The Philosophy of DeadPool:
Nihilism Verses Spandex
How a Mouthy Anti-Hero Can Lead to a Spiritual Quest
DeadPool stirs up all kinds of existential riddles about life.
As far as superhero movies go, he’s not your typical, run-of-the-mill, unkillable guy in red spandex.
He’s also a philosopher.
Which is to say, he isn’t afraid of The Big Questions of life.
So, in addition to having a face that looks like an avocado (one that had sex with an older, more disgusting avocado, and not gently), he also tells a vivid story about modern times, the eternal battle between meaning and nihilism, good and bad answers to the problem of life and death, and stuff like that.
And strangely enough – following his trail of mayhem can become a bit of a spiritual adventure.
Of course, to some folks, the entire idea of this just seems wrong.
In all kinds of ways.
Time to put on the brown pants.
After all, DeadPool would seem way more likely to make fun of spiritual gurus than be one. He doesn’t turn other cheeks; he goes full-throttle hyperviolent. He aims for laughs, not insight. He doesn’t overcome evil with love, he overcomes bad guys by serving them up grisly, splattery deaths. He’s less likely to talk peace and love than drop f-bombs and make fun of people. The only way he’d read The Upanishads would be to look for dirty parts.
But then again, his approach seems to resonate with folks.
The two DeadPool movies alone have made over a billion dollars. (That’s with a “b.”)
So in a way, we could say that DeadPool is one of the most popular philosophers around today.
Which might seem like a bad thing. After all, he’s explicitly rejected the “hero” label. And he’s clearly not a role model for kids. Well, unless you want your kid to be a genius with one-liners and a champion Magellan-type when it comes to exploring new frontiers of attention deficit.
But there’s another side to this.
When it comes to talking about modern spirituality, there’s plenty of G-Rated stuff for the kids, with smiles, good vibes, and relentless positivity across the board. Sometimes there’s some racy PG stuff for the older ones.
But when it comes to R-Rated, red-band religion – religion for adults – there seems to be a serious shortage in this department. Maybe there’s been so much focus on teaching kids that they forgot what to say to grownups.
But DeadPool gives us plenty to work with here.
There’s only one R-rated movie that’s made more money than DeadPool.
(Not that it’s all about money. It’s just a handy yardstick to measure what resonates with folks.)
Know what that movie was?
The Passion of the Christ.
OK, so, maybe nobody’s thinking it.
But still, it has to be said.
DeadPool can lead to a spiritual quest.
So, how can this possibly work?
As we’ve said before, everybody is a philosopher.
Being a philosopher doesn’t necessarily mean putting on a toga, growing a potbelly, and spending hours arguing out the fine points of the Kierkegaard-verses-Hegel debate.
“Great problems are in the street.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Street philosophy doesn’t even happen on the surface. DeadPool – the movie, at least – rarely talks philosophy explicitly. He rarely even says what he actually thinks.
He does it all through his actions.
Which is often the same way we do it.
Because everyone has a worldview, whether it’s articulated verbally or not.
And that includes characters who run over bad guys with Zambonis.
So, what is DeadPool’s philosophy?
Let’s comb through a few of the major worldviews to see what fits.
A few we can probably rule out easily.
For example: theism seems easy to kick to the curb.
DeadPool is obviously no choir boy. Just to mention one story element: the main villain in DeadPool 2, for no reason that seems strictly necessary, spouts what seem to be Bible verses as he tortures and molests children. All to say, the movies aren’t falling all over themselves to put theism in a positive light.
We can rule out monistic pantheism pretty quickly too. The only way DeadPool would only say “make me one with everything!” would be to make the old joke about the Zen master hot dog vendor. Lofty-sounding conventional platitudes – like the stuff Colossus usually offers – usually wind up getting a verbal beatdown.
Let’s skip ahead here.
DeadPool’s worldview seems to be “soft postmodern nihilism.”
“Life is an endless series of train wrecks
with only brief, commercial-like breaks of happiness.”
- DeadPool, screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
First, let’s look at the “postmodern” part.
Nobody that we’ve found seems to have any kind of short, coherent, comprehensive summary of what Postmodernism is, exactly, aside from the general mood of the age that we’re living through now. With that in mind, just for the sake of argument, we’ll look at it this way:
Postmodernism fits perfectly with skepticism, cynicism, absurdism, and a kind of jaded disillusionment with historically lofty ideals.
