As a lifelong superhero fanatic, I have spent much time with my nose inside the pages of many a comic book. When I found out that one of my all-time favorite characters was going to come to life on the big screen, I was ecstatic to finally get to see on film the dark sense of humor and hilarious fourth wall breaks that always resonated with me. When I sat down in the theater to watch the “Merc With a Mouth” make his proper big screen debut, I was giddy and filled with joy. A big smile crossed my face as the opening credits rolled and Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” began to play. It was like the comic book had come to life.
Not many people expected Twentieth Century Fox’s Deadpool to blow up at the box office like it did. Making over three hundred and sixty million dollars domestically, Deadpool became the highest-grossing rated R movie of all time. Not only was it a massive box office surprise, it was an awards season surprise as well; getting nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes, Best Screenplay at the Writer’s Guild of America Awards and Best Picture at the Producer’s Guild of America Awards.
Since the film’s release, I have sat down to rewatch Deadpool countless times. Ryan Reynolds, one of my favorite actors, starred in the title role and brought the iconic character to life with tremendous accuracy. Recently, as I was watching Deadpool for approximately the 74th time, the film began to take on greater meaning beyond nostalgia and fandom. I began analyzing the dialogue, dissecting the plot and breaking down the choices in music. In each aspect, a single theme emerged. This movie dealt with male body image in a way few others have. Let me elaborate.
Before I go any further, I feel obligated to give fair warning that this post will have some mild spoilers for the plot of Deadpool.
If you did not spend your childhood engrossed in comics, you may not know that Deadpool is part of the X-Men series. Deadpool is a mercenary named Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) who is diagnosed with terminal cancer in pretty much every part of his body. In order to spare his fiancee, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), from the pain of watching him suffer through the last months of his life, he leaves without a word to enter into an experimental mutant program. This program, headed by our antagonist Francis (Ed Skrein), was intended to cure him of his cancer by activating any mutant genes while also giving him superhuman abilities. With his newfound genetic mutation, Wade finds himself with a healing factor that makes him effectively immortal.
However, the mutation process left Wade severely scarred from head to toe and, as he calls himself, “unfuckable” (sorry about the language, but the movie is rated R for a reason). After escaping the program with some unintended side effects, Wade goes on a mission to find the one person who can fix his face and make him “hot” again. After a journey filled with heart-warming sentiments, hilarious commentary and an exciting final showdown with Francis, Wade is finally reunited with his fiancee. Though our protagonist is distraught when he discovers his scars cannot be healed, Vanessa reassures Wade that his scars are nothing to hide and her love is unconditional.
Deadpool is one of the first films I have noticed with a plot commentary built around male body image issues. The story centers on Wade’s desire to be attractive in order to win back Vanessa. In his mind, he was not good enough to be with anyone. This idea is reinforced by his friend Weasel (T.J. Miller), who devotes an entire monologue to Wade’s terrible and “haunting” appearance. Deadpool slaughters dozens of people (in possibly one of the funniest montage sequences in cinema history), all so he can track down the one man who can “cure” him.
How does a journey to cure a science fiction mutation relate to male body image in our society? The easiest answer is the obvious one. The movie sends a clear message: Looks aren't everything. However, the commentary goes deeper. Deadpool acts as an allegory for the male obsession with being muscular and cut. Though some may say I have watched the film too many times, or that I am reading too much into the plot of a superhero movie, the evidence is embedded throughout multiple facets of the film.
Francis is muscular and cut, a perfect representation of the body type so many boys strive to attain. Francis represents the ideal body– an unattainable goal– but this representation goes beyond appearance. He promises that the only way anyone will ever love Wade is if he looks a certain way, a constant reminder that he is not good enough. When Wade is presented with the opportunity to kill his foe, Francis slips away by reinforcing that Wade must be fixed and Francis is the only one who can do the fixing. Wade vows to kill Francis as soon as his former body is restored, but Francis always manages to stay one step ahead.
Weasel reinforces the inner voice that convinces boys and men that they are bad looking, and urges them to track down their Francis so they can have the body they desire and the approval from others they desperately crave. Finally we have the character of Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), who is an old blind lady that shares the duplex with Wade. She urges him to find Vanessa and express his love because that was the only way he would “stop feeling so pissy all of the time.” Blind Al juxtaposes the voice that fixates on body image and obsesses over appearance. This alternative voice is one we too often disregard and silence. This voice is one of self love and personal acceptance.
In 2012, Douglas Quenqua published an article in the New York Times about this topic titled “Muscular Body Image Lures Boys Into Gym, and Obsession.” He recounts the story of a fifteen-year-old boy, David Abusheikh, who began lifting weights for two hours a day, six days a week. By the time David was a senior in high school, he was spending sizeable amounts of money on protein bars and supplements that help gain muscle without putting on fat. The desire to look cut and muscular became an obsession that overtook his life.
This story is not unique to David, and is sadly all too common in our society. According to Quenqua, over 40% of middle school and high school boys work out with the intent of gaining muscle and 38% use supplements to aid in their pursuit. Many pediatricians warn that too much weightlifting and supplement use during such important stages of the body’s maturation process can cause negative health effects. Research from Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego found that significant amounts of heavy weight lifting during adolescence greatly increases the risk of developing spondylolysis, a chronic stress fracture in the lower vertebrae. This is not to say that there is anything wrong about a desire to be healthy and fit. Doctors constantly remind us that exercise provides our bodies with countless health benefits. However, problems arise when the balance between healthy exercise and an unhealthy obsession begins to lean in the wrong direction.
At the end of the movie, Wade finally defeats Francis, but his self-doubt is yet to be conquered. He still worries that Vanessa will not find him attractive. He even stapled a picture of Hugh Jackman– better known as Wolverine– to his face to prevent Vanessa from seeing his true face when she removed the Deadpool mask. The choice of Hugh Jackman, with the over the top physique that he attained for his role of Wolverine, further cements the body image allegory. Until the moment Vanessa kisses him, Wade still believes his appearance is what makes him worthy of love. She shows him that she loves him for who he is, not for the “two dimensional sex object pedalled by Hollywood.”
Deadpool is definitely not a family-friendly film, but the commentary on male body image is relevant to all ages. Deadpool is a film that takes social commentary in the right direction. We need more movies like Deadpool to reinforce positive body image for boys and men. We need more stories like Deadpool that show us that looking muscular and cut is not necessary for success and happiness. We need more messages like Deadpool that say there is more to a person than their appearance. We need more characters like Deadpool to show that there is so much more to being a superhero.
Edited by: Cassidy Spradlin & Mallory Golski