By Ashley R. Lierman
Last fall, before the Deadpool movie came out, I reported on an interview where Ryan Reynolds and director Tim Miller confirmed that the movie would portray a pansexual Deadpool. At that time, it wasn’t clear what the character’s sexuality would have to do with the movie itself, and to a certain degree it still isn’t. As has been noted on several occasions, in the final film, Deadpool’s pansexuality was hardly more than a few jokes, or the occasional reversal of the male gaze comics movies are so infamous for. For the amount of enthusiasm about Deadpool’s sexuality in the interview, it doesn’t seem like it got nearly as much attention in the final product.
It’s not a best-case scenario for representation, to be sure, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been known to call out media for lesser transgressions. I’ve also expressed my skepticism before about the lasting impact of queer representation in superhero comics – and I suppose film adaptations by association. A cynical person might even suspect the “pansexual Deadpool” comment of being an attempt to pander to queer audiences before the fact, and then not deliver on that promise so as to avoid alienating a broader audience. And I am a fairly cynical person… but that accusation doesn’t quite ring true to me. For that matter, I don’t really have a problem with how Deadpool handled things. Let me see if I can explain why.
I suppose it’s worth noting to start that, on the whole, I liked Deadpool as a movie. It wasn’t high art but it was clever and fun, and its irreverent and blue humor was a nice breath of fresh air in a genre that often seems, weirdly, to be trying to be as kid-targeting and as dourly serious as possible at the same time. But I’ve liked plenty of things that I still have issues with, and charm alone wasn’t what got Deadpool off the hook.
At first glance, an obvious comparison with the Deadpool situation is the now-famous book tour stop in 2007 where J.K. Rowling revealed Dumbledore was gay. It’s another case where a creator mentioned the fact that a principal character was queer personally, but the character’s sexuality was never mentioned or portrayed as such in the actual story. And it is certainly a case that I did have mixed feelings about at the time (although that news is way too old for a column at this point). There are a couple of notable differences, though, that lead to me feeling a little more warmly about Deadpool by comparison. There’s the fact that Deadpool is the main character of his story while Dumbledore isn’t, a distinction that’s always worth noting. There’s also the fact that Deadpool does at least allude to Deadpool’s sexuality in the text, although a lot of that can be pinned on narrative style and the fact that Harry Potter is for children and Deadpool decidedly isn’t, giving it more freedom to engage with sexuality in general.
Probably the biggest factor, though, is the timing: the “pansexual Deadpool” interview came out before the movie was ever in theaters, as I mentioned, while Rowling’s Dumbledore reveal came just a few months after the last Harry Potter book was released with record sales. There were still two films in the series left to go at that point, but in terms of the books themselves, where Rowling’s stake was biggest, there wasn’t much risk of alienating enough bigoted readers to hurt the bottom line. I’m not implying by any means that this factor must have been calculated into the decision – in fact, I’d be surprised if it had. But all the same, the fact remains that by fall of 2007, Rowling could say pretty much anything she wanted about the characters in her books without much damage, financial or otherwise.
On the other hand, books and film are very different worlds, and it’s similarly hard to imagine that Miller and Reynolds weren’t aware of the riskiness of explicitly identifying their main character as queer – especially in a genre whose target audience is stereotypically straight white men, before a screen release whose outcome was anything but certain. For that matter, that underdog status does help ameliorate Deadpool‘s failure to deliver on explicit queerness in the text, at least a little. For a low-budget project trying to succeed against uncertain odds in mainstream American film, a little queer representation still seems like a significant gesture… while a bestselling author failing to include any in the actual text, even when it seems very likely her success wouldn’t have been much impacted, is just that much more disappointing. The fact of the matter is, while in a precarious position to begin with, Deadpool‘s creative minds took a risk they didn’t have to, and that other creators in more secure positions have still refused to take. To me, that counts for something.
Furthermore, what counts for even more is their enthusiasm about the issue. You may notice the interviewer never actually asked about Deadpool’s sexual orientation, per se; as soon as the topic of sexuality in the movie came up, Miller volunteered the information, and moreover seemed to be positively gleeful about it: “Pansexual! I want that quoted. Pansexual Deadpool.” And while that may in fact have been a calculated move, to use queerness as a way to increase the movie’s “edginess”… I don’t know, I find I can’t really get too mad about that. It’s just nice to be valued one way or another, I guess, and we don’t yet have such an embarrassment of allies in the Hollywood mainstream that we should be dismissing them out of hand for thinking we make them look cool.
Case in point: another obvious comparison to Deadpool‘s situation is with NBC’s now-cancelled Constantine series and how its creators handled the bisexuality of its protagonist, which I waxed vitriolic about back in the early days of this column. While the creators didn’t deny that John Constantine was portrayed as bisexual in the comics, that fact was dismissed as “not a crucial aspect of the character,” and there were no immediate plans to engage with it in the series; maybe if the show ran for twenty years, but not anytime soon. Acknowledging Deadpool’s pansexuality in interviews, while not doing anything in particular with it in the movie, could be seen as a similar move. I would argue, however, that in this case, attitude is everything. I don’t think it’s just semantics to say that there’s a world of difference between “his sexuality is not a crucial aspect of the character” and “I want that quoted, pansexual Deadpool.” At the very least, in the latter case, the character’s being queer actually matters to the people in charge, enough that they don’t wait for people to explicitly ask about it and even then drag their feet. And for a creator to be excited, enthusiastic even, about the fact? Honestly, just that in itself is huge to me. Whatever the reason, when I spend my days and my columns hunting for even the littlest bits of queer representation in geek media, something like that means a lot to me.
Not to mention that Ryan Reynolds thinks it’d be great for Deadpool to have a boyfriend, which is nice to hear. And I suppose that now that the movie has been a major success, whatever happens in the inevitable sequels will indeed be the most telling thing. Once the franchise has established itself, what risks will or won’t the creators still be willing to take?
For the time being, though, at least: nah, I’m not mad at Deadpool for not delivering much on the pansexual front. …Maybe the baby hand thing, though, you know, a little. But then, I think that was the idea.