DEADPOOL: Breaking The Rules
By Jacob Krueger
There’s just so much we can learn as writers from Deadpool, and not just because the film manages to do that rarest of feats: to be an intelligent, creatively successful superhero movie, but also because Deadpool manages to both follow the rules of superhero movies and break them in really exciting ways.
The first rule of superhero movies that every single person knows is that your super hero is supposed to be a super good guy.
Superman: yeah, he’s a good guy. Spiderman: sweet kid, good guy. Batman: a little dark, good guy. Thor: a very good guy. The Incredible Hulk may have a problem with anger, but deep down he’s a really good guy. And Ironman may have a bit of an ego problem, but at the end of the day he’s a good guy, too. The world of superheroes is populated by good guys facing down pure evil villains.
And what’s wonderful about Deadpool is that its main character gives the big ole’ finger to the entire notion of the superhero as the perfect good guy character. And, in doing so, Deadpool hopefully puts the last nail in the coffin of the whole Save the Cat formula: this notion that if the audience is going to love your main character he/she needs to be saving kitty cats out of trees and doing nice things for people.
That’s not to say that Deadpool is a bad guy. He’s a flawed guy a violent guy, a shallow guy, an annoyingly verbose guy with a hell of a lot of attitude. He’s also a guy driven by love, but not driven by the love of the perfect girl next store. He’s driven for the love of a prostitute who’s just as messed up as he is.
Deadpool starts the movie as a super badass, work-for-hire hitman. He may have a heart of gold but definitely lives on the darker side of things. He comes from a really messed up childhood. He’s petty, and selfish, and mostly self-interested, and not too deep. He does have a little bit of a soft spot: he’s not an evil guy. His first assignment is protecting a girl who’s being stalked.
But he’s certainly not the prototypical hero we’re used to seeing.
When we watch the origin stories of superheroes, we’re generally watching an A to Z story. The story of a character who changes from being the dopey, put-upon, powerless, low-self-esteem dude who changes into the hero with complete power.
Of course that’s a compensation fantasy for a lot of people. A lot of us feel like we’re weak, or not as strong as we wish we could be. That we can’t stand up for ourselves in the way we wish we could. That we can’t quite be the heroes that we’d like to imagine ourselves as being.
So this is not the compensation fantasy story we’re used to seeing in superhero movies of the weak kid made good. It’s not the coming of age story of the guy who finally grows up. It’s not the story of the wealthy child whose parents die at a young age and now he must become the Batman.
This is a different kind of story. And that doesn’t mean that the character doesn’t go through a huge change, because he certainly does. He goes through a change in relation to his own ego and his own vanity.
Ultimately Deadpool’s journey is to get over his obsession with his looks, so he can finally be with the girl that he loves.
Deadpool’s not fighting to save the world. Deadpool’s not fighting to prevent the evil Ajax from filling the universe with superhuman mercenaries. Deadpool doesn’t give a shit about all that. Deadpool only cares about getting his face back so he can get his girl back.
This is not exactly the noble selfless enterprise we’re used to seeing in superhero movies. And yet when Deadpool does it, we’re able to root for him entirely. Why?
There’s an idea that the thing that makes us care about characters is how nice they are. But that just ain’t true.
The truth of the matter is nice characters finish last. That doesn’t mean you can’t write a nice character. There are many nice characters that I’ve really enjoyed spending time with in movies. I love the Jon Favreau character in Chef, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, all the characters of Toy Story. Really good characters lovable characters.
But characters are also people, and the truth of the matter is there are a lot of people in the world who are flawed in wonderful, broken, and beautiful ways. You have a friend who’s an asshole. And you love that friend even though they’re an asshole. You have a friend who’s unreliable. You have a friend who’s selfish. You have a friend who’s jealous. And you love these people. You love these people because you get these people.
And sometimes it’s easier to get these people, who show us not just their good side but also their bad side.
