This was presented at the 2019 Native American Literature Symposium at Mystic Lake Casino on March 10, 2019. It is a “Red Reading” of Deadpool 2, done in honor of and in incomplete collaboration with my wife, Dr. Carol Warrior, who passed away a few weeks after we saw the film. This essay reflects some of our many conversations about the film, which started when she asked on our way home from the theater, “How was that not just Rhymes for Young Ghouls in reverse?” Spoilers ahead for Deadpool 2, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and possibly Boy.
We love our NALS family.
My attendance to NALS 2019 was generously supported by the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program at Cornell University.
I guess the first thing I want to acknowledge here is that Deadpool 2 was the last movie I saw with my wife. That matters for many reasons, now more than then, not least of which are the ironies of now watching Wade Wilson deal with the passing of his wife, Vanessa, their meetings in the afterlife, and the importance of Wade—with his wife’s encouragement—finding and making family connections so that his life could have meaning. That is no small thing for a man whose super power is the ability to heal from anything, thereby making death seem like relief and release. In fact, Wade’s first encounter with his wife in the afterlife is brought on by his attempted suicide, and we learn that it was not his first try.
But that’s not the focus of this paper today. No, my focus is on my wife’s excitement after the film. As we piled into the car to go back home, she was ecstatic. “Tell me I’m not the only one who saw that,” she was saying. “You saw that, too, right?”
And, after being together 10 years, cowriting papers, sharing readings and sources, reading each other’s work, and watching a lot of films together, of course I kinda did. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to revel in hearing her interpretations and commentary on the film and its connections, its intertextualities, with first and most obviously Taika Waititi’s 2016 film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but perhaps less obviously to Jeff Barnaby’s 2013 film, Rhymes for Young Ghouls. You see, both Deadpool 2 and Rhymes are set in motion by a residential school ostensibly set up to rehabilitate or otherwise assimilate its students, when in fact what happened was torture, abuse, and even murder.
The difference between Rhymes and Deadpool 2 is their representations of justice in answer to those abuses. We talked about this difference a few times, placing it in the context of our previous papers and discussions of Rhymes, and did come to some overlapping conclusions. She dibs’ed this as a paper she was going to present here at NALS this year, but she didn’t get around to writing it. I hope that I can adequately represent her thoughts as well as our conversations about these films, as an honor to her work and her love for NALS.
Also, do I have to give spoiler alerts? I mean, isn’t academia all about spoiling things? Anyways, SPOILER ALERTS.
Deadpool 2 makes a surprising contribution to filmic depictions of trauma inflicted by residential schools upon children targeted for their Otherness. Rather than being a school to contain and ultimately assimilate a racial or political minority, here the school is set up to isolate children who have special powers, and to discourage them from making use of those powers. As an X-Men Trainee, Deadpool intervenes when one student of such a school, named Russell Collins, stands off against local police, and the staff of the Essex House for Mutant Rehabilitation where Collins had been abused.
Deadpool recognizes Russell as a survivor of abuse, and even goes so far as to imply that the staff of the Essex House are perverts, saying to one, “Let me talk to the kid. You stay here with your weird, secret sex lips.” As soon as the staff is called in to gather Russell, Deadpool intervenes, “No, wait, wait. Wait. You guys stay there. Those guys hurt you? Who? Baldilocks? Jared Kushner? Both of ’em? Oh, fuck it.” And he kills the staff member he had already all but called a pedophile, explaining to Colossus, “That kid was abused! You can tell. You can always tell!” I suppose that as a survivor of abuse himself, Deadpool may be accusing those of us without that experience of not paying close enough attention to signs of abuse, or perhaps not being strong enough to intervene against abusers. Deadpool says, “being a hero takes only a few moments! A few moments… doing the ugly stuff no one else will do.” These lines are punctuated by the shot that kills the staff member.
The role of Collins was specifically written for Julian Dennison, based on his performance in Hunt for the Wilderpeople as Ricky Baker, a Maori child pursued by Child Welfare Services into the bush of New Zealand. However, unlike Ricky Baker being ultimately placed with a Maori family, Russell Collins completes his arc by learning an abstract lesson: the suffering he endured in residential school doesn’t excuse a loss of faith in humanity, or a loss of faith in the institution of family. To further connect the characters of Ricky Baker and Russell Collins, in Deadpool 2, Julian Dennison invokes Ricky’s mannerisms at key points. For example, upon confinement along with Deadpool to The Icebox—a super maximum security prison for mutants—Collins revels in romanticized notions connecting prison life, violence, and rappers that echoes Ricky Baker’s claims of “the skux life” in Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And when Collins forges a plan with Juggernaut to escape during a prison transfer, Collins considers using the very same call of “Caw-caw” that Ricky Baker used in Wilderpeople.
