As Deadpool performs beyond expectations and exceeds most other solo superhero movies at the box office, it’s worth wondering what the secret to its success is.
The most obvious answer is that it offers something different and stands out from the crowd. People are tired of seeing the same superhero movie again and again, and so Deadpool offers, at least on a superficial level, something new in the form of sex, violence and swearing. With these elements tacked on to a standard superhero origins story, you simultaneously make an audience think they’re watching something new, while also playing it safe without the risk of alienating them.
But this is only half the story, and for the other half we need to look at last year’s surprise hit (at least on this side of the pond), Mrs Brown’s Boys. Now I haven’t seen Mrs Brown’s Boys, and on the surface at least the two films have little in common, but thinking about Deadpool I’m reminded of an article I read last year by a baffled film critic desperate to work out the appeal of such a critically derided film.
The article speculated that it is the active and direct acknowledgement of the audience that is at the core of Mrs Brown’s Boys‘ appeal. We’re in on the joke, and the fact the characters refer and speak directly to the audience not only brings us into the film by creating a sense of shared understanding, but provides a sense of a communal viewing experience that’s increasingly missing from our individualised media landscape.
And this is what Deadpool provides. The character’s knowledge of his own place in the superhero world, and the wider context of the saturation of superhero movies, is a much-needed antidote to fatigue with the genre. It also involves the audience in a more direct way, which is arguably the main plank of its overwhelming success.
This links to another key element of superhero movies’ popularity: that they appeal to the ‘nerd-as-cool’ culture. This is where we feel simultaneously part of something niche and dorky due to the reputation of comic book fans as obsessive, costume-wearing, convention-visiting social outcasts, and also something mainstream, since they’re everywhere and a new one is out every two months. Deadpool’s references to himself and other superhero films taps perfectly into this.
Unfortunately the big budget franchise movie industry is highly risk-averse. This means that just as we will now be subjected to Mrs Brown’s Boys 2, 3 and more, we should also prepare for the inevtiable influx of self-referential, ultra-violent superhero flicks. I guess Deadpool really is the new Mrs Brown’s Boys.