The way that characters show us who they are is through a very, very simple concept. And if you understand this simple concept we will follow pretty much any character. We will follow Deadpool as happily as we will follow Leo’s character in The Revenant. We will follow Deadpool just as happily as well follow a totally morally upright character like Captain America or Thor.
We will follow Deadpool because his want is super clear. Because we understand exactly what he wants. We understand exactly how he’s trying to get it. We understand exactly why it’s so darn hard. This becomes the backbone of Deadpool’s story. This is what allows us to connect with him.
Like I said, at the beginning Deadpool doesn’t break every rule. There is a saying by the great writer William Goldman that a commercial movie tells us the lie that we want to believe, whereas an independent movie tells us the truth we don’t want to believe.
Now back in the day when William Goldman said this, it was probably true. But in today‘s era of movie making, the meaning of this statement has changed. And as a movie like Deadpool shows us, in today’s market a commercial movie can tell us the TRUTH we want to believe and an independent movie can tell us the truth that we don’t…“
There’s a big difference between the lie we want to believe and the truth we want to believe. Captain America tells us the lie we want to believe, the story of the character who has no flaws, who is pure good. If you watch an action movie like the Fast and the Furious you see this lie we want to believe. If you listen to my podcast on Furious 7 I discuss this deeply. These are soap operas for men. Stories of men who embody all of the characteristics we wish we could: brotherhood, loyalty, toughness, smarts, humor, and general badass-ery.
Deadpool tells us a different kind of story. Deadpool tells us the truth we want to believe. And that truth is about fucked up people doing good things for the wrong reasons. That truth is about flawed people falling in love. That truth is about sometimes the wrong decision feels like the right one. Sometimes we choose not to be a superhero, and that’s ok. Sometimes it is about us. Sometimes we are shallow. And yet we are able to accomplish incredible things.
So Deadpool’s want is clear, from the moment he meets her, all Deadpool wants is Vanessa. And what’s wonderful about Vanessa is that she is not the typical love object we have been taught to expect in superhero movies. She is not the damsel in distress. She is tough as nails. She is not the sweet innocent girl next door. She is a hard tough stripper prostitute.
Vanessa is not the lie we want to believe about the woman of our dreams. Vanessa is the truth we want to believe about the woman of our dreams. That somewhere out there is the person who isn’t perfect, who wouldn’t be a match for everyone but is a match for you. Who is messed up in the same ways you’re messed up. Who understands where you come from.
When they first meet, Deadpool and Vanessa have a wonderful repartee about who has a worse life. And that wonderful repartee is just not something we’ve ever seen in a super hero movie before. Two superhero characters feeling sorry for themselves and connecting over how messed up their lives are! This is the truth we want to believe.
Because we understand exactly what Deadpool wants and because those characters are both so well drawn, because those characters both feel real, the emotional resonance of that love story does not feel like what we normally see in an action movie. And it’s one of the reasons that Deadpool is such a great Valentine’s Day movie, because the love story feels like real love.
So often in action movies, the love story feels like its been dropped into the plot. And this is not just in action movies, we can feel it in romantic comedies as well. We see two people and the only reason why they love each other is because they’re both hot and they’re both the stars of the movie. And now let’s spend our time using the plot to attack that love in any way we can, whether it’s actually real or not.
Of course, to some degree, this happens in Deadpool as well, because it wouldn’t be an action movie if you didn’t take the woman the character most loved and put her in a chamber where she can’t breath. This is straight outta the old campy Batman TV show. You want the scene where the love interest is right there, tied to the railroad tracks while the big battle goes down. It’s one of the oldest conventions in the genre.
But though it may follow a plot structure that we’ve seen before, the emotional structure of the love story seems fully fleshed out and three dimensional. Instead of running from the rawness of what people really are, they’re running towards the rawness. Instead of saving the cat, they’re killing the cat. Instead of polishing up the edges of what it does to a character to be a super hero, they’re showing the scars. This is the truth that we want to believe.
So we have a want. The want is for Vanessa. And we have the element that makes it so hard: he’s dying of cancer. What else makes it hard? In order to be cured he has to become a superhero (the one thing that he doesn’t want to do). What makes it hard? In becoming a super hero he loses the thing that gives him his self-esteem: his looks. He doubts that she will love him any more.