Let’s start with the historically lofty ideals.
Part of postmodernism is a reaction to the failure of the Enlightenment project.
We’ll refer to “the Enlightenment project” as modernism.
And DeadPool, presumably, isn’t naïve about modernism.
“Modernism,” as we’re using it here, refers to the idea – bluntly stated – that science is going to solve all of life’s problems. Reason and the scientific method are all we need to make everything super–peachy.
Postmodernism has a different opinion on the matter. Postmodernism refers in part to the idea that there are some problems in life that science isn’t going to solve. Not anytime soon, at least, and not in its current form.
In its healthy forms, it’s not anti-science, on one side. And it’s not naïve science-as-religion on the other.
This idea – that science won’t solve all our problems – might sound commonsense and even obvious to some of us. But to rewind the tape a little, it wasn’t too long ago that expectations of what science could achieve were sky-high. It might sound naïve to us today, but once upon a time, science was going to give us the secret to life and happiness and everything nice.
That was back in the days before World Wars I and II.
So there’s room for nuance here.
It’s possible to appreciate all the legitimate achievements of science without making it into a religion. And it’s possible to recognize all the genuine benefits science has given us while understanding that it’s not going to solve the problem of life and death for each of us, personally, within our lifetimes. Despite a lot of hype that implies otherwise.
It’s given us smart phones, and atom bombs. It’s cured smallpox, and invented chemical weapons. It’s come up with both Viagra and frontal lobotomies. There’s Dr. Curie, and Dr. Frankenstein.
Science is like a screwdriver. It can be “good,” or “bad,” depending on how it’s used. And who is using it. Scientism claims that it’s purely good.
But Postmodernism claims that it’s morally neutral.
Which brings us back to DeadPool.
The main villain in DeadPool, Ajax – or as we’ll call him, Francis – was a scientist.
His research involved discovering a way to isolate and manipulate the variable that causes latent mutant powers to fully emerge. He used quasi-scientific methods in a quasi-scientific lab, with mixed results. Some of those mixed results involved torturing Wade, at great lengths, with the eventual plan of selling him into slavery.
Those experiments were successful, by Francis’s measures, at least. Wade’s potential superpowers came to the surface. He became DeadPool. (Captain DeadPool, almost.)
Of course, there were some “side effects.” One of which involved Wade transforming into something that looked like Freddy Kreuger having sex with a topographical map of Utah, in sidekick Weasel’s words.
All to say: religion is out – both the theism and pantheism types – and he clearly isn’t naïve about science being the answer to all of his problems.
So this lands him squarely in the camp of Postmodernism.
But there’s another central quality about DeadPool: he makes fun of basically everything and everybody. It’s deconstruction with giggles.
He seems to take almost nothing seriously. He’s irreverent, snarky, crass, and seems to love gouging sacred cows as much as he does bad guys. During a peak moment, right in the heat of a frenzied battle, he’ll wonder out loud: “Did I leave the stove on?” At another key dramatic moment, he’ll point out how the song from Frozen is a little too similar to some old Streisand tune. It’s irony on steroids.
It’s just silly.
And this is part of why folks love DeadPool.
We tend to take ourselves pretty seriously these days. There’s always been moralizing and doomsaying and speechifying and finger-wagging, but we haven’t always had Facebook and the rest of the 24-7 media to shove it in each others’ faces relentlessly.
And that’s why we really love and need some good Trickster archetypes.
Kings and queens used to have court jesters, which – the story goes – were the only folks that could tell the truth without getting a free mandatory vacation in the dungeon or a guillotine haircut.
Nowadays, since we’re all kings and queens in our minds, at least, good Tricksters are able to tell us the truth and get us to laugh about it. They follow a long and honorable tradition – from Huckleberry Finn to Bugs Bunny to Captain Jack Sparrow – of poking fun where it needs to be poked. Especially of pompous, self-important Emperors with no clothes.
And even of bad guys.
Poking fun at stuff is important. (Even if the “poking” that happens to bad guys sometimes involves a set of steak knives.) We need some playful class clowns to come along every so often, make some jokes and relieve the tension. Otherwise it all just gets too grim and serious.
