“Is it more sexist not to hit you?”- The Women of Deadpool
By Valerie Estelle Frankel
So the famous R-rated Deadpool came out, offering a far different kind of Marvel. And with it, some unusual twists. Deadpool, out fighting a world of bad guys, finds himself confronting one who’s female — a bit of a surprise in the traditional comic book world of all-male thugs. He’s perplexed — “Is it sexist to hit you? Is it more sexist not to hit you?” The woman clobbers him, settling the question, but it’s certainly an issue superheroes find themselves debating in a world of new rules.
Certainly, Deadpool is a superhero/antihero film that never advertised itself as offering girl power. Nonetheless, there’s a pleasing trend that suggests a shift in the bigger superhero universe onscreen.
Admittedly Batgirl’s popped into enough cameos that a superheroine sidekick isn’t that shocking. And the hero’s scantily-dressed love interest is close to a vital trope, especially when she’s kidnapped by the villain. But this film, rather like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, did a lovely revision of the bigger universe.
It has women in it! Women can be not only girlfriend and sidekick, but the bad guy’s second in command or the hero’s loudmouthed roommate, or minor characters mixed into the traditionally all-male landscape. All right, many may be thinking the supervillain’s second-in-command is a typical women’s role in film — but this second-in-command, Angel Dust (Gina Carano), has a superpower of strength, not Poison-Ivy style seduction. First-time feature director Tim Miller (hilariously described as “An Overpaid Tool” in the opening credits) explains, “Her powers in the comics are — she’s a little like the Hulk, in that the angrier she gets, her adrenaline sort of activates this super strength. So the angrier she gets, the harder she fights and stronger she is, so that’s her power in the comics and we try to play that up a little bit in the fight sequences.” She dresses in the black militaryish uniform of the men, not a sexy nurse dress. She’s not Ajax’s girlfriend, nor does she hope to be.
Likewise Negasonic Teenage Warhead (played by newcomer Brianna Hildebrand) dresses modestly in her X-Man suit and has possibly the coolest power of all with giant showy explosions. Miller adds:
“…[W]e chose her because we wanted a trainee for Colossus in the film and the writers and I just fell in love with her name. It’s just so out there and so Deadpool and it was Grant Morrison who named her, so we knew we had to get her in there. And then we thought, well, we’re going to need to make her powers fit with who she feels like she is in the movie and so to me it’s just like other characters in the Marvel universe, like Nitro, for instance, whose power is to just explode parts of their body. But we did try to do it so that it wasn’t just a simple, ‘oh, I can explode’, she can transfer the force of the explosion down so she can move upwards — she can put it into a punch if she wanted to. So it was really just her fist exploding as she hit somebody.
Her actress describes it, saying, “She runs and explodes at things. She’s like a warhead. So she detonates, I guess would be how to explain it” (Keyes). In the comics, Negasonic Teenage Warhead has far less spectacular powers — precognition rather than massive explosions. She was created by Grant Morrison for New X-Men in 2001 and was killed almost immediately, giving her little impact on the X-Men’s world. This version is far more awesome. Nonetheless, the actress notes in her interview that her character has kept the precognition from the comics, and this may appear in the future. Like many feminist superheroines, she can kick butt with a masculine power, but keep the feminine aspects of herself as well.
Neither she nor Angel Dust has a traditionally feminine self-effacing power like invisibility or telepathy. And neither is shut up by the men. In fact, whenever Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Deadpool meet, they begin verbally sparring on a completely egalitarian level, neither submitting in any way. Hildebrand explains: “When she gets involved with Deadpool… they have this interesting relationship. It’s kind of like brother and sister. They are on the same side. But they kind of butt heads a lot of the time” (Keyes).
Continuing to poke fun and undercut him, she breaks up his dramatic walk with the single cutting line “Where’s your duffel bag?” (lampshading the failure of his entire plan). Deadpool mouths off in return, calling her “Ripley” and “Sinéad O’Connor” for her short hair, but she takes these as compliments — these are butt-kicking women after all. She finally validates Deadpool with a simple “You’re cool” as almost the final line of the film. She by contrast, needs no validation. She even gets the long leather coat seen on the cool guys from Marvel, Firefly, and all the vampire shows, as masculine and tough an appropriation as her explosion power. In the hilarious opening credits she’s known as “A Moody Teen,” and she’s especially fun for being so recognizable in real life. Hildebrand adds: “I guess what I just like the most about my character is just her attitude, because she’s so athletic and cool and so unlike me in my normal daily life. She just doesn’t care” (Keyes). Miller adds:
“I think Deadpool wishes she’d keep her mouth shut more than she does in the film! Because she’s quite snarky. But, you know, her whole attitude is this disaffected teen who thinks Deadpool’s just a douchebag. And so that’s her whole attitude. She’s really not that silent in the film or at least she’s silently surly because she just can’t be bothered to engage with this asshole. That’s the basics of her personality: silently shaming, judgmental personality.”
