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The Lesson of ‘Deadpool’ and Its WGA Nomination: Quality Matters, Even for Franchise Films

For the second year in a row, the Writers Guild of America has chosen to nominate a comic-book blockbuster for Best Adapted Screenplay. Last year, the nomination in question was for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” This year it’s for “Deadpool” (the script is by Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick). The members of the WGA had the chance, in this category, to single out any number of other, more officially acclaimed and prestigious titles (like, say, “Silence” or “Sully”). Instead, they elected to go with a movie about a cheeky mutilated freak in dirty Spandex who speaks in macho-bitch epigrams and makes mincement of his enemies using a pair of ninja swords. (Think Spider-Man crossed with vintage Jim Carrey crossed with a Benihana chef.)

Is this all a sign that the Writers Guild has sold out? That it has fallen prey to a kind of creeping commercialism? That it’s throwing a bone to the global franchise side of the film industry? On the contrary: It’s a sign that the WGA had the stones to go with the audacity of quality over the paralyzing imperative of good taste. “Deadpool” never made any big claims for itself, beyond being the kinkiest link in the Marvel chain, yet as powered by Ryan Reynolds’ magnetic star performance, Tim Miller’s time-warp direction, and that subversively playful and punk-eloquent script, it turned out to be a splendid movie — a witty slashing origin story with a self-referential decadence about its own existence.

In a movie universe of fake fun, “Deadpool” was the genuine article: undiluted, deep-dish fun. What makes a WGA nomination for it not just surprising, and kind of cool, but arguably important is the signal it sends: that this level of achievement in commercial moviemaking is worth honoring, because it means something. It’s about the difference between pleasing audiences and pandering to them. If every comic-book film was as accomplished as “Deadpool” (or if only three of them a year were), our movie culture might not look so cynical and product-driven.

That culture — in Hollywood, and in the way it’s reflected by critics and entertainment writers — increasingly adheres to a kind of kosher mystique, with popcorn on one plate and art on the other. The year-end awards season has become all about singling out movies that want to be works of art and hoping that they can cross the great divide to become hits. In the ideal universe (the one that now seems to be doing a slow fade), there’d be no contradiction at all between those two things: movies that work as thrilling diversion and movies that leave the soulful imprint of art. Yet it’s now harder to get them in one place, and a reason for that is that the industry doesn’t aim high when it comes to blockbusters. It aims for a corporate checklist of globalized sensation (enough visual action! Enough wow-worthy FX! Enough madly edited plot twists to sate the ADD-afflicted!), and more often than not that strategy gets vindicated commercially. So why should things change?

Things should change because the movies that keep the industry not just surviving but thriving are the ones that people actually care about. “Deadpool” emerged last February, seemingly out of nowhere, to become the most diabolically clever and surprising comic-book movie of the year, and it’s no coincidence that it was just about the most commercial — its domestic grosses of $363 million topped those of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Suicide Squad,” and “Doctor Strange.” It was, in every way, fresh. You could feel it from the opening credits, which had a shocking Mad-magazine insolence, breaking the fourth wall to mock how debased this very genre has become. The skill of the “Deadpool” script began right there: It didn’t play you — it took you someplace. It laced every scene with barb-wire curlicues of attitude. That’s why the movie did what comic-book movies always promise to do but so rarely bring off. It gave you a lift.

It’s convenient, in the case of “Deadpool,” to point out that quality is linked to success, because in too many cases it doesn’t work out that way. “Suicide Squad” is only the most blatant recent example of a movie that generated a mountainous ash heap of negative fallout yet still triumphed at the box office. And year in and year out, too many bad movies do. When it comes to what the audience wants, the intricacies of great storytelling are not necessarily at the top of the totem pole.

But that’s why a WGA nomination for “Deadpool” matters. Conceivably, it opens the door to further awards consideration; at this point, I wouldn’t totally count “Deadpool” out as a potential Best Picture nominee in the Academy Awards race. And let’s say that were to happen. As one of the only film critics who placed “Deadpool” on his 10 Best of the Year list, I’d personally be happy to see it, but the real issue raised by awards is that if the producers and executives who oversee these films took a greater sense of artistic pride in them, perhaps a number of the films would turn out better.

That may sound naïve. The film business has always been about pride — or its shallower cousin, vanity. Yet it’s worth recalling that there was once a time when pride wasn’t as synonymous as it is today with profit. There was a time when it was a little more synonymous with “making good pictures” (which, of course, led to profit). Pride was a win-win. That’s why I’ve long believed that popcorn movies should have a more prominent place at the Academy Awards table than they do now. It would be a corrective that honors a huge dimension of the industry, and a dimension that is sometimes deserving. Quick, which film is better as art: “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “The Revenant”? To me, only pretension — and pedigree — dictates that a brutally hollow art Western like “The Revenant” is more worthy of awards love than an exhilarating space jam like “Guardians.” By giving “Deadpool” a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination — by honoring the graveyard wit of its words, the tricky elegance of its structure — the WGA made a statement. It said that in movies, art really can happen anywhere. And we’d all be better off the more it did.

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