We used to have a very specific formula for superhero films, what was considered a golden standard, the perfect mix derived from comic book heroes. We had the good guy, of course, our hero; we had his arch-nemesis, the villain; we had superpowers or super technology or super something, and both the hero and the villain possessed them; we had countless evil henchmen and clumsy officers of the law, normal, not at all super people, running around in the chaos, and of course we had the plot, usually based around some elaborate scheme of evil, slowly drawn together and culminating in a final boss battle, like a video game. But the times they are a changin’, and a more balanced, more nuanced sort of superhero film is emerging. As people come closer and closer to the tangible realities of life, the idea of a universally good hero, a universally evil villain and universally inept average people falls short of our expectations. Slowly, since the 80s, we have moved from our idealized superhero fantasies to something a bit less black and white.
The first step away from the golden age of superhero films was the adoption of the gritty antihero. Antiheroes set the bar back in the day, transforming superhero films from something just for children and adults who see life through rose-tinted glasses into something that appealed to the now adult comic book audience from superheroes’ early days. Characters like Batman or Wolverine created a new feast for movie-goers, bucking the trend of universally good heroes and creating twisted, broken, morally ambiguous guys who fought for the side of good. And we accepted and enjoyed that. It was refreshing to see new heroes emerging who were not perfect, who were flawed like us. In many ways the “perfect” heroes of old still made mistakes. They would demolish buildings, wreck cities, kill henchmen. They left behind a trail of devastation. And somehow, at the end of the day, the chaos and destruction mattered less than the hero’s victories. We were just supposed not to care. With an antihero, on the other hand, we had to face the devastation… and so did they. It humanized them. But at the same time, they remained serious. They took care of themselves, they were forces to be reckoned with. In many ways, they were still super, they were still morally above us. The only films to address the possibility of a flawed, non-serious hero were pure and simple comedy, with low action budgets and a strong appeal to children, such as Men In Black. We still wanted our heroes to be idols, whether they were superheroes or antiheroes.
And Deadpool is the natural step from that process onwards. We have stepped forward again. Deadpool follows from a long trend of antiheroes. Deadpool as a hero is broken and human. He causes devastation and he knows it. He has crises of identity and morality. But, although he is following the trend, we almost did not get a Deadpool film. Few people would know that Deadpool was a member of the original Avengers. But Deadpool is not Batman. Deadpool does not take himself seriously, Deadpool is not averse to mocking himself, to saying things that may be offensive or shocking, to being just plain random and weird. The assumption was always that he would be too much for the average audience member, especially considering that the average audience member for superhero films is still considered to be a child. But the fans were loud and clear about what they wanted, or possibly needed. After some demands, the news emerged that a Deadpool movie, starring Ryan Reynolds, was in the making. This process proved to be a monumental shift in what is acceptable, even what is desirable, in superhero films. The audience’s tastes have yet again changed, this time into the more extreme and the more bizarre. From good guys, to antiheroes, to gritty, sarcastic, offensive, action-packed blockbusters.
Deadpool has set the bar for what we want from superhero movies from now on. All the heroics, all the good vs evil and all the boss battles of golden-age superhero movies. But also with the torn and hurt antiheroes, the devastation and destruction, the raw emotion and seriousness and relatability of antihero movies. And finally, the extra spice to the mix, the addition of humour. Taking all three elements and adding them together has resulted in a new set of standards for an attractive superhero movie. Although Deadpool itself will always be the one they’re trying to best.