One particular strain of “poking fun” – one that’s a bit less fun – is “deconstruction.”
Much of Postmodernism is about deconstruction.
And deconstruction can get pretty grim.
In a healthy form, deconstruction can mean breaking down and getting rid of nonsense. DeadPool does that, and well, and has a lot of fun doing it. He’ll make a cabob out of a bad guy in the same way postmodernism does with belief systems. He uses katana blades to skewer body parts the same way he uses one-liners and a sharp wit to skewer character traits and dumb ideas.
But instead of katana blades, Postmodernism uses skepticism and cynicism to dissolve whatever belief system it touches. (Kinda similar to the way Zeitgeist’s acid-spit dissolved Sugar Bear’s arm.)
And this is where DeadPool’s approach really sheds some light on modern thinking.
After all: skepticism and cynicism are in no short supply these days.
One way to describe modern times is to say that we’re living through “The Death of God.”
This story goes roughly something like this: science recently seized the throne of authority from religion. And science operates by doubt. Ergo, doubt now seems generally more trustworthy than “faith.” So, in this kind of environment, skepticism is the most popular intellectual drink of choice.
But wait a minute: let’s imagine that somewhere along the way, you gave up religion for science. But then one day, you realized that science isn’t going to give you “The Answer” either: science isn’t “IT”.
At that point, well, you might suddenly decide that you no longer want to dance with the girl that brung ya.
And here things get awkward. You’ve broken up with religion, but the new relationship isn’t exactly working out. Which means, in some ways, you’re left with a muddle.
This might be a rough sketch of the current predicament for more than a few folks.
Hence, the popularity of soft nihilism.
In this kind of climate, anyone who seems to take any kind of metanarrative seriously (to use schmancy Postmodern jargon) – who even aims to have an overall coherent philosophy of life and the world – becomes a prime target for deconstruction, whether it’s verbal, intellectual, spiritual, or in DeadPool’s case, physical.
After all, DeadPool loves torturing Colossus – the old-fashioned, neighborly, giant metal nice guy and voice of reason – and makes fun of his old-fashioned “hall-monitor” moral code.
To be fair, Colossus is a bit stiff. (But in his defense, he is made out of metal.)
But times have changed. Chivalry isn’t just dead these days; any remnants are actively targeted for extermination. Ever the old-fashioned gentleman, Colossus covers his eyes when Angel Dust (Gina Carino), has an – umm – wardrobe malfunction in the heat of battle. And while he’s looking away, she says it’s “sweet!” and then rewards him with a crushing pound to the crotch.
Stuff like this can lead to cynicism.
And cynicism also plays a huge role.
“This ain’t a life that’s worth living, is it?”
- DeadPool, screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Why would DeadPool be cynical?
It might seem at first that it came as the result of looking like – in his words – a testicle with teeth.
But there’s backstory there. In a reference to life before DeadPool, some cynicism was already there. Wade Wilson (the guy who eventually became DeadPool) was a Special Forces soldier with dozens of kills. Naïve about life, he isn’t.
Not all cynicism is unjustified. To borrow a line from Richard Rose, a negative reaction to a negative situation might in fact be quite positive.
There are plenty of paths to cynicism.
Life tends to disillusion us. We all start out naïve, and it’s usually an extended series of disillusionments from there.
But the important part is what you do after finding out that life actually isn’t all ball games and birthday parties. (Which, by the way, now seems to be the new central message we indoctrinate kids with for the first decade or two. No wonder they get jaded when they find out it isn’t.)
Once you get out in the world and discover that life is a struggle, wherever you are – even for the rich and famous – it can make you cynical. Especially if nobody to that point seemed intent on giving you a heads up about it, much less helping you prepare for it.
So in regards to the general zeitgeist (and by that we mean the spirit of the age, not the acid-spitting X-Force member) after World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the 60s and 70s, the Cold War, 9/11 and so on, jaded cynicism just seemed to click.
Much of modern life looks great on paper, as Stephen Pinker and others have pointed out, and genuinely is good. But that’s not the whole story. There are some things, maybe less easily measured, where we clearly aren’t there yet.
