The problem with having a self-aware central character who regularly points out the artifice of his own reality is that it creates a certain set of expectations. Like, for example, if your movie starts with one of the biggest cliches in the superhero playbook we fully expect the fourth-wall-breaking protagonist to own up to that, especially when he regularly cracks jokes about “lazy writing” elsewhere in the script. When he just lets the cliche fly right by, though, that somehow makes it even worse.
Welcome to the central conundrum of Deadpool 2.
Spoilers, obviously, but the Merc with a Mouth won Vanessa back at the end of his first movie only to then lose her at the start of his second one. A stray bullet meant for Deadpool instead finds its way to Vanessa’s heart, cueing up a tongue-in-cheek, Bond-aping opening credits sequence which leans into both the surprise and anger over Vanessa’s death. “Did they really just kill her?” one of the title cards jokes, speaking for the audience.
So, it’s not like the movie doesn’t at least kind of hang a lantern on its own cliche. Deadpool, however, never comments on it, perhaps a side effect of the franchise’s tricky push-and-pull of treating Wade as both a Bugs Bunny/Ferris Bueller/Fleabag-like cinematic rule-breaker and an actual person with real feelings to be explored. Vanessa is too central to his emotional core to ever be caught up in his ongoing superhero jokes. The same was true in the first film as well, which is every bit the love story Deadpool repeatedly claims it to be in the voice over.
Let’s say Deadpool 2 broke from that and actually had Wade crack a meta-joke, even something as simple as using the word “fridging” to describe what happened to Vanessa. Would that have really made it much better? We would have still been left watching a franchise built around fresh ideas – or, more accurately, old ideas revived with a new immaturity – stuck playing out one of the most tired storylines in superhero canon. Yeah, but if Deadpool nodded toward the cliche we would have least known the screenwriters understood just what they had walked into.
The reason the film doesn’t do that, though, is because the screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick – the guys whose job it is to know all the superhero tropes and to upend as many of them as possible – genuinely hadn’t heard of “fridging.”
Quick refresher about “fridging”: At one point, over at DC one of the Green Lanterns came home to find his murdered girlfriend shoved into his refrigerator, a haunting psychological attack perpetrated by one of his villains. Well, psychological for the Lantern, who had to deal with the grief. Obviously, though, a straight up physical attack on the girlfriend, who is ever so dead.
Over time, that storyline has become to pernicious superhero cliches what Fonzi literally jumping over sharks became to the sign of TV shows passing the creative point of no return. Thus, (and largely thanks to Gail Simone pointing it out) “fridging” is now the disdainful description of when women are killed off in stories (often in shocking/violent fashion) just to advance the (almost always straight white male) main character’s emotional arc, and it’s not exclusive to the superhero genre either. It pops up everywhere.
From Death Wish to John Wick, people or pets are often dying around a male hero to push a story forward (remember Last Action Hero’s gag about Arnold losing his “favorite second cousin”?). Far too often, the person doing the dying is a woman. Whereas this was once an acceptable storyline – a recognized cliche, but a tolerated one – it has now become despised due to extreme overuse and rapidly changing gender dynamics.
Vanessa isn’t Deadpool 2’s only fridging victim. Cable’s wife and child are burned alive, which eventually proves to be the thing that bonds Cable and Deadpool as reluctant allies – they recognize their shared grief.
What the screenwriters said about it: Vulture’s resident comics expert Abraham Riesman picked up on the fridging aspect of the storyline immediately and went to the screenwriters for answers. He was surprised to learn of their apparent ignorance. “I would say no, we didn’t even think about it. And that was maybe our mistake, not to think about it. But it didn’t really even occur to us. We didn’t know what fridging was,” Reese told him.
It almost didn’t happen this way. “In the very first drafts of the script, Vanessa didn’t die,” Reese explained. “She ended up breaking up with Deadpool, and he was trying to earn her back. Then I think at some point somebody just said, ‘Y’know, Deadpool kind of works best when he’s had everything taken away from him, when he suffers.’ So the thought was maybe we can really, really engender great suffering for him by having his line of work be the thing that costs Vanessa her life.”
