his best when he punctures the heroic traditions, and Deadpool 2 does this brilliantly, in scene after scene. From the knowing dialogue to the comedy undercutting of film tropes (like what happens to the entire team he assembles OMG), along with the real emotions of the story and the literal commentary on so many recent superhero movie… Deadpool 2 is a breath of fresh air.

There are several great female characters in the movie, even including heavenly Vanessa. (Who… yes, dies in the opening sequence, but STILL has more interesting dialogue and acting opportunities throughout the film than for example Rachel McAdams in Dr Strange or Ant-Man’s ex wife, whose only contribution to their respective movie franchises is to be annoyed at the hero and occasionally placed in mild peril)

Negasonic Teenage Warhead continues to be criminally underused, but it feels like her general lack of screentime comes mostly from her character’s outright refusal a) be involved at all or b) to feed straight lines to Deadpool, which is legit. (Give her a movie of her own!) NTW does get a canon girlfriend, Yukio, who is so adorable that even Wade can’t be snarky about her, and some good if too-brief scenes. NTW is my favourite X-Man.

Blind Al, who I will always think of as Grannypool, is flat out awesome, as always, and her relationship with Wade is both delightfully soft and full of sharp edges. I would watch a movie that’s just the two of them all the way through.

Speaking of Needs Her Own Movie, Domino is so damned good. I loved how she was used in the film from her opening scene arguing about whether luck is a superpower (it is) through all the action sequences, and the emotional narrative kick we got in the final act when she realised her reason for coming along. She is a huge part of what made this movie so great.

Also, luck is her superpower, and considering I was still feeling bruised about the Vanessa thing, it was deeply empowering to see Domino stroll from crisis to crisis, completely untouchable even when the men around her were dying all manner of ignoble deaths.

Then there’s Cable. Like Deadpool, this badass super solder from the future is motivated by the violent death of his family (wife and daughter so that’s another 2 fridged). It’s a universal trope, sure, but it’s also boooooring. Again, this isn’t one of the choices called out for lazy writing but getting instant emotional gratification because the two male leads both have women to avenge? Yeah, that’s… not clever.

But.

What actually lifts Deadpool 2 from ‘not as good as the first one’ to ‘genuinely interesting action comedy’ is that despite the unoriginal backstory, the script actually does do something important and if not new, certainly fresh with both Deadpool and Cable.

Wade is an anti-hero — Deadpool has always been an anti-hero. The opening sequence in which he gleefully takes down ‘bad guys’ across a montage of Tarantino-style mob violence without thought of possible consequence establishes ‘anti-hero’ in a more traditional comic book sense. But the rest of the movie is far more about tearing down the heroic masculine narrative, and giving us something quite different.

Other action movies would revolve around Wade’s journey of vengeance against those who took Vanessa from him, scaling up the very violence that caused her death in the first place; this movie winds up that storyline before the opening credits. Instead, Wade is left suicidal and furious at himself because he blames himself for Vanessa’s death and can’t find any way to wreak vengeance on himself.

His self-loathing, blaming himself for her death, is articulated throughout instead of grimly implied, which is the usual Action Hero Emotional Beat Of Choice. He openly talks about his guilt, his responsibility, and his feelings.

Deadpool’s depression is played for comedic effect, as is everything else in his life, and yet there’s never any doubt that it’s real, it’s true… and it affects every choice he makes. Including getting himself imprisoned for a violent response to an abused mutant kid who needs his help… (A kid whose first response to prison is to try to shank the biggest guy in there, because he’s learned about life from brutal dude movies and also, we learn, deeply damaged…)

When Cable comes back from the past, Terminator-style, to kill the kid that Wade has made a reluctant connection with, a fairly obvious heroic path seems laid out before us: Wade will overcome his ennui, save the kid, probably get all self-sacrificial, and ultimately come to terms with Vanessa’s death.

Instead, we learn that Cable is after the kid because he’s destined to become a destructive super-villain, so Wade’s mission becomes to prevent that future from happening without letting Cable murder a child… through talking, and making things better for everyone.

