How 'Once Upon a Deadpool' Takes on Its Critics

ONCE UPON A DEADPOOL - Fred Savage and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
The film addresses a controversial death that occurs early in 'Deadpool 2.'

[This story contains spoilers for Once Upon a Deadpool]

The phenomenon of multiple versions of a film is expanding. It’s certainly not new, with the iconic example of Blade Runner, which saw at least seven cuts across 25 years. Today, there’s often a second version of a film accessible in Blu-ray packages. Deadpool 2, which released in May of this year, saw an extended cut titled the Super Duper $@%!#& Cut, with its Blu-ray release in August. But this month, the film sees a rare third version.

The premise of Once Upon A Deadpool, both as a new cut and literally within the film, is that it’s the PG-13 version of Deadpool 2. And it shows. The action is fundamentally changed, with quicker, more jarring cuts not only hiding the intensity of the violence but also stripping away much of the visual comedy and delightfully gruesome tone.

The biggest change, though, is the new footage of actor Fred Savage trapped in The Princess Bride bedroom with Deadpool. But while that satirical move is pretty effective in making up for much of the R-rated comedy that’s been stripped away, it also introduces something new to the realm of new cuts.

Deadpool has always been meta, from his start in the comics to the first Deadpool. And Deadpool 2 even reflects on the reception to the first film with the joke about him now being in the same sentence as Jesus (with the second largest domestic gross for an R-rated film behind The Passion of the Christ). But Once Upon A Deadpool seems to be the first instance of a film reflecting on the critical discourse of itself not via a commentary track, but through its very own characters.

Early on when Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) dies, the film cuts to Fred Savage reacting to her death by asking if Deadpool 2 really just fridged her character. Deadpool deflects and Savage goes on to explain “fridging,” a term that writer Gail Simone coined in the ‘90s. It's when a female character dies to serve as motivation for the male protagonist. Deadpool has no response.

On the day of Deadpool 2’s initial release in May, Vulture published an interview with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, titled “Deadpool 2 Writers Defend Treatment of Female Characters,” that digs into the fridging of Vanessa. In it, Reese says: “We didn’t know what fridging was.” Clearly, they do now.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Deadpool franchise would be the one to engage with critiques of itself. Extended cuts can occasionally alleviate certain of the theatrical versions. In the case of the “Ultimate Edition” for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, some film writers thought it offered more clarity of plot and character motivation. But there are certain critiques that normal extended cuts can’t do anything about. Fridging Vanessa would normally be one of them, but Once Upon A Deadpool, much like the character himself, becomes self-aware in new ways.

Soon after, when Cable (Josh Brolin) is introduced, the film cuts back to Savage, excited about the character. The moment initially seems innocent until Savage raves about the rather complex and, in his judgment, awesome backstory of Cable. It quickly becomes clear that the film is self-aware of the fact that it, as stated by event Reese in an interview with Polygon, “ignored” Cable’s backstory — or at least “left it vague and left it a mystery” — as well as the notion that that may have disappointed fans like the one this film presents Savage to be.

For much of the latter half of the film, there are fewer scenes with Savage, but still a few more instances of the film engaging with the critical discourse surrounding itself. After one of the jokes from the original cut, where Deadpool himself comments “that’s just lazy writing,” Once Upon A Deadpool cuts back to Savage, who critiques that joke by saying it uses humor to deflect from “actual lazy writing.” But even that small example begs so many questions, as this is all new territory for a film to wade into.

There seems to be a confusion, or at least a tension, within Once Upon A Deadpool regarding what these meta moments of mentioning these critiques are servicing. Are they simply self-deprecating jokes that reference the culture surrounding the films, or are they truly trying to acknowledge faults or even make up for them? While deconstructing the “lazy writing” joke is comedic, it arguably doubles down on exactly what it critiques, deflecting even further through a joke that acknowledges the initial deflection.

The film never returns to the fridging critique either (Vanessa, as in the original cut, is restored to life via time travel). Once Upon a Deadpool does mention of International Women’s Day during the final scene between Deadpool and Vanessa in the afterlife, and it even includes a scene of Savage afraid to admit that he’s crying because of that very scene, before he and Deadpool agree about how emotional it is.

Without continuing to engage with that specific critical discourse, the film runs the risk of simply highlighting that perceived fault within itself. And considering that Reese and Wernick defended themselves and their writing in that interview, the moment risks falling flat as insincere. But, with only that initial mention, the film also introduces the critique to viewers who had previously not considered it, and allows them to decide for themselves without intervening further.

Multiple versions of films are becoming more commonplace and more numerous. They also seem to be getting more creatively oriented, with the “black and chrome” version of Mad Max: Fury Road and the black and white Logan Noir.

But Once Upon A Deadpool takes that creativity to a new level. More so than being a potential bridge between a Deadpool under Fox and a Deadpool under Disney, the film is a bridge between Deadpool and his critics. Whether that’s a line of communication a film should be able to have, it seems that Deadpool, for the sake of edginess, will go there anyway.