Far too many women in popular fiction are silenced, as President Snow struggles to cut off Katniss’s broadcasts or all the Sleeping Beauties and Snow Whites are flung into enchanted sleep. “Silenced women in myth echo silenced women in today’s world, illiterate and confined to cleaning and childbearing” (Frankel 21).
Fairytales show silent, virtuous maids like Cinderella and the little mermaid, who never complain of their vicious treatment, and even more silent, virtuous but dead mothers. Contrasted with this are the vocal witches and stepmothers giving orders. While silence teaches discipline and patience, the heroine must absorb her adversary’s voice in order to ascend. She becomes queen, the one who gives orders and decides fates. She becomes the sorceress Circe who enchants men into pigs or Snow White’s stepmother with her magic mirror. (Frankel 22).
Thus a mouthy heroine like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or in this case Ms. Warhead, emphasizes women who refuse to be meek and fade into the background, instead demanding power and screentime. Similarly, Deadpool’s main power, possibly greater than fighting or healing, is that he will not shut up, not when he’s being tortured, not when it’s the smart thing to do, not when talking will get him shot. But this is a power he encourages his women to share, from mouthy Negasonic to his delightfully vocal girlfriend (but more on her later). Even his question, “Is it sexist to hit you? Is it more sexist not to hit you?” encourages his opponent to speak out and join him in deconstructing his own genre.
In basically the only silencing of the film, Deadpool shuts up the voice of traditional superheroing several times over. Colossus, who speaks in Boris-and-Natasha broken English, is the straight man deserving of mocking, as he tells Negasonic Teenage Warhead, “House blowing up builds character” when she criticizes this facet of her life along with the “matching unitards.” He seems the voice of how traditional male-focused superhero films “should be” as he protests, “Language, please” in the midst of the final R-rated battle. He’s eager to protect his student’s ears, while she, of course, couldn’t care less. His longer speech about finding the hero inside oneself and doing the right thing even provokes a groan from the supervillain. This speech actually ends with Deadpool shooting Colossus to shut him up. Clearly the rules are as passé as he is. And certainly, this film spends much of its time mocking the conventions and structure of the superhero franchises. Variety’s review by Justin Chang explains:
Fast, ferocious and inevitably a bit too pleased with its own cleverness, this Fox-produced offshoot of the “X-Men” series nevertheless can’t help but feel like a nasty, nose-thumbing tonic next to the shinier delegations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as represented by Disney’s “Avengers” franchise (and its various subfranchises) and Sony’s not-so-amazing “Spider-Man” movies. (Chang)
The constant breakdowns of the fourth wall were present in the original Deadpool comic books by writer Fabien Nicieza and artist/writer Rob Liefeld. Now scriptwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick keep it up as Deadpool wonders which actor plays Professor X in this franchise and stops the action to snark directly at his audience.
Colossus lacks this power just as he lacks Deadpool’s cleverness and flexibility. He spends the entire movie confined in his dour, slab of metal form. More interesting is his take on gender. He’s even more perplexed than Deadpool on how to fight in a mixed superworld, as he announces to Angel, “I prefer not to hit a woman so…” He offers her handcuffs, hoping she’ll surrender, but she hurls him across the docks. Deadpool must ask Negasonic Teenage Warhead to step in and win the day…though only after she’s done tweeting, of course.
As the sidekick fight continues, Angel’s actually longsleeved and not-so-impractical shirt (though with a corset on top) falls open (something that admittedly would realistically happen in every superheroine film, where the women feel the need to costume in strapless bathing suits). This moment of realism and R-rated immodesty jolts the unspoken rules yet again. All at once, Colossus is horrified and gives her a minute to cover up. Angel smiles and acknowledges this is “so sweet” before going for his groin with the sort of superstrength that floors him. Clearly the women are fine being treated like male bad guys — and it’s okay to have them in the role, this film suggests.