Emotional work, in other words. It’s not about shooting, it’s about… working through complex feelings and helping others do the same. This is such a rare thing to find in a male-led heroic narrative. Xena and Buffy dealt with this kind of storyline all the time, but I really enjoyed watching Deadpool, Cable and the rest of them power through ‘bullets will solve this’ to ‘we’re all gonna need to talk about the hard stuff.’

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And can we talk about the beautiful shiny cinnamon roll that is Colossus in this movie? Colossus, who is the person who takes the most active role in trying to save Deadpool from his grief and depression, pouts and sulks when his method (forcing Deadpool to sign up to the X-Men and bury his loss in heroic acts) fails terribly, and responds belatedly to a Boom Box Declaration of Love, but comes through in the end thanks to the power of friendship.

(I was expecting some “acknowledgment” of Deadpool’s fluid sexuality via a hefty dose of Cable flirting in this movie, I was not expecting the deeply romantic narrative centred around Colossus and his personal need to “fix” Wade)

Colossus princess-carrying Deadpool in a fight scene gives me life, and I am not ashamed to admit it. But I think it’s so great that he is given this role in doing the emotional work to support Deadpool’s story, far more so than the women in their lives. It’s not Negasonic Teenage Warhead or Domino or Grannypool who work hardest to put Deadpool back together after his loss… it’s Colossus, with a side order of Russell and Cable doing their part.

Cable is fascinating here too — after the very 2 dimensional Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, a cartoon alien whose definition of love translates as domestic abuse and whose biggest emotional beat is his chin, I was prepared to be equally disinterested in Brolin’s Cable. But despite the cheesy ‘my wife and child are dead’ cliche set up in the script, Cable is genuinely affecting here, conveying his love for his lost family and his resentment at being in the past that shaped his world, but also forming an emotional connection with Deadpool, the most annoying person on the planet (like, seriously, he works at that).

The ultimate sacrificial act in this story is not Deadpool letting himself be killed to teach Russell the power of love (a suicidal hero choosing Death By Supervillain doesn’t really count as a sacrifice), it’s Cable giving up his ride home to undo that death, for no reason other than personal empathy.

More to the point, Cable openly states he is staying to do the hard work in keeping the world from going to shit. Cable is so great.

I feel like I should be talking more about how amazing Domino is in this movie. That’s really a whole other essay. I’m so glad they gave her so many wonderful action hero moments rich with comedy and drama and emotion. Also, how fantastic is the overall ensemble? Great use of a very diverse cast, with even the much smaller new roles very carefully chosen. Though Terry Crews needs to be OK and come back for a much bigger role in the next one. Really. Truly. He’s OK, right?

It’s the portrayal of men in Deadpool 2 — men as friends, as mentors, men grieving, men awkwardly trying to connect to each other, which makes the movie feel worthwhile and utterly different, which is a rare thing to say about superhero movies. (There are comparisons to be made to Black Panther, which also has men talking about their feelings, and working through emotional baggage to get to peaceful solutions, plus the importance of listening to the great women around you)

Deadpool is an anti-hero — that’s not new. But here, in this particular movie, he delves so deep into the idea of ‘anti-hero’ that he challenges what the word ‘hero’ even means. Not because he swears a bunch, makes a lot of dick jokes and kills people regularly, but because he looks past his own needs to provide emotional support for a kid in danger of becoming even more messed up than he is… and shows Cable that you can solve problems without shooting at them. Or, well. While shooting at them.

Speaking of articulating important feelings and emotions instead of implying them through brooding moments of silence Action Hero Style, can we talk about how Deadpool talks about team-building as a substitute for family almost constantly through this story, signposting it as the main theme from beginning to end? It’s all very Lilo and Stitch. Despite all the guns, extreme violence and other Action Hero Tropes, despite Deadpool’s reputation and the way he’s glorified by some pretty unpleasant male fans… this movie had a soft, squishy centre to it, and I appreciated that greatly.

I’m tired of Women in Refrigerators. I’m tired of sexist, gendered film tropes — regardless of whether Vanessa counts as fridged or not, I’ve been seeing this dead girlfriend story since I watched Lethal Weapon 2 at 10 years old, and I’m over it.

