Deadpool 2, the latest in Fox’s recent attempt to inject the superhero format with a little more blood and badmouthing, opened last week to a generally positive critical reception and the beginnings of what will almost certainly be a mammoth box office. What can I say? Fans will be happy to find that it is the same brand of splattery fun that its predecessor was, and while it is not nearly as smart as it thinks it as and is absolutely the thing it seeks to mock, it’ll keep you more than happy for a couple of hours.
It’s funny, as I began to write this feature it struck me as something of an oversight to leave the fourth wall intact. So hey there reader! I’m Eddie, this is ORWAV, and Deadpool 2 is 100% a 3 star film whichever way you slice it (nice work, Joni!). With the fourth wall utterly demolished, we may begin.
The fourth wall, for those unfamiliar, accounts for the invisible barrier that exists between the space of the narrative and those watching it. Infrequently, this wall is broken by characters by way of gesturing towards the audience with direct conversation, a small acknowledgment, or a knowing wink – for a historical example of this you might draw your mind back to all of those Shakespearean soliloquies you enjoyed so much at school!
It’s worth saying at this point that Deadpool, in both comic and film form, is far from the first character to do break the fourth wall in either medium. From the Marx Brothers’ 1932 farce Horse Feathers to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall to John Hughes’ iconic teen comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it is clear that from time to time the fourth wall is there to be broken. Otherwise, in comics, Superman was known to wink at his readers from time to time in his silver age outings, and Gran Morrison’s Animal Man (1988-95) run found its character having conversations with his author. While offering different levels of metatextuality, both are demonstrative of the sort of fourth wall breaking that Deadpool makes use of, while predating his introduction in 1990.
So what’s the problem, you ask? It’s all a bit of fun, you say. Yes, absolutely it is. And much of this humour works as incidental jokes that pokes fun at the character, comics, tropes, and those who make them. But there is a problem with all this. The more the meta, fourth wall-rupturing jokes roll out, the more the space of the world becomes comprised.
There is a moment, for example, in Deadpool 2 when Deadpool accuses the Cerebro headset of “smell[ing] like Patrick Stewart”. The problem with drawing direct attention to the world’s staged construction is that all of it is revealed to be constructed and, naturally, ceases to be real even on its own terms. It’s like we are being Mandarin-ed all over again! Before you jump to remind me that superheroes aren’t real, I will lead with my response: yes, but shouldn’t they be real within their own respective universes? This metatextual nod could be accounted for if Charles Xavier really did exist within Deadpool’s shared universe, and that Patrick Stewart merely steps in from time to time to play the role. The problem with this level of metatextuality is that it calls all of that into question. Because if Xavier is in fact Patrick Stewart, then surely every character is really the actor playing them? If that is the case, then these films cease to be real on their own terms, and in fact wind up depicting a shared psychosis in which a group of crazed individuals believe they are in fact superheroes.
Sure, one might argue that this is all part of Deadpool’s shtick, that his ardent belief that he’s a part of a wider comics and film franchise adds new layers to his psychosis. Yet, all this could be dispelled by the fact that he’s absolutely right about his suspicions – we, the audience, do in fact exist and are reading and watching! This can then be argued in two separate ways. On the one hand, you might choose to claim that the audience does not exist in regard to their world, and that Deadpool’s belief that he’s a part of a comics/film universe is all delusion characteristic of his psychosis. Alternatively, if Deadpool is right and an audience does exist adjacently to their world then what is left but the implication that all the other characters are unable to see clearly the fact that they are constructed and therefore not real.
This is what I’m calling the paradox of metatextuality. If such jokes have a direct impact on world on which they comment then the illusion of realism, relative as it may be to the superhero universe, is shattered. In a famous sequence from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, the final battle invades a soundstage on which a musical number is being directed. When the director objects to the intrusion one character responds saying “Piss on you! I’m working for Mel Brooks!” The metatextuality exhibited here is illustrative of the same sort that Deadpool employs, yet the difference is that while Blazing Saddle’s final reveal that it is all artifice is limited to that one film, in Deadpool such allusions destabilise the diegetic space of all overlapping and corresponding universes.
The problem is that, even if the Patrick Stewart reference can be accounted for, Deadpool takes things further. Not only does he namecheck Marvel (and, more derisively, DC), he actually reveals one of his co-characters to be an actor. In one fight sequence Deadpool actually calls Cable “Thanos”, which is tantamount to naming him Josh Brolin (the actor who plays both characters). While amusing to fans, such a joke actually reinforces the paradox of metatextuality; Cable, and therefore Thanos, cannot exist in their respective (or corresponding) worlds if they are both in fact Josh Brolin in makeup. By calling himself and other characters out as products of invention, Deadpool erodes the line between their world and ours and reveals it all to be nothing more than a pantomime for our amusement.