This Sunday night, Deadpool and star Ryan Reynolds will stand in judgment before the mythical Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which I am convinced is actually made up of four 80-year-old men holed up in a Swiss chalet rather than an actual professional organization. The anarchic meta-movie is one of the rare superhero films to receive a nomination at an awards show as massively hyped as the Globes.
Beyond the obvious potential for shady dealings behind the scenes one has to wonder what this movie did to land nominations in the Best Actor, Musical or Comedy and Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy categories, when countless better superhero movies have come and gone in the years since the last notable comic book awards contender.
At the 66th annual Golden Globe awards, Heath Ledger was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Globe for his mesmerizing performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Since the start of the great comic book movie boom of the 21st century back with 2000’s X-Men, superhero films had been routinely ignored by major awards voters. Ledger’s work as the Joker broke a barrier between the upper echelons of high cinematic art and the commercial imperatives of the Hollywood studio machine. Maybe comic book movies will start transcending commerce and elevate themselves beyond mere product, we thought at the time.
Let’s just say that didn’t happen. Whatever minor cultural transgressions that were present in The Dark Knight were buffed out of comic book fare in favor of the hip, glossy, self-referential Marvel series. Christopher Nolan’s films ended up as an outlier rather than a trendsetter. Iron Man, which was released the same year as The Dark Knight, became the template for future works in the genre. Even Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises — with its ticking time bombs, logic-stretching conveniences, and mustache-twirling villainy — took a sillier turn. The sanitary, cartoon fascism of Bane was a far cry from Ledger’s unpredictable, vaguely subversive, often times legitimately scary work as Joker.
It’s not difficult to see a through-line from Iron Man to Deadpool. While Iron Man packed far more pathos thanks to the fairly grounded world in which the characters existed, its magic stemmed largely from Robert Downey Jr.’s deft, post-modern performance. For almost seven years, Tony Stark has been defined by his ironic detachment from the proceedings around him. Granted, we have found that to be an emotional defense mechanism which has been tested, most notably in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. Still, that detachment is what audiences found appealing about him in the first place. He was funny, and cool, and above it all — character traits that have been subsequently grafted onto a great deal of Marvel heroes as they make the leap to the big screen.
Star-Lord and Dr. Strange certainly found a greater sense of humor in their films than they had when they were birthed on the page. Banter was a major part of the Dr. Strange film, to the point where Stephen Strange took on the properties of a mystical Tony Stark. It was only logical, then, that Marvel’s most meta hero would eventually make it to the screen (not counting the appalling cameo from X-Men Origins: Wolverine).
Wade Wilson is a more extreme version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s stock characterization. He’s so above the fray that he can see that he’s in a movie. It’s Marvel by way of Looney Tunes, and in that sense, it’s revolutionary. It’s fast-food subversion, like The Dark Knight, but in a parallel sense. Instead of Nolan’s “isn’t this all quite serious” tone and attempts to marry comic book theatrics to political and social allegory, Deadpool says “isn’t this all quite silly?” It’s specifically poking fun at the relentlessly grim Fox X-Men series, but it could just as easily be ribbing the successors to the Nolan Dark Knight films — the mostly miserable, pretentious, adolescent pontificating of the DC Cinematic Universe, as devised by Zack Snyder. By 2016, audiences were ready for something — anything — different.
That hyperdrive version of Marvel’s established tone made Deadpool stand out in a crowded marketplace. It got a Best Picture Globes nod, where The Dark Knight did not, though it should be noted that Deadpool is competing in the shallow waters of the Musical or Comedy categories, while The Dark Knight had to scrap with heavy-hitting dramas like Slumdog Millionaire and Frost/Nixon. Even if it probably has no chance to win, that’s quite an achievement for any comic book film, let alone one that director Tim Miller had to fight for years to see to fruition. Miller likely won’t be at the Golden Globes on Sunday, thanks to his very public exit from the director’s chair of Deadpool 2, but he deserves some kind of trophy for never giving up hope on such a strange version of the blockbuster.
It remains to be seen if this is a feat that can be replicated. The longer Marvel Studios’ unprecedented run of success lasts, the less likely it is that a studio like Fox that has rights to Marvel characters will take unnecessary chances with those properties. Deadpool’s unique success will also be replicated for many years to come — and not just in its upcoming, Tim Miller-less, sequel — rendering it not quite the cinematic unicorn it currently is. For another comic book film to make it to the awards stage, it will have to be as audacious, singular, and ambitious as Deadpool and The Dark Knight were. Unfortunately, movies like that don’t come around very often, and when they do, sometimes they’re not very good. Just ask Josh Trank.