Last Valentine's Day it was Fifty Shades of Grey; this year superhero flick Deadpool is being pitched as the ultimate alternative date movie. The big screen adaptation of Marvel's most notorious comic book character is just as controversial, and just like Fifty Shades it's been hyped up in some countries and banned in others as a result. It's gory, violent, sweary and as sex-obsessed as the teenage boys at which it's aimed. So should it be initiating the same kind of moral panic that we saw last year? And does it contain anything redemptive at all?
Two decades ago, I went to a seminar at the UK Christian event Spring Harvest which focused on the question of what teenagers should and shouldn't watch and listen to. I was 15, but the advice from the front was not to use that as a justification for seeing anything labelled suitable for that age. The speaker drew heavily on Paul's 'whatever is pure, whatever is lovely... think about such things' speech from Phillippians 4, and suggested that since what we expose our minds to can profoundly influence the way we think and act, our movie viewing habits should definitely remain at the PG end of the market. I remember a genuine conversation about whether it was appropriate for a Christian teenager to watch Look Who's Talking Too.
I wonder what that seminar speaker would have made of Deadpool. A decade in the making, Ryan Reynolds' star turn as the wisecracking, profanity-spewing, morally ambiguous anti-hero is like a checklist of things that many Christians find abhorrent. Boundary-pushing sexual content: check. Almost rhythmic use of expletives: check. Gory, fetishised violence: check, check, check. Twenty years ago, Deadpool would have been picketed by evangelical Christians waving 'ban this sick filth' banners. Now, while the boundaries of what Christians seem to find acceptable have shifted somewhat since the mid 1990s, it's still pretty shocking. I can't possibly recommend it, and for some people: end of review.
However, while Deadpool might not be a wholesome movie, or a neatly redemptive story about good simply overcoming evil, it is an important movie to know about, and especially for anyone who works with or parents teenagers. Extraordinarily, the UK's Film Classification Board (BBFC) have seen fit to award the movie a '15' certificate, and without getting into a debate about slipping standards, that's a huge surprise given the content. What that means is that millions of teenagers will see the film, and I can guarantee they'll love it.
Because, while a moral interrogation of the movie finds it hugely problematic, a critical review has to concede that it's very well done. The fourth-wall-breaking self-referential tone is note perfect throughout, the action sequences innovative and impressive. Reynolds is compelling in the lead, and his relationship with love interest Vanessa (Homelands' Morena Baccarin) places a proper emotional story at the heart of all the surrounding madness. And while it's constantly profane, speaking objectively it's funny: really, really funny, with a joke hit rate way above what you'd expect even in a comedy. Judged against what it sets out to try and do, Deadpool is a total success.
Word of mouth about that quality – and all the 'cool' violence, killer lines and masturbation references – will spread fast. Other critics have suggested that Deadpool will become this generation's cult teen movie, pushing deeper into the footsteps of films like the then-controversial American Pie. So here's a basic summary:
Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, a soldier turned small-time rogue with a smart mouth, who undergoes three rapid fire conversions. First, his world turns upside down when he falls for prostitute Vanessa, and their relationship quickly develops; melting him entirely. Then, as soon as he's suggested they make their relationship permanent, he's diagnosed with terminal cancer and his life spins again as he faces up to his imminent death. And he's barely had time to process that shock when a mysterious man arrives offering to cure his illness and turn him into a superhero. He reluctantly agrees and the third big change occurs: he becomes Deadpool, but with terrible side effects that leave him hideously disfigured (hence the all-over body suit). He sets off on a quest to find the villain who did that to him, but what's interesting is that he's not driven by pure revenge, but by the dream that the process can be reversed, and that he can resume his relationship with Vanessa. He's arguably motivated by love, not hate.
He's no angel however. He might look a bit like Spiderman in that red suit, but the similarities end there. He's reckless, especially around other human life; he's unpleasant even to his closest friends. Other heroic characters are trying to convince him to join the X-Men (the wing of the Marvel comic universe in which Deadpool resides), but he's not really interested in true heroism. What he really wants is to be able to resume the life which cancer, and then its dubious cure, has stolen from him.
I think teenagers (and many others) will resonate with a character who just wants to get on with enjoying the best parts of life; the problem is that (unlike many teens) he's not motivated by the idea of helping others or putting them first. More basically than that though, they'll love the way he and the movie push at moral boundaries, and they'll think he's the funniest – and therefore most likeable – superhero they've ever come across.
Teenagers have always operated at the edge of culture; pushing to see what they're allowed to watch, listen to and get away with. Christians however are a different matter. A few right-leaning voices around the film industry aside, there's been no real outrage among believers about Deadpool, and perhaps that's a good thing; after all, we don't only want to be known for what we stand against. But here's a difficult confession: I watched the film, and while I found the language, violence and sex distracting, I did find myself enjoying large parts of it. I laughed at many of the jokes; I found myself caught up in the story – especially in the romantic plot. I wouldn't seek to justify that, but it does cause me to question: what's happened in the church, and more specifically within me, that means I no longer react with shock to those things which prove the very antithesis of Paul's Phillippians 4 list?
Make your own mind up about that, and whether you should see a film that's quite so Godless (and there's no sneaky secret redemptive subplot to use as a Get Out of Jail Free card I'm afraid). Regardless of that, Deadpool will be a huge cultural presence in the coming weeks and, given the predicted success of this movie and the post-credits promise of a sequel, for many years to come. Like him or not, he becomes a vital cultural reference point in youth culture, and perhaps another benchmark in how far certain boundaries have moved.