The Deadpool movie was certain to be one of two things: very very good, or very, very bad. Fortunately, it was the former, and profitable to boot. Of course, that sent analysts scrambling to cherry-pick bizarre meanings from Deadpool‘s success, and most of them completely missed the point. Deadpool doesn’t point to a renewed viability of rated-R movies, a fresh interest in mutants, or an increased appetite for bloodthirsty films. Deadpool succeeded because it’s a film that isn’t afraid to be exactly what it is.
From the beginning, Deadpool‘s creators embraced the fact that he is, on the surface, derivative. A mutant killer with super agility is such a trope in comics that Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza named the character Wade Wilson as a nod to the glaring similarities to Slade Wilson—Deathstroke from the Teen Titans. The “death-reference-plus-verb-or-noun” naming convention is a well-worn trope throughout comics—Killer Frost, Killer Croc, Deadshot, Lady Deathstrike, Lady Death, Deadman… comic books are a factory of lazy “hardcore” superhero names.
In Rob Liefeld’s heyday, he had a special skill for giving his audience exactly what they wanted, even though the critics thought he made crap. His characters had giant chests and no ankles. Every single face he drew looked angry and constipated. Despite all the mockery he received, his books sold like crazy, because he understood that people often don’t want quality as much as they want predictability. If you can’t look at a comic book character and instantly know exactly what that character does, that character’s comic likely won’t be very popular. Spiderman does spider things. Batman does bat things. Superman does super things. Antman is small, Wolverine is small and vicious, and Wonder Woman is a comic that relatively few people read. Just what exactly is involved in being wonderful, anyway?
A comic book used to be a story told in thirty pages. Now it’s a story told in 18 page chunks, over four to six issues. You can’t tell a story that will engage people with so little page space without relying on immediately recognizable, commonly recurring literary or rhetorical devices. Comic books, by necessity, hinge on tropes.
Action movies really aren’t much different—once you get your four to six action sequences in, you have time for a “bang the love interest scene” or an “ironic dance number” scene, but probably not both. Even Guardians of the Galaxy, possibly the weirdest action movie to come out in the last twenty years, relied on tropes: Starlord was a pithy bad boy with a heart of gold. Gamora was the glowering female bounty hunter. Drax is the musclebound terminator type. The bad guy was a plot device with a deep voice. These characters needed to be simple concepts, because the bulk of Guardians‘ creative moments were spent explaining why a raccoon who talked and wore clothes and a tree who talked but only said “I am Groot” were best buddies.
But, thanks to the rise of the regressive left, which claims that anything remotely fun is “pernicious”, “problematic”, “misogynist”, “transphobic” or a “micro-aggression”, tropes have been labelled “very bad things”. It’s impossible, however, to create any reasonably complex work of art without tropes. Allegory, irony and hyperbole, for instance, are all tropes. “The invisible hand” of economics. “Schrodinger’s cat” in quantum mechanics. Even the progressive metaphor of the “glass ceiling”. These metaphors are all tropes.
Deadpool, however, relies on tropes more directly—most obviously the trope of breaking the fourth wall. He’s also the trope of a fictional character aware of his fictitious status. His nickname, “the Merc with a Mouth”, is a trope in and of itself. There are numerous Deadpool tropes—versions of the character commonly known enough to take on their own meaning—Lady Deadpool. Kiddypool, headknife Deadpool, Deadpool in a bathrobe, unicorns, chimichangas… these are all shorthands that Deadpool fans immediately recognize. You couldn’t rightly do a Deadpool movie without embracing those tropes. It would be like Wolverine without the visible undershirt.
The Deadpool movie decided to embrace tropes so thoroughly, it dry humped them, and the results were hilarious. The opening credits are a cavalcade of self-aware action film tropes: the hot chick, the comic relief, a CGI character, a moody teen, and a gratuitous cameo all get billing. These credits are surrounded by goofs on People magazine’s sexiest man alive, the Fox X-Men franchise that Deadpool is tied to, and obvious lampoons of overdone superhero movie directing decisions. It’s funny, because it’s mocking the very superhero zeitgeist that allowed the film to be made in the first place. Biting the hand that feeds? Another trope.
Even the poignant parts of Deadpool rely on tropes—his deliberate avoidance of the heroic? Trope. His wisecracking relationship with his strip-bar-waitress girlfriend? Trope. The pairing of a wisecracking hero and a stiff, rule-abiding foil? Trope. Even my reliance on the rule of three in this article is a trope. I use tropes for the same reason Deadpool does: they’re effective.
Comedy stops being funny if you have to explain every freaking joke. The entire art of comedy hinges on novel approaches to commonly understood things. The Kardashians, for instance, are a frequent target of late night talk show monologues because the audience is likely to know who they are. Again: mainstream audiences don’t want quality; they want predictability. A great action movie manages to give them both. From start to post-credit sequence finish, Deadpool’s masterful comedic application of tropes shows there’s nothing to fear from them, except perhaps the trope of fear itself.