And again this is that truth that we want to believe. We all have insecurities, we all have doubts, we all have fears about ourselves. We all have fears that we’re not good enough. We all have scars from our childhood and from the actions that we’ve taken. Most superhero movies polish over these scars. Deadpool chooses to show them.
So what happens is, even as the character makes the wrong decisions and spends his time trying to restore his face instead of be with the girl who loves him. And even as we hurtle toward the inevitable conclusion…
(And I’m not going to tell you what it is but if you’re an intelligent moviegoer you already know, because that’s also the truth that we want to believe).
So we’re watching a man with a plan. It’s not a good plan. It’s a plan for what he wants, not a plan for what he needs.
What he needs is to come to grips with who he is, and to learn to trust love. What he wants is to get his old life back and his old face back. And of course as it needs to in any superhero movie, the want that he wants needs to threaten the need that he needs.
If you’re working within a genre, one of the things you need to know is that genre is full of conventions. In fact. those conventions are so widespread that we start to recognize them and expect them before the credits even start rolling. They’re a part of our language before we even go see the film. And if you want to write a great genre movie, you have to understand the expectation.
If you go to a restaurant and order a salad, it better have lettuce in it. If it has other things that are exciting, then that’s wonderful. But if it doesn’t have the lettuce, we’re going to be pissed off.
If you go to an action movie and it doesn’t have a super bad bad-guy you’re going to be really pissed off. If it doesn’t have killer action sequences, you’re going to be pissed off. If it doesn’t have a quip or two that you can quote to your friends, you’re going to be pissed off. If it doesn’t have a love story, so you and your date can leave feeling like love is possible, you’re going to be pissed off.
And we see in Deadpool from the very opening credit sequence how Deadpool is both delivering and undermining those elements.
This brings us to to another rule of superhero movies and action movies in general: you’d better start with some super badass action. And boy does Deadpool start off with some action… It’s truly a work of art. A beautiful, visually spectacular and funny action sequence. And even as these writers are following the traditional convention of starting with the traditional action sequence, we’re also watching them undermine it with a credit sequence that’s basically poking fun at all the genre elements. Poking fun of the evil British villain, of the asshat producers, the gratuitous cameos.
These are writers who know their genre. Who know that to write an action movie, you have to both serve the genre monster and also undermine it.
The opportunities exist, especially if you are a young writer trying to break in, not in the way you follow the rules, but in the way you break them. The opportunities do not exist in my miming the same structure, the same formula of any genre movie. The opportunity does not exist there because there a million profession writers who can do that in exactly the same way and those people, quite frankly, have better credits than you do. And producers have a lot more reason to hire them than they do you.
If you’re going to break in, in any genre, you need to know what the audience needs, but you also want to look for opportunities to explode the genre clichés, to rub their face in the silliness. And there is a long history of this.
Scream, one of the most successful horror movies of all time, did this. In fact if you watch my 7 Act Structure lecture on Scream you know exactly how they did this, both mocking and also following all the genre conventions. Punch-Drunk Love was built around a mockery of the genre conventions of a romantic comedy. And 500 Days of Summer was built around the same premise, executed in a more commercial way: what if you built a romantic comedy that wasn’t a love story. What if you told the truth we wanted to believe instead of the lie.
And now here we have Deadpool, and not surprisingly we once again have a huge success.
One of the big holes in the action movie genre that Deadpool ran right toward is this idea that action, that violence, doesn’t have consequences.
In action movies, we’re used to laughing at the violence and watching the violence as if it didn’t hurt. And one of the really successful things about Deadpool is Deadpool’s own awareness that he is acting in a totally brutal way.
In that very first action sequence, it culminates with Deadpool piercing a guy with two swords and literally cutting him in half while giving a very self-conscious monologue about the idea that what he’s doing isn’t heroic. And, in this way, the structure of Deadpool manages to give us what we want and at the same time point out to us the flaws in our logic.
