Deadpool and the Character of Cowardice


Welcome to my writing blog! This will be the first of a series of posts where I use popular films to discuss literary devices. This particular post will be about characterization. As an author, I am always searching for ways to fill out my characters, as characters most often drive the story, and I want to help you develop your own characters in believable ways.

So, here we go.

Deadpool 2 was… disappointing.

I’m not going to touch the over-the-top bathos, irreverent humor, or black comedy gore (definitely don’t take the kids to see this movie).  All of that is pretty standard in a Deadpool story. No, my issue was with Deadpool himself. As a character, I felt that he left much to be desired. He just… well, he didn’t make sense. His motivations were ill-defined and growth was practically non-existent. For a deeply flawed hero, he was seriously lacking in actual character flaws. And, yeah, to some degree, lack of direction is par for the course with Deadpool, the fourth-wall-breaking Merc with the Mouth who’s basically a walking parody. And please don’t misunderstand me – I thoroughly enjoyed Deadpool 1 and his comic appearances. With that said, I think it’s possible to do his character type right, and I would like to explain how. By the end, I’ll even propose how to do his attempted martyrdom in the film’s finale so that it lands with maximum impact.

Now, in this post I am going to talk only about movie Deadpool. I know that comic Deadpool’s character and motivations vary with the writers (and he is hilariously aware of this). I am specifically and only talking about the character portrayed in the movies, who he is and what is motivations are as the movie has portrayed it. Okay? Okay.

First off, every character needs a goal (WHAT do they want?) and a motivation (WHY do they do what they do?)  In his first movie, Deadpool’s motivation was twofold: revenge for what Ajax did to him, and to get his face back. Well, threefold, because he did mention that he also wanted to make sure that no one else became a victim of Ajax’s torture and experiments.

Each character also needs a flaw, something they have to overcome to achieve their goal, learn a lesson or become a better hero – in essence, achieve character growth. In Deadpool 1, it was vanity. Wade was very proud of his looks before Ajax’s experiments heavily scarred his face and he was embarrassed to let his fiancee Vanessa see him with his scars. His goal, then, for the majority of the movie was to force Ajax to fix his face. His flaw (vanity) got in the way of his character growth – he stayed away from Vanessa, failing to warn her about Ajax, and refused to believe that anyone could love him with his new looks. In the end, after learning that Ajax could not fix it, he had to come to terms with his appearance and the fact that Vanessa loves him anyway.

What was his motivation in Deadpool 2? What did he want? Do you know? It actually took me a long time to figure it out, because it was so poorly defined. His goal for the entire movie, stated by him, is that he wants to die to join her in death. He tries numerous times to accomplish this, even to the point of trying to get a child to kill him. Ugh.

So what is his motivation then? WHY did he chase after this goal? You could say love, but love doesn’t drive people to kill themselves. His goal is a selfish one, which is why Vanessa keeps sending him back. Even after he’s done what she asked him to by getting his “heart in the right place,” in the end she still sends him back because he still has work to do, being a hero. His goal to end his life wasn’t driven by his motivation (love), it was driven by his flaw which is… can you guess? It’s fear.

You see, Deadpool is an antihero. Some would call him a Lovable Rogue, a person who breaks the law, but is nice and charming enough that the audience still roots for them. Antiheroes come in a variety of flavors, from mild (some incarnations of Robin Hood), medium (Han Solo, Jack Sparrow) to dark (Deadpool, John Constantine). They might kill people, but certainly not anyone you know or care about, or maybe only bad guys. Wade himself says that he’s not a hero, just a bad guy who gets paid to beat up worse guys. Now, my assessment is that every antihero – every single one of them – is, deep down, a coward. Take Han Solo, for example. At first, he is selfish, has committed numerous acts of theft and fraud, and is interested only in saving his own skin (and Chewie’s) and wants no part in helping Luke stop the Empire. He is neutral for the sake of his own survival. But as the trilogy goes on, he becomes fiercely protective of Luke, even risking his own life to save him, and becomes a pivotal member of the rebellion. What flaw does Han have to overcome? Cowardice. It kept him from becoming his best self, and Luke even calls him out on it. Once he overcame it, he became a true hero.

Wade’s flaw in Deadpool 1 was a weak one. It wasn’t vanity that kept him from going back to Vanessa, it was fear. He was a special ops soldier and mercenary, but deep down he was always a coward. It’s why he was afraid to die of cancer in Deadpool 1 (and subsequently joined Ajax’s experiment), and why he wants to die in Deadpool 2 – he’s afraid of living forever without Vanessa. It’s why he won’t join the X-men and become a fully-fledged superhero. Cowardice (that is, selfish fear, not self-preservation) is the flaw that keeps preventing him from becoming his best self, and what drives him to his goal of ending his life. He may have been motivated by love, but cowardice got in the way. With cowardice as his flaw, it makes complete sense in this instance, from a writing standpoint, for Vanessa to die. Wade hasn’t yet become a hero who relies on his own courage without her, so this is something he must learn to do.

If the writers of Deadpool 1 and 2 had chosen cowardice as Wade’s fundamental flaw, I think both movies could have been so much better. It’s a much deeper and more challenging flaw to overcome, and has a much bigger payoff in the end if the hero does finally overcome it. In addition, more audience members can relate to a hero flawed with fear. Not everyone knows what it’s like to lose your good looks and becoming horrifically scarred (for those that do, I’m sure it’s awful), but fear is something that everyone can relate to. Whether it’s being afraid of living without your loved ones, or being afraid that they won’t love you because of how you’ve changed, or being afraid to reach for your potential, fear is a powerful storytelling tool, and one I wish more writers would reach for.

Now, about that heroic sacrifice in Deadpool 2‘s finale. If cowardice had been Wade’s flaw from the very beginning, and the audience fully understood that he was trying to kill himself not because of some noble(ish) desire to give Vanessa justice, or love, but out of selfish fear – not wanting to continue living because he’s afraid, then the audience will really, really not want him to do it. We’ll know that it’s not the right course of action, that it’s not what Vanessa would want him to do, and we’ll become really concerned and scared when it seems that he’s successful. The audience will breathe a sigh of relief when Cable saves him, because we know that Wade has learned his lesson, but still has growth left to do. He’s got a future, and he’s learning to live it. A two-part character arc from Deadpool 1 would have come full circle.

And in case you’re wondering, no. I would certainly not have brought Vanessa back in the stinger. I’m not saying that I don’t want her to come back, just that I don’t want Wade to be the one to bring her back.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What do you think? Let me know in the comments, and if you have any character suggestions for the next post.