Deadpool escapes when Cable breaks into the Ice Box. Cable had come back in time to kill Firefist before he can become the major villain who kills Cable’s family, along with thousands of others in the future. Deadpool plans to break Russell out of prison during the same prisoner transfer that Russell and Juggernaut planned to use for their escape.
As an aside, there is a problem with the strongest associations between the characters of Ricky Baker and Russell Collins being made during the prison scenes in Deadpool 2. I haven’t thought through this point enough yet, except to point out that while Ricky Baker was on the run from people who wanted to take him away from family, he used gangster stereotypes to negotiate new connections with his foster family, Russell Collins (at least while he is in The Icebox) tries to use stereotypes about prison life to manage and establish relationships that are in many ways the opposite of familial, and really more about managing safe distance and personal agency.
After he and Juggernaut escape the prisoner transport, Russell, growing into his alter ego Firefist, declares, “I have a mission. To get my revenge. I’m going to burn that headmaster alive.”
“You’re not the revenge type,” Deadpool declares. Russell’s departure with Juggernaut sets up the final confrontations of the film.
The climax of Deadpool 2 consists of three battles braided together. 1) Colossus versus Juggernaut in a big, dumb CGI fight. 2) Deadpool arguing with Cable for a chance to change Russell’s future rather than ending his life. And, 3) Firefist seeking his revenge against the headmaster.
The headmaster of the mutant rehabilitation center is portrayed as an unhinged religious zealot and torturer right up to the end. His character calls to mind Popper, the Indian Agent who ran the residential school in Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Like Popper, this headmaster speaks biblically, as if he imagines himself to be an agent of moral good, empowered by God to eliminate the mutant threat, again much like Popper in Rhymes.
As the headmaster tortures mutant children, he says, “Blessed are the wicked who are healed by my hand.” He thinks of mutant powers as an evil that needs eradication, and imagines his role as a savior to these kids. “A child should not be burdened with such power,” he cries as he is under threat by Firefist.
Deadpool argues with Cable about whether or not Russell can be saved. And, yes, Deadpool uses the word “save” with reference to Russell, four times, in fact. By way of comparison, he uses the word only once in reference to his dead wife, Vanessa, and that is only in comparison to Russell: “It means I’m gonna save Russell. Maybe I couldn’t save Vanessa… but maybe I can save a robust teenager from New Zealand.”
Deadpool, echoing what Vanessa told Wade in the afterworld, tells Cable:
Well, I got news for you.
My heart is in the right place.
Russell’s not gonna kill anyone.
Because of me, he’s gonna know what real love looks like.
In his effort to prevent Russell from using violence, Deadpool and his companions mete out a lot of violence against the staff of the mutant rehabilitation center. A lot of it. This violence is used by Deadpool to form a bond with Cable, saying things like, “Only best buddies execute pedophiles together.”
This is a continuance of the same use of violence on the behalf of underdogs and the oppressed we saw in the first Deadpool, but with the added layer of this version of justice, a retributional form of justice, being deployed against institutional rather than interpersonal abuse. But Deadpool himself doesn’t seem to understand the structural side of this injustice, and tries to get Russell to see this as a matter of personal development, of letting things go, and of moving on through association with better people.
It doesn’t have to go this way!
That piece of shit…he deserves to die for what he did to you.
He hurt you badly. Makes you wanna hurt others.
But if you kill him, he wins.
You become everything he says you are, but worse.
You’re just a kid.
You don’t wanna hurt anyone.
The point is… there are people…
There are people in this fucking world… besides him, who will treat you right.
It isn’t too late. Don’t do it.
Thus, Deadpool uses Liberal virtues and a neoliberal narrative of “being better” to encourage the young Collins to rise above his trauma, set aside the impulse to vengeance, and imagine himself as part of a larger family with an opportunity to become a hero. In other words, Deadpool embodies much of the spirit of Reconciliation that has arisen in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
With Deadpool’s support, Collins spares the life of the Headmaster. In Rhymes, Popper meets his end through violence at the hands of a very young resident of the school. The Popper-like Headmaster of the mutant school is ultimately killed by Dopinder, who ironically runs the Headmaster over with his cab after the invocation of “karma.” Thus, both Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Deadpool 2 sit in uneasy relationship to vengeance, multicultural virtues, and reconciliation. Both reveal the limitations of colonial reliance on a dichotomy between civilization and savagism, and both show a radical inability to reconcile individual agency with the need for collective restoration and justice.