We actually see a similar example of this in the Big Short. And I’m going to be having a podcast coming up about the Big Short. But the Big Short is so successful in the way it totally undermines, in the way that it gets us to fall in love with, the idea of these guys beating the American economy.
We get invested in the hope that the economy is going to fail, just like the characters do. And, again, this is a group of messed up narcissistic characters, who’ve never saved a cat in their lives, who we fall in love with and adore.
But just when it seems they’re building a movie without a conscience, the writers see where that opportunity lies, and run right at it with Brad Pitt’s fantastic little speech in which he basically tells them what it means if they succeed. How many people die with each tick of the stock market. That this is what you’re actually rooting for.
And you can see how in a much more light-hearted way Deadpool is actually doing the same thing.
Deadpool is looking at you as the audience and saying ‘these polished up superheros that you’re rooting for, are actually violent men.’ The violence that happens in these movies actually hurts. And what’s wonderful is that Deadpool manages to do this without losing the tone, without losing the fun.
What Deadpool is doing is running towards the specificity, the reality, that most action movies willfully ignore.
There’s an idea among many producers, and unfortunately among many writers, that the audience just ain’t that smart. And if you tell them anything they don’t like, that they’re not going to have the courage to deal with it. And getting a movie made like this isn’t easy. In fact Deadpool was in development for 10 years before they got it made.
But ultimately what happens when you write a movie like this is you inflame the passions of the people who are making it. When you write a movie that tells the truth that people want to believe, instead of the lie, producers stop phoning it in for money and start believing.
Famously, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick did a version of this movie that was designed to be a PG-13 instead of a rated R movie. They did it for the producers, because they wanted to give the producers what they needed. But having seen the rated R version, even knowing they might make more money on a PG-13 movie, the producers backed the R rated movie. In fact, these writers have spoken about how brave Fox was in supporting their movie. They were basically given free reign to do what they wanted. You never hear that about a studio.
The reason they were given that free reign is because there is something that happens when you speak the truth. There is a moment where the air goes out of the room. Where we feel like we are being brought into something real rather than something fake. Where the polish drops off and we start to believe in the characters.
It’s amazing that you can do this with a character as silly as Deadpool, who takes himself so un-seriously. It’s amazing that a character can do all the standard genre quips. He’s just another version of the Ironman character. The talker, talker, talker who always has the funny thing to say. This totally expressionistic, non-naturalistic dialogue in life-threatening situations, can still feel real for a character, can still feel like a person who lives and breathes, someone we can actually care about, instead of just watching, someone who can give a spine to the pyrotechnics of the action movie around him.
And this is the last thing I want to discuss about Deadpool. Because we are just waiting for that genre moment where Deadpool finally looks at those goodie-two-shoes X-Men characters and is given his chance to be the superhero, to do the right thing, to find his moral compass, to tell us the lie that we want to believe.
The whole movie is building towards that moment. And if you do that movie how we expect it, that moment is going to lose all of its power because we’re expecting it already.
How rewarding is the choice that Deadpool makes at the end of the movie? How much fun is it? How relieved are you when it happens? When, instead of telling you the lie you want to believe, the character actually does what is truthful for himself.
So what can you learn from this as a writer?
Whether you’re writing in the action genre, the indie genre, the experimental genre you need to know the rules of your genre. You need to know the expectations of your audience.
But the structure of your movie and our love for your character does not come from those rules. It comes from the way you explode those rules. It doesn’t come from the way you follow the genre rules, such as no voice over, such as no flashbacks, such as tell your story clearly and in order. It doesn’t come from the imposed rules of our expectations, it comes from the truth of who that character is, what that character wants, and how that character goes about getting it.
Even if it leads to some unexpected or unacceptable places, if you follow that truth the audience will follow you anywhere.
If you’d like to study with me in NYC, Online, at one of our international retreats or as part of our one-on-one ProTrack mentorship program, please contact us. We’ll be happy to look at your writing for free, and help build a program that supports your needs as a writer.