Again, us living through “The Death of God” might play a real role here. DeadPool’s main hangout is what used to be “Sister Margaret’s School for Wayward Girls,” which has been converted into a rough bar that serves as a “job fair for mercenaries.”
So DeadPool hangs out in the grave of a bygone era, quite literally. A postmodern headquarters for jaded mercs has replaced what used to be an institution based on thinking that seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. Symbolic? Maybe, if symbols are still allowed to mean anything these days.
All of which can seem a little absurd.
And the absurdity of life gets center stage here.
There’s the idea of a wisecracking, unkillable guy in red spandex running around making chimichangas out of bad guys. One thing you can definitely say about it: it’s absurd.
(Somebody writing long articles peeling the rind of that story open to get whatever the philosophical fruit it has to offer – well, that might seem pretty absurd, too.)
According to postmodern thinking, when you think about it, a lot of life is like that. From football games to celebritheism (celebrity-worship) to the everyday experience of just about any part: a good chunk of life is just absurd. The idea of life as a rational, coherent, well-ordered system just doesn’t ring true with everyday experience.
It’s a failure of rationalism. It’s not a celebration of irrationalism, just a recognition that the rational, as it’s normally presented, is like trying to measure a tornado with a slide-rule.
A few lines in DeadPool illustrated this point very well.
When DeadPool “dies” (sort of) at one of the last few scenes of the sequel, he gives his deathbed speech.
(Several deathbed speeches, really.)
So, what are DeadPool’s "final" words?
Then he starts singing “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” as he fades off and, presumably, crosses over to the Other Side. (Again.)
So, those last words: true words of wisdom…?
Is there hidden “meaning” there?
Maybe the “meaning” is one of anti-meaning.
Maybe it’s something like this: life is absurd. Call it absurdism. It’s a metaphysics of senselessness.
After all, DeadPool seems to make fun even of the idea of “precious last words” itself.
But what are “last words,” anyway?
Well, traditionally and intuitively, a person’s last words are usually seen as one of the most condensed nuggets of the idea of life has meaning. The basic idea is that a person’s entire life is about to end, for good. There are just a few final moments before the clock runs out. These moments can be used to gather up everything they’ve learned about life, condense it into a few words, and pass it on to somebody who might benefit from it and who will actually bother to listen.
And with those random, silly, meaningless words – “woodpecker,” “gingivitis,” “codswallop” – the entire idea of that – the idea of “last words” itself – is what DeadPool makes fun of.
And that brings us to the “nihilism” part.
If life is absurd, meaningless, and pointless, well, that lands us right in in a big steaming pile of nihilism.
It’s often camouflaged in slick, faux-cool, in-crowd disguises. Some folks adopt a kind of carefree, “I do what I want, screw everybody else” act, for example, as if that’s some kind of brilliant new idea they just came up with. Other times it’s mild depression. Sometimes it results in just dragging yourself through the days – “time to make the doughnuts!” – with no relief in sight.
And at this point, skepticism, cynicism, and absurdism can see postmodernism really coming in handy as a convenient intellectual justification for it all. The psychology fuels the philosophy, and the philosophy justifies the psychology, and the two happily, hand-in-hand, go skipping away to nowhere.
And this might all seem fun. At first, especially when you’re young. Which is just one reason why it’s popular.
Some folks might describe DeadPool’s philosophy as soft nihilism.
Or maybe even hard nihilism.
After all, he makes fun of everything. He doesn’t seem to take anything seriously. Nothing’s sacred.
And this approach seems to resonate with a lot of other folks, based on how they voted with their hard-earned money.
And of course, maybe parts of this aren’t completely wrong. After all, there really does seem to be a lot in the world that’s either pointless, dumb, or corrupt. There really are things in the world that should be made fun of. And DeadPool seems like the perfect guy for the job.
So with no grand ethos, belief system, reason for living, DeadPool seems to be some kind of postmodern nihilist, either hard or soft.
So we seem to have an answer. DeadPool’s philosophy is a kind of postmodern nihilism.
It’s tempting to stop here, and declare victory.
But is it true?
Is DeadPool’s philosophy really postmodern nihilism?
Here’s where it’s gonna have nuts in it.
Let’s take a look.
