Emerging from a second viewing of Deadpool this week, as I aim to deconstruct just what makes this huge hit tick beneath its sex and violence and Adventure Time wrist watch, I began to remember what Steven Spielberg recently predicted.
Because Deadpool is doing its part to reinvigorate superhero films - in part by mocking the most self-serious among them, which serves as a palate cleanser ahead of next month's Batman v Superman - I remain yet more convinced that audience "superhero fatigue" is many years away. One reason is because form and approach can savvily mutate (appropriate for comics) to fit the fickle market. But another key reason goes back to that legendary director, whose Oscar-nominated tale of Cold War intrigue, Bridge of Spies, I watched just the night before.
Spielberg's rationale for why superhero fatigue will set in, he said last year, while promoting Bridge of Spies, was that genres come and go, and that caped-crimefighter films will likewise "go the way of the Western."
On its face, as I've noted before, such dire predictions sound plausible, embedded as they are in a historical context that presumes what's past is prologue. Yet as I study Deadpool's narrative skeleton more closely, I find a new twist in such cinematic forensics:
Deadpool, as its core, is itself a Western.
That's right: For all its nods to superhero franchises and animated shows and John Hughes teen comedies, inside this genre-mutant film beats the heart of a traditional picture of fastest guns and blazing bullets and fighting damsels in distress.
Just start with the opening sequence, as gunplay erupts on a freeway bridge. Much of the film is anchored upon this one showdown road, as the bad guys and the badder guys trade shots as if on Main Street in a stock Western.
It's fitting, too, that Deadpool, lacking his stuffed ammo bag, is reduced to a handful of bullets, counting 'em down as if he's Dirty Harry (that "urban Western" sharpshooter) - with the baddies unsure just how many shots he's gotten off. When Deadpool checks that Adventure Time watch, it might as well read High Noon.
Deadpool, in fact, may open this showdown to the strains of Juice Newton, but it's Western stars and films of that era that seemed more indirectly invoked. To the villains, Deadpool seems to be an avenging ghost from brutalities past, like Eastwood's gunfighter in the '70s High Plains Drifter.
Deadpool goes so far as to give us a saloon full of mustachioed toughs, with a bar fight that could be right out of a stock Western (with bald and bearded stock baddies that could be motorcycle-gang extras out of Eastwood's The Gauntlet). We even get a version of a stock brothel: A strip club in which the DJ is none other than Stan Lee, looking like the town's wise resident old-timer.
In the postmodern Western, of course, the moral codes become relative and subverted. So even Deadpool's final act has shades of Unforgiven.
I raise all this because what this effect does, really, is complicate Spielberg's painting of Hollywood's historic landscape as a gradual passing of genre to trending genre. Because clever filmmakers can stitch an inspired pastiche, perhaps by lacing their Stan Lee with, say, the same-initialed fellow icon that is Sergio Leone.
If Hollywood takes a bonus lesson from all this, then, perhaps it's this: Audiences seem ready to embrace an adult Western comedy with genuine laughs - or anything that rises above the bomb that was a wisecracking Seth MacFarlane in chaps. So if the next "superhero Western" is Amazing Spider-Man meets Blazing Saddles, many of us will be quick on the box-office draw.