These commonalities between Rhymes and Deadpool 2, though, left us with a bit of a problem. Neither she nor I could figure out how or why Ryan Reynolds would cast a young Maori actor to portray Firefist, much less why there would be a residential school subplot in a BC produced film written by a couple of Canadians, Ryan Reynolds and Paul Wernick, plus Rhett Reese. Speaking as someone who finds Frederick Jackson Turner to be haunting Zombieland (which, I just remembered as I wrote this sentence, was also written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick), coincidence is usually good enough to launch cultural criticism (if only because cultural criticism precludes the possibility of mere coincidence), but she wanted more evidence to go on.
After she died, we were all staying at the home of a friend of our son in northern Montana. On one side we could see the Sweetgrass Hills, and on the other side we could see Chief Mountain. We were about 2 hours from Fort Belknap, where she was to be buried with her ancestors. There’s really no end to describing how our lives had changed with her being gone, but more importantly we were in awe of how much of her passing was perfect. She was in that place that she loved so much, surrounded by people she loved, so close to Fort Belknap where she wanted to be buried, and as we recounted moments that led up to her burial, we found that we couldn’t remember how it all began. It was as if she had planned it for decades, or that someone or something else set her life in motion. Her story is one of those stories that had it happened decades ago, even centuries ago, people would still be talking about it now.
But that’s not the focus of this paper here today. No, because something else happened in that house. The kids were grief watching movies, and one that they watched was 2011’s Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds in the title role, and guess who was cast to be his best friend, one Taika Waititi, who was called up based on his performance in his own 2010 film, Boy.
One of our kids came to me after they watched Green Lantern and asked, “Dad, why is everything we read or watch relevant to our lives so specifically?” Apparently, I somehow raised a bunch of cultural critics. Aside from that, he knew she and I had been talking about these ideas, and that she would have loved to know that Ryan Reynolds had actually worked with Taika Waititi. I think that connection would have given her more than enough confidence to run with her initial hunches, intertextual connections, and cultural critiques that I am pleased to bring into this presentation today.
Deadpool 2 is at least partly about justice over human rights abuses in residential schools. It also reveals an ambivalence about vengeance as part of that justice. Rhymes for Young Ghouls also wrestles with the matter of revenge.
The line “You’re welcome, Canada,” can be taken as an uneasy answer to the final question of Rhymes for Young Ghouls. After Jujijj blows Popper’s head off with a shotgun, Aila’s dad goes to jail for that crime, and the future for a post-residential school existence lies uncertain, Jujijj asks Aila, “What do we do now, boss?” Instead of showing us an abusive school administrator being killed by one of his victims, Deadpool 2 shows us the death of the headmaster as being funny, while also ironically reduced to a matter of karma. “We’ll let karma take care of him,” Deadpool utters just before Dopinder’s cab crushed the headmaster to death.
An Indian cab driver acts as karma. Let us take a second to let that sink in.
Karma is a matter of fate, not agency. So Deadpool 2 manages to remove the agentive power of vengeful action from Russell as well as Dopinder. Rhymes strategizes agency differently, first by granting young children the power and even authority to mete out violent retribution, second by giving the audience both the cathartic release of seeing Popper killed, as well as leaving the audience with Jujijj’s final question as something more than a rhetorical point. It is a call to action, even if the responsibility of that action is pretty easily avoided by leaving it entirely up to the direct victims of colonial oppression.
Keeping all this in mind, the final words uttered in Deadpool 2, during the usual intra- and post-credits scenes that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now known for, also have a new meaning. In those scenes, Deadpool cleans up the timeline, and breaks the fourth wall in classic Deadpool fashion. First, of course, he saves his wife from death. But he also adjusts the filmography of Ryan Reynolds, who is Deadpool’s last murder victim. Reynolds is shown finishing up reading the script for Green Lantern, a film that disappointed at the box office, received generally negative reviews, and that Reynolds himself has made fun of several times in social media, the press, and in both Deadpool films. Deadpool shoots Reynolds in the back of the head, splattering blood across the title page of the Green Lantern script, and says, “You’re welcome, Canada.”
If Green Lantern sowed the seeds of awareness through Ryan Reynolds association with Taika Waititi, then what does it mean to “fix” the timeline in a way that prevents that consciousness-raising film experience (if only behind the scenes) from ever happening?
Or do those final words presume that we should be grateful to Deadpool for preventing Ryan Reynolds from ever reminding us that residential schools have made an impression on mainstream pop culture artifacts well beyond Indigenous-produced films such as Rhymes for Young Ghouls?
How do we reconcile these competing intertextualities and ambivalent commentaries on history, experience, and social justice?