When I first started following Deadpool as a character in the 2000s, he was really a interesting but far from the only character doing what he did. 4th wall breaks were somewhat common in comics and She-Hulk was much better at breaking the 4th wall than Wade Wilson ever was. It may have been my love of manga and anime which is full of meta humor and puns that made me sour on the whole thing faster than the average American, but I’m frankly quite tired of meta-humor. Here’s why I dislike meta humor and some practical examples of how it actively usually hurts the narrative its in.
Let’s take a moment to discuss some vocabulary, because once I get started, I will not be slowed down. Meta-humor as currently defined is humor at the expense of the subject. For instance, Scream calling out all the logical fallacies in other horror movies makes it metacritical and metatextual while still being at the time subversive. To subvert or be subversive is to undercut or defy the expectations of a medium or genre. For instance, Rick and Morty subverts the sci-fi genre by being mostly bleak and entirely nihilistic. Meta-humor like this has been popularized for decades and is a vital part of the postmodern culture we live in: thanks, late-capitalism. Meta humor is said to be funny at all because it’s calling out the tropes we know and hate now because they are so overdone. A 4th Wall Break (an instance where a show or piece of media admits it isn’t real and breaks the wall between performance and audience) is rare in theater and was rare in other pieces of media but got more popular with comic books. This is different from being an anti-joke or even surrealist as the goal with these is to defy expectations by being either entirely serious and completely doing something out of the norm. Think of the Lobster Telephone done by Dali. Again, to give credit where credit is due, the earlier runs of She-Hulk was full of 4th wall breaks but let’s be honest; when you think of a 4th wall break currently, you think of Deadpool.
Deadpool as a movie franchise is interesting, really the character is a hard sell if you aren’t super into comic books. Wade Wilson is a character who cannot die and essentially has gone crazy due to his mutation and is in no way a cheap rip-off of Deathstroke. That being said, the whole idea around his particular version of meta humor is actually pretty strange, Wade Wilson knows he’s a comic book character and knows he isn’t real but most of that is chalked up more to mental illness or lazy writing than it is to anything else. The movies ignore that aspect of canon keep him as every teenage edgelord who thinks he’s funny and too good for the humor of the common folk. This worked in the first movie that came out just after the first big wave of superhero movies. It was funny to have a character comment on the logical fallacies in superhero films. It was great to have jokes lobbed at the film’s own expense, it was, at first incredibly refreshing. By the time we reach Deadpool 2, it’s simply tired. The superhero movie bubble has started to burst and since Avengers: Infinity War had ripped the hearts out of most fans, his humor was just tired. It was no longer new, refreshing or subversion: it was a chore and that movie was mostly a slog for me except for a few scenes that genuinely almost made me spit out my overpriced cola in the theater. Because by the second time Deadpool is commenting on Cable’s weirdly limited time travel abilities or the fact that there are still very few people of color in comic book movies despite there being several people of color in comic books: it just feels like it’s exposing a plot hole. That is a problem.
A 4th wall joke is funny the first time, the second time may even be insightful but the third or fourth is just tired and if anything can take you out of the film. It’s no longer subversive once the trope has already been subverted. Think of the last post we did on the Trope Trope: once being subversive of tropes is established, it then becomes a trope.
It’s especially difficult when a large company tries to comment on the tropes they established. Disney has recently gotten very meta about Disney and it’s infuriating. I grew up with Disney movies and while I didn’t notice many of these errors as a kid, I certainly don’t bat an eye at them much now as an adult. It doesn’t bother me that Beauty and the Beast was full of plot holes: it was a beautiful movie. It doesn’t matter to me that Cinderella isn’t “feminist” enough, she was engaging and the animation on the older movie is gorgeous. But the newer Disney movies have been determined to comment on the tropes that made the movies famous. Don’t like Disney princesses falling in love? Frozen is here to comment on that and then cop to Anna falling in love with her new disposable boyfriend. Disappointed that Belle didn’t fight back more? Beauty and the Beast (2017) is here to make her extra “feminist” and actively weaken her character with an invention subplot that goes nowhere and a total lack of performance or chemistry from Emma Watson. Tired of all those pesky cookie-cutter princesses? Here’s Moana with a character (in the form of Maui who is supposed to be our secondary protagonist) who is literally every teenage edgelord of a kid to undercut the serious moments to the movie’s detriment.
It’s just exhausting. The reason why it’s such a cheap shot is because rather than, you know, fixing the narrative issues; writers assume that calling it out acts as a blanket to cover them instead of just being better. So when Deadpool calls out Cable having a crappy motivation as an antagonist, guess what. I’m aware of how crappy his motivations are. When the new trailer for Wreck-It Ralph makes a jab at how horribly Disney treats its princesses, I’m not laughing. I’m just hyper-aware of how terribly they are all treated and how repetitive it is. When you intentionally poke a hole in the curtain, it becomes easier to see all the other holes in it. Do you know what would be actually subversive? Doing the right thing. In this age of cynicism and senseless cash-grabs, what would really be shocking and subversive would be to just write well. It’d be subversive to have a princess with two loving parents and a stable home life. It’d be subversive to have a gay character who is complex but not magical, a martyr or a token. Sincerity in this cynical postmodern age would be more unique and special at this stage and I can’t believe I have to say that now.