In order to make fun of something, you have to be outside of it. And in order to make fun of everything, you have to be outside of everything. The flip side of thinking that everything’s a joke means thinking that nothing really matters. It’s easier to make fun of people who take things too seriously when you think nothing is really all that serious. It’s easy to gore sacred cows when you don’t have any of your own.
And if you have no sacred cows, then by definition, you see nothing as sacred.
And if you think nothing is sacred, then well, that might make you the pitch-perfect hero for the age of The Death of God.
But again: does DeadPool really think that?
And here, after all that, is the major third-act plot twist.
No. He doesn’t.
You can’t build a billion-dollar movie franchise on nihilism.
Because nihilism doesn’t really make for good stories. It's like trying to build a skyscraper out of Jell-O.
Why is that?
Maybe for mysterious reasons that are rooted in certain deeper parts of human nature.
You can’t really build a life philosophy on nihilism, either, as we’ve touched on here. Nihilism as an answer to the meaning of life – spoiler alert! – doesn’t really work. In the same way, you can’t even base a good story on it. (Not one that many non-artsies would want to see, anyway. When the movie version of Waiting for Godot crosses the billion-dollar mark, we can talk. Until that point, we can consider it settled.)
So, OK: if you can’t build a decent movie out of nihilism, and DeadPool I and II are decent movies, then what’s our answer, then? If DeadPool isn’t really a postmodern nihilist, what is he?
Let’s reexamine our assumptions.
What’s the real story here?
When we first meet Wade Wilson, he’s a “bad guy” who gets paid to mess up “worse guys.” He takes money for giving bad guys pavement facials. In his words, he’s like a f-ed up Tooth Fairy, except he knocks out teeth and takes the cash. And again, given his military experience and exposure to the brutal realities of life that many of the rest of us are sheltered from – with several dozen deaths under his belt already – it’s not surprising that he has some edge.
That said, he works for free sometimes, when it’s a good cause, like taking care of some “light stalking.” He even dishes out free advice sometimes, like the guy with too much bling on his pants: “They’re jeans, not a chandelier.”
He’s edgy. But that’s still shy of nihilism.
So he starts out the story in an already dark place.
But as it turns out, what we’d call a “dark place” turns out for him to be “young and naïve” phase.
Because then he meets Vanessa.
And for a little while here, things start to really come together.
He falls head over heels in love with her. And she does the same with him.
He proposes. Before long, as unlikely as it seems, he’s ready to put on the white pants and go the way of “the F word” (“family”), complete with white picket fences and backyard barbecues and driving the kids to soccer practice in the minivan.
Let’s freeze frame here.
What’s the most popular answer to the meaning of life question for someone who is skeptical, jaded, and fully immersed in what seems like the absurdity in life? What, in the midst of all this, still seems to be “sacred,” as the one thing worth living for?
To be specific: it’s the Romantic solution of intimate relationships.
Maybe it’s the romantic-personal-sexual-relationship love that leads to monogamous, get-married-and-have-kids-and-change-the-poopy-diapers kind. Or maybe it’s the live-together-for-a-few-years, break up and start over again kind. Whatever form it takes eventually, The Answer for now is the same.
Or, in DeadPool’s poetic words: “Love is a beautiful thing. When you find it, the whole world tastes like daffodil daydream.” And without it: “…the whole world tastes like Mama June after hot yoga.”
This is love as “IT”.
It’s the religion of Relationism. Romance and sex as the answer to The Big Questions.
And there’s a piece of truth here. When “your crazy matches my crazy,” when two puzzle pieces that fit together and form a bigger picture, it can be a beautiful thing.
For a while.
There seem to be many different escapes from the human condition. A lot of them seem great at first.
But then, some of them turn out to lead us right back where we started. What seemed like an escape, sometimes, turns out not to be one at all.
Sometimes relationships – even good ones – wind up in us landing in The Typical Cycle of intimate relationships.
To be fair, Wade never really gets the chance.
Life does what it does. In Wade’s story, instead of finding out whether he and Vanessa would survive the trials of PTA meetings and Little League, he winds up going through a classic death-rebirth experience at the hands of cancer, and modernism in the form of Francis, the evil scientist guy.
And death-rebirth experiences (or even the good old-fashioned plain birth experiences) aren’t quite the frolic through the daisies that folks seem to make it out to be.