Would Deadpool 2 have been a better movie if Vanessa had merely dumped Wade, as the screenwriters originally considered? Probably not… the raw emotion of losing her and the deep guilt he worked through is part of what made the movie really good. (Tropes become tropes because they’re narratively satisfying, which is why super problematic tropes often translate to “good” writing… until you’ve seen them done a zillion times and they make you want to set fire to things)

If this new generation of witty, male-led action hero stories are going to interrogate the masculine heroic ideals instead of indulging in a blind adoration of their genre’s Serious Problems then I’m probably going to keep watching. It helps a lot when those male-led action anti-heroes have women they listen to and respect on their teams… and more than ONE at a time would be nice. Killing off a great female character is slightly more forgivable when there are more great female characters in your franchise. (Please note, Black Panther killed off no women and was an amazing film, it is possible)

The worst part about Deadpool 2 is not that they killed off Vanessa, and it’s definitely not that they wrote a script that justified that narrative choice. The worst part is that apparently they had NO IDEA what they were doing. They weren’t thinking about Women in Refrigerators, or the over-use of the Dead Wife As Revenge Motive. They weren’t thinking about their female audience, or their critical feminist audience.

Like, if you’re making a Deadpool movie, and you’re gonna kill off the girlfriend, you don’t just set it up with lame jokes about baby names. You make jokes about fridges. You make jokes about refrigerators before AND after she is killed. Once Vanessa is dead and Wade is having dreams about talking to her, trying to reach her, and she has important messages to pass on, you don’t have her sitting in a weirdly tidy heavenly living room…

YOU HAVE HER SIT ON THE FRIDGE.

You have her set up heavenly afterlife inside the damn fridge. You spell her name out in fridge magnets. You own the fucking joke. You hang a lampshade on the joke and then you set fire to the lampshade.

Then, when you bring her back to life in the closing credits sequence (it’s canon, I refuse to believe it’s not canon), you do so by having Deadpool kill the assassin, not with a fucking butter knife, but with a REFRIGERATOR.

They didn’t do any of that that. Because they weren’t in on the joke. We got great jokes at the expense of Logan, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Winter Soldier, Batman, Green Lantern, John Wick and the first Deadpool movie… but the screenwriters were simply not aware enough of the gender issues in their movie to make knowing, smartass jokes about that too.

Which is a shame, because Deadpool 2 is a great movie with a few painful flaws in it right now… and if they’d just let a feminist comics fan or three read the script before they started shooting, it could have been SPECTACULAR.

[UPDATE: more response on this storyline from the director & writers]

6 replies on “Emotional Masculinity and Lost Opportunities: Why Deadpool 2 is Better Than You Think (But Not As Good As It Could Have Been)”

  1. Grant Watson says:

    I’m intrigued by your reference to Thanos as two-dimensional, because I thought he was one of the best villains the MCU has managed to introduce, and now I’m wondering if I’m making a defence of Thanos or a savage indictment on the average quality of the MCU’s villains.

    • tansyrr says:

      I think the character of Thanos got across what it needed to but I found him about as complex as a slice of bread. Coming immediately after Killmonger & Hel, with a bunch of recent reminders about how interesting Loki has been as a villain, I didn’t find Thanos nearly as fascinating as everyone else seems to — the most interesting thing about him as a character is his toxic relationship with daughters Gamora & Nebula, but in fact (having just rewatched Guardians of the Galaxy) he’s equally interesting in that regard when off screen as on.

      His gauntlet is pretty, though.

  2. Natalie says:

    Vanessa’s death being reversed is cannon – confirmed by the writers in the Reddit AMA they did last week. https://www.reddit.com/r/movies/comments/8keylr/we_are_rhett_reese_and_paul_wernick_cowriters_and/dz747dz/
    Also thank you so much for articulating why i loved i still loved Deadpool 2 even after they killed off Vanessa. I literally shook my finger at the screen, mentally telling Ryan Reynolds he was on a short leash and he’d need to do something big to not make me trash this movie to everyone.

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