Deadpool may seem like an odd choice to talk about here. He’s the result of 90s-era “radical extreme” Marvel comics and was created by Rob Liefeld just because he wanted to draw the DC comics villain Deathstroke while working for Marvel. Today he’s usually nothing but a vehicle for dudebro humor and “wacky” internet randomness. What value does Deadpool have? Actually, he has the potential to say quite a few interesting things, and reducing him to wacky violence and lazy memes is an unfortunate design choice.
Deadpool laughs because if he doesn’t, he will cry. Deadpool’s life sucks, and worse yet, he deserves it. His mutant power and the experiments done to him mean he looks like a walking scab, and if he were a good person underneath that he could live with it. But he’s a bad person, and he can’t hang on to any illusions otherwise for very long. He is just aware enough to want to be better and to feel ashamed of what he does. But despite what he wants to be, he’s too selfish, petty and weak to do anything about it. He makes excuses (“boo hoo I’m ugly, I had a bad childhood”) but he knows that these are crap and feels worse every time. He also knows that no one buys it. No one thinks well of him.
So he laughs. If life’s a joke, then he doesn’t have to worry about his failures! If life’s a joke, then he can’t be blamed. If life’s a joke, then why bother crying? People laugh at him, but this way he can pretend they’re laughing with him. But its not enough. Every joke he makes will be revealed as hollow. Every good deed, and there are many alongside his villainous ones, will in turn be undermined.
Deadpool often breaks the fourth wall, and this has become one of his defining characteristics, often pushed to extreme lengths. But many people miss the point of what this really means. Deadpool doesn’t “know” he’s in a comic book. Yes, he literally is in a comic book, but his “universe” is supposed to be a real thing in the actual story. What he’s doing when he breaks the fourth wall is creating an audience for himself. Like I said before, he’s not stupid and he knows no one buys his shit. He knows that his zany pranks and constant clowning aren’t winning him any friends or making him feel better about himself. So he invents us, the readers. He invents a version of his world where they are beings out there who can “know” who he really is. Who can watch him and know that despite all the evil he does and the selfish, pettiness that defines him, will still get him and laugh with him.
Deadpool is so pathetic that the only people he can imagine liking him are omniscient, imaginary beings that, at best, know he at least wants to do better. He cannot conceive of anyone actually liking him, so he invents an entire reality of people who will at least tolerate him as entertainment. We’re his ultimate fantasy. How sad is that?
And to be honest, we don’t even like him as much as he assumes or hopes. We see the potential in him to be decent, but we also see him continually make bad choices that don’t gibe with what he keeps breaking the fourth wall to tell us. We know he doesn’t actually want to do what is required to be a decent person. We root for him, and we applaud when he saves the world or fights wacky bad guys or manages to make incremental steps towards decency, but we also still primarily laugh AT him, not with him. Again, we’re his ultimate fantasy, the only people he can imagine might like him, and we don’t even think he’s a good person.
Joe Kelly and Ed McGuiness’ run of Deadpool (also known as “maybe the only actually good run of Deadpool if we’re being completely honest”) contains two gut-punch moments that deflate this laughter. Throughout the series we watch Deadpool engage in a prank war with Blind Al, an old blind woman he seemed to keep prisoner but also seemed to have a friendly relationship with. We laugh along with this strange duo, but then suddenly Blind Al calls this out for what it really is. She points out that he is sadistically torturing and imprisoning her and that she’s only playing this game with him because she’s terrified of what he will do to her if she doesn’t. The illusion is shattered, Deadpool isn’t a wacky friend but a broken sociopath. The illusion is shattered for us too. We can’t pretend he’s a fun guy anymore, and he knows it.
The second emotional gut-punch comes from the discovery that the tragic story he keeps recounting is false. He believes he is Wade Wilson, a young married man who suffers tragedy and is then tormented by the Canadian government (Canada is basically a country of fascist mad scientists in the Marvel universe for some reason) and turned into a crazy mercenary. He WOULD have been a good person if not for circumstances beyond his control! Eventually, it is discovered that he is not Wade Wilson, but a murderer who destroyed Wilson’s life and adopted his identity in a weird attempt to become normal. He is eventually tortured and mutilated by the Canadian government, but that wasn’t what made him a bad guy. He convinced himself that he was Wade because he desperately needed to not have “deserved” the torture, and to be capable of something better. This origin has been rewritten many times, and the ambiguity of Deadpool’s real identity has become a running joke in the series, but even so its mere possibility is enough for Deadpool to disconnect from reality in defense. It also provides enough for us to then forever doubt him. He can’t pretend his imagined audience will ever believe in him anymore.
But what makes these moments work isn’t because of how it effects him, but because how it effects us. If we become invested in the comic, he start to believe Deadpool’s hype. We start to believe he could be a real hero, and that maybe life did hand him a bum deal. In any other comic, that kind of “Surprise! Everything you know about the character is wrong and they’re really a monster and you liked them and ha ha you had no way of knowing that until we sprang it on you like this!” twist would seem cheap or exploitative. It works with Deadpool because of his unique position as the ultra-violent Willy Loman of the Marvel Universe. It really ISN’T a shock because we know he’s full of shit from the get go. Forget Ryan Reynolds, they should get Dustin Hoffman to play him!
We all sometimes experience the dreadful fear that who we feel we are is not who people see us as. The entire concept of existentialism is built on that. What is great about good Deadpool stories (what few there are) is the way they force us into the story. By reading the comic, we are forced to take on the role of Deadpool’s imagined audience. By reading, we end up feeling somewhat responsible for him, until those illusions are shattered and we can’t go back to entirely believing in his capacity to change.
Like many EXTREME characters, a little of Deadpool goes a LONG way, even when he’s done as an interesting character study. Deadpool isn’t a hero we admire or see ourselves in. Deadpool is a hero who forces us to ask some really tough questions to make sure we don’t see ourselves in him. The kind of hero we can both root for at the same time we enjoy watching fail. To end things with one more analogy, Deadpool is a dark mirror of Spiderman and Wolverine. I mean, literally in the sense that he’s an anti-hero who stabs people, jumps around a lot, and also never shuts up, but also thematically. Like Wolverine, he’s the tortured loner trying to regain his humanity, but he teaches us that anyone can be redeemed by showing us what it looks like to fail. Like Spiderman, he represents the importance of responsibility and integrity, but he does this through showing us his hypocrisy. In some ways, this almost makes him more honest (Wolverine still straight up murders people all the time and Spiderman is a selfish twit who uses guilt as an excuse to duck responsibility), but never so much that we can forget what we see as Wade’s “imaginary” Greek chorus.