What Ryan Reynolds said about it: That “somebody” was probably Ryan Reynolds, who backed up Reese’s explanation on the Empire Deadpool 2 Spoiler Special podcast. According to Reynolds, there was an even earlier version of the script where Deadpool and Vanessa actually had a child, a narrative device they dreamt up to seed the tragedy that was to come, but they didn’t even finish that draft because introducing an actual baby into the Deadpool universe felt completely wrong. That meant the only thing Deadpool had left to lose was, sadly, Vanessa.
“In order for Deadpool to function as Deadpool you need to put him in a position where he’s not just the underdog, but he’s really lost everything. The character’s so outrageous and so obnoxious and so crazy that if he just had everything and everything was in a good place in his life you can’t really turn up the fun. The more pain Deadpool is in the funnier he can be or the more outlandish he can be. We really only had the one thing to take, and that was Vanessa. Vanessa was, unfortunately, the only kind of catalyst we had to plunge Deadpool into the depths of despair. He process pain through the prism of humor. You need him to be in as much pain as possible to have the kind of adventure we wanted to have. It was something we went back and forth on. We had disagreements off and on.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Reynolds’ logic, it’s at least consistent with how they approached the first film. Remember, Deadpool is separated from Vanessa for almost the entire film. Wade gets to be with her and they are cute and funny together, but once Wade becomes Deadpool and stays away from Vanessa until he can fix his body there is a marked escalation in his humor. As he jokes at one point, “Ah, fake laugh masking real pain.”
How they decided to undo it in the post-credits: Taking it even further and killing Vanessa in the sequel isn’t a decision they came to lightly. Reynolds claims they argued about it repeatedly. They didn’t want to kill Vanessa, but they didn’t know to how to tell a version of the story with her alive. Which is probably why they ultimately undo it in the post-credits scenes, sending Deadpool on a trip through time to first save Vanessa, then Peter from X-Force and then, for shits and giggles, back into X-Men Origins: Wolverine and into Reynolds’ own den the day he first read the Green Lantern script.
According to Reynolds, that all came about in post-production. They originally had an idea for a post-credits scene revolving exclusively around Peter, just because they love Rob Delaney so much, but the director, David Leitch, figured Deadpool would try to use Cable’s time travel device to save Vanessa. Reynolds agreed but worried it would feel like a narrative cheat. It was only when they thought of the additional time travel craziness that he came around to it.
The internet’s reaction: In the short time since Deadpool 2’s release, the internet has already gone from wondering if the post-credits sequence should be considered canon (is Vanessa now alive, or was that just a quick time travel joke?) to questioning if it was part of some larger effort to comment on “fridging” (by killing Vanessa for angst but reviving her for comedy, are they having their cake and eating it too?) to wondering how in the world the guys who wrote two Deadpool movies seriously didn’t know how upset people would be to see Vanessa killed off so quickly.
It all ties back to the central issue with the Deadpool franchise – it’s ultimately a re-affirmation parody, never as truly committed to upending superhero tropes as it would seem, but it’s been made for an increasingly cine-literate audience who expects a bit more from the franchise built around a guy who seems to have seen just as many movies as us. It really shouldn’t be that surprising that the sequel to what is mostly a standard origin story would lead off with an eye-roll-inducing character death. Deadpool’s marketing is transcendent, but the films themselves are just fun, rather simple narratives that need to work well enough to hang a bunch of jokes on.
That Reese, Wernick, and possibly even Reynolds hadn’t even heard of “fridging” before now is problematic. However, the conversation this has inspired can be a positive one. As Vox argued, “The more we encourage marginalized voices to call out the stories that erase or silence them, the more we create a culture where even creative titans can hopefully be held accountable for the problematic patterns in their work — and give way to new creators who are ready and eager to tell different kinds of stories.”
My take: But, in truth, the savviest Deadpool 2 audience members probably predicted Vanessa would be saved by time travel and might not have taken her death too hard because it clearly wouldn’t stick. That was certainly my own experience with the film. I found Vanessa’s death to be annoying in its laziness, but I assumed it would be undone and just had a good time with the film’s cavalcade of gags.
What about you? What was your Deadpool 2 experience like? Does “fridging” even matter to you? Am I letting Deadpool 2 off too easy? Or are we all insane for taking anything in a Deadpool movie seriously? Let me know in the comments.