“There are two constants in life: death and sequels.” – Me
I saw Deadpool 2 last weekend. Despite a problematic, fridging-dependent premise, I enjoyed it a lot and thought it nailed the fourth wall-breaking, wisecracking tone of the original perfectly while engaging with some heavier themes.
Yet something about the ending didn’t sit right with me.
Of course, we know from comics canon why Deadpool can’t die: his mutant power is that he’s riddled with cancer that has a regenerative effect rather than killing him. But my question is why the film won’t let Deadpool die, even though its setup promises us that very thing.
A Brief Recap
The film begins with Deadpool smoking a cigarette next to a figurine of Wolverine impaled on a branch, referencing the poignant ending of Logan and, presumably, drawing a thematic connection between the two movies. This is echoed in the trailer, which marketed Deadpool 2 as “Brought to you by the studio that killed Wolverine”.
Moments later, Deadpool reclines onto six barrels of kerosene and flicks the cig into one, blowing himself up as his voiceover promises, “I die in this one.”
Spoiler: he doesn’t. Or at least not for good.
Deadpool starts Deadpool 2 a broken man: his girlfriend killed by a criminal he was contracted to kill and let get away, their plans to start a family dead with her. With nothing left to live for, he tries to make his exit via explosion, but even that isn’t enough to get the best of his regeneration abilities. He gets a second chance when the X-men bring him along to de-escalate a rogue mutant situation. Deadpool learns that the rogue, Russell, is an angry kid who was abused by the director of the rehabilitation center for mutants Russell was admitted to.
Deadpool’s arc revolves around getting through to Russell before he goes down a dark path of murder and destruction presaged by the cyborg time traveler Cable. Deadpool sees a lot of himself in Russell, and grasps at the chance to be a father figure to him. He comes to realize over the course of the movie that Russell, and the X-force team Deadpool assembles to save him, might be the family Deadpool never had.
When he realizes nothing else is going to dissuade Russell from his vengeance, Deadpool puts on the mutant restraint collar that takes away his healing powers and tells Russell that if he has to kill someone, to kill him. When the ploy fails and Cable shoots at Russell, it’s Deadpool who takes the bullet.
Deadpool is willing to die, permanently, to save Russell. And for a few minutes, I thought the movie was going to honor that. Deadpool has a drawn-out death scene where he says goodbye to his new family, above their protests, saying when they try to take off the collar to “let it happen”. As the audience knows, “I’ve been trying to do this for awhile.” He dies knowing he did a good thing, and reunites with Vanessa in an admittedly corny afterlife. Then Cable undoes it all with his time travel device because, as afterlife!Vanessa puts it, Deadpool’s family still needs him.
The Franchise Cycle
Now, on its own, I thought the death and resurrection plot was set up well. Yet I couldn’t help but feel a little saddened at what the ending says about the state of Hollywood franchise fiction.
In an economy where superhero movies are big business, it seems like the era of a popular franchise telling a complete story and then gracefully riding into the sunset is over. Deadpool can’t die, in the sense of his series reaching an endpoint, because the studio won’t let him. The argument could be made that the filmmakers are 100% aware of this, and that Deadpool 2 is a commentary on this endless cycle of reboots and resurrections, but that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t participate in that cycle.
In contrast, a film I thought was truly subversive was 2017’s Logan. An aging Wolverine is at the end of his rope trying to protect the now-epileptic Professor X from the feds in a world where mutants are outlawed. Logan faces a similar choice to rise above his own misery and help a band of young mutants, including the daughter he never knew he had, to freedom in Canada. Like Deadpool, he begins the film having lost nearly everything, and proceeds to lose even more, including his life. But unlike Deadpool, at the end Logan is still dead. His death is narratively satisfying because it’s permanent, and as such, gives greater meaning to every action that led him to this point.
Death and the Limits of Action
What’s at the root of narrative shyness about death? Aside from the profitability of popular characters, I think a lot of it is fear. I see stories that aren’t part of multi-million dollar franchises pull back from killing characters too. The fear is of the permanence of death. Once a character is dead, they’ve reached the limit of their capacity for change. They no longer change and they no longer act within the story. They’re no longer directly part of the story at all.
Characters are engines of change, both in themselves and in how they affect other characters, so it’s understandable why writers might balk at the idea of removing a character altogether through death. However, in order for the changes a character goes through to make sense, they must coalesce into an arc: a progression of the character in which they face challenges to their goals, which forces them to grow. In order for an arc to be meaningful, it has to be definable; it has to have a beginning, middle, and end. And one potential end for a character arc is death.
Philosopher Mark Rowlands defines death as “the limit of life… the horizon that permits individual events in that life to stand out … without this horizon, there is, in all essentials, nothing that means anything at all” . As in life, the choices that characters make and the consequences of those choices occupy space along a timeline which constitutes the character’s life, or at least the section we see.
By establishing a character’s death and then walking it back, as in Deadpool 2, the story robs that character’s actions and their consequences of staying power. It robs the conclusion of their arc and the choices which led to it of meaning by saying “Whoops, that wasn’t the end of their story after all.” This not only cheapens the events leading up to their “death”, it cheapens everything that comes after, too. Because the viewer can never again trust the writers to commit to finality, to a single arc of challenge, growth, and change that actually sticks.
I want the characters I love to change. I want them to grow. And yes, if it gives the life that came before it meaning, I want them to be able to die, too.
- Rowlands, Mark. Sci-Phi: Philosophy from Socrates to Schwarzenegger. 2003. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.