On the subject of the R-rating, most reviews agree that it fits the subject, as much of the film’s humor comes from violence outside the typical bounds of Marvel — Deadpool saws off his own hand to give Colossus the finger, then finds brutal yet creative uses for bullets. He does venture into a strip club where several women have indeed stripped. He’s there searching for his prostitute girlfriend Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin), with whom he spends the early minutes of the movie having raunchy onscreen sex. Chang comments:
Recognizing each other as damaged kindred spirits, they begin screwing in earnest, zipping and unzipping their way through an extended sex-scene montage that plays out over a year’s worth of racy holidays. (“Happy Intl. Women’s Day,” Vanessa coos as she adjusts her strap-on, though that’s about as far as the movie goes in terms of even hinting at Deadpool’s famously pansexual appetites.)
Of course, this scene is subversive as it emphasizes Vanessa’s equality with her boyfriend in even their sexual roles. Their holiday-themed sexual escapades (ugly sweaters at Christmas, vampire teeth at Halloween) are silly but emphasize their relationship as one of true equals, mutual and loving. To be fair, there are as many shots of Deadpool’s butt, in and out of his tight outfit, as there are of Vanessa‘s body. And their verbal sparring glorifies her mouthiness as much as hers. She’s even funny, in a film world in which Black Widow or Wonder Woman must always get the boring lines.
Further, when one plays with metaphors, Wade is tied down, penetrated, physically transformed against his will, by evil Ajax and Angel, in a role reversal of much of traditional gendering. He’s the one tied up half naked for an extended sequence. Likewise, he loses faith that Vanessa will love him because of his ugliness and quests through the whole film to be worthy of her, displaying a body insecurity and all-important romantic plot seen more often in women’s stories than men’s.
After the setup, Vanessa the love interest takes the traditional role — Deadpool embarks on his quest to protect her, then when the villain kidnaps her, he goes in for rescue and revenge. Thus she somewhat matches Gail Simone’s “Women in Refrigerators” trope as the villain menaces her and tries to suffocate her only to torture the hero — the clear pod she’s in is even somewhat fridgelike. During the torture scene, it should be added, she’s dressed in the outfit from her strip club job. As she struggles, then manages to snap her bonds, the camera takes a long shot up her body — the kind of “male gaze shot” exclusive to her in this film. Likewise, Vanessa’s defiant swordstrike at the supervillain sends her falling to the ground, oh-so-carefully revealing lots of cleavage. Then Deadpool must rescue her, with the help of his sidekicks, while literally boxing her back up in the pod. While sticking with the conventions here, the near-literal refrigerator emphasizes a snarky self-awareness of their conventions, and the heroine pops up at the end, mouthy and defiant as ever.
More interesting yet is Al, whom Deadpool introduces as “Robin to my Batman except she’s old and black and blind.” Yet she’s no Alfred. Deadpool’s roommate challenges him in a way that’s not a bit deferential, asking, “So you’re just gonna lie there and whimper?” When Deadpool needs all the guns in the house, Al reluctantly reveals that she keeps one in her ankle holster. Despite her tough side, her scenes with Deadpool are completely unguarded and human for both of them. “Somehow, through sheer timing, gusto and verve (and an assist from Julian Clarke’s deft editing), Reynolds gives all this self-referential potty talk a delirious comic momentum — reaching a peak when he’s trading quips with Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), the wizened, sightless old woman who functions as his caretaker, housekeeper and sparring partner” (Chang). And how often has an older woman appeared in any superhero story ever? In the comics, “Blind Al” may have had a past in MI-6 or something of that nature. She and Deadpool play pranks on each other, keeping a messy and tumultuous friendship.
So here we have the superhero movie delighting in tearing down all superhero movies with quips, bad behavior, and rule breaking.
As Chang adds, “Even with its nastier tone, grislier action and more sexually explicit banter, Deadpool turns out to be a comic-book enterprise through and through, but served up in a shrewdly self-mocking guise; it pulls off that very postmodern trick of getting away with formulas and clichés simply by pointing them out.” It gets away with something more though — suggesting superheroes can do their thing in a world of empowered women, funny women, and even sarcastic elderly women obsessed with IKEA furniture. That’s the real subversion of superheroism here.
Images above belong to 20th Century Fox and Legendary Women does not profit from their use.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle. From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey in Myth and Legend. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2010
Keyes, Rob. “Deadpool: Brianna Hildebrand Explains Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s Powers & Role.” ScreenRant, 10 Nov 2015. http://screenrant.com/deadpool-brianna-hildebrand-interview/
Miller, Tim. “DEADPOOL: Negasonic Teenage Warhead Thinks He’s a D-Bag; Plus Her and Angel Dust’s Powers Described.” Daily Superhero, 26 Dec 2015. http://www.dailysuperhero.com/2015/12/deadpool-negasonic-teenage-warhead.html