Yes, Wade emerges from this death-rebirth experience with superpowers. But they come at a cost. That cost is, in part, a face that’s “the stuff of nightmares.” It’s enough to keep him away from Vanessa for nearly two whole acts of the movie.
He eventually finds his way back to Vanessa, of course, through the course of DeadPool I, and love lives on. The first DeadPool, after all, was a “love story.” Or so says our unreliable narrator.
But let’s freeze frame again.
At the end of the first DeadPool, Wade Wilson is keeping nihilism at bay through Relationism.
His answer to The Problem of Life and Death was romantic love.
Like we’ve talked about before, modern life often fails to prepare us for real life, and often leaves us unarmed and unprepared, fighting existential monsters with plastic sporks.
Wade fought those existential monsters with the only tool he thought he had: his love for Vanessa.
So if there’s one defense that keeps the Abyss at bay, what happens when that defense gets ripped away?
That’s exactly the question that gets asked in DeadPool 2.
They really aimed for the jugular.
Spoiler alert: Wade’s relationship with Vanessa comes to a hard end. They go there. That’s good drama.
This points, by the way, toward one societal nozzle that no small amount of the jaded, skeptical cynicism might be gushing from these days.
If someone’s answer to the problem of the meaning of life and death is romantic love, then for practical purposes, that relationship is their religion.
“Religion,” as we’re defining it here, is what you see as worth giving your life to. In slightly different words, it’s whatever your answer is to the Existential Riddles life throws at us.
And these questions aren’t like what they teach in grade school nowadays.
Not every answer is right.
Some answers can have you looking for love in all the wrong places. Money, fame, politics, for example, as The Answer to life’s problems make for lousy religions. A lousy religion has us looking for something of infinite value in the finite. And this even applies to romantic relationships, because people, for example – as beautiful as they are, and as much as we might love them – are mortal.
And this is where the existential rubber meets the hard pavement. And where hollow, inoffensive, feel-good corporate marketing department-driven fluff answers to Life splatter like a bad guy hitting a road sign. In other words, the superficial, sanitized, PG-rated view of life get just exposed as inadequate, amateurish, and childish.
When your sole answer to the meaning of life is a relationship, and that relationship ends, what do you do then?
So, what was DeadPool’s answer?
At this point, Wade hit rock-bottom.
Vanessa was his bridge over the Abyss.
And then Vanessa was gone.
So Wade then, as you might expect, went into the Abyss.
At this point, philosophy can come into the picture.
Quick aside: philosophy, at this stage of the game, isn’t hyperintellectual thumb-sucking for folks with too much time on their hands, as if often seems to be for folks on campuses. It’s not spending time asking pointless questions with no answers for no apparent reason and to no apparent benefit. It’s not a contest to see who can say the most things nobody understands while looking superior and snubbing everyone else for not “getting it.” (That’s reserved for the art world.)
At this state, philosophy is a drowning man reaching for a rope.
Novalis described it as “homesickness.”
But Camus is at least one guy who really understood this well, and was actually able to communicate it.
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
He continues, very eloquently ripping his cohorts well-deserved new ones:
“I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life. In a certain sense, he did right. That truth was not worth the stake. Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.”
Well-said, Albert. Thank you.
So life put this “most urgent of questions” to DeadPool.
And after losing Vanessa, and unsurprisingly in today’s times, he didn’t have a good answer.
So, he “took a cat-nap on 1,200 gallons of high-test fuel,” lit a match, and threw it in.
Of course, that particular solution didn’t work.
As it never seems to. (Bill Murray tried it as well in Groundhog Day, with the same result. There seems to be a theme there: it just doesn’t work. That seems to be a lesson for the rest of us, especially us mortal folks: that it’s not worth trying.)
So again: we have to answer the existential riddles life throws at us.
We have to answer. There’s no way not to.
DeadPool put all his existential chips into one basket, and then lost that basket.
He tried giving up the whole game altogether – like quitting school to avoid a test – but that didn’t work.
So then: what was his new answer?
This takes us into territory where we never expected DeadPool to go.
Here’s where DeadPool crosses over into spirituality.
But hang on. Wait a minute.
DeadPool and spirituality seem to go together like Zen gardens and monster trucks. It seems that if there was ever any spiritual bone in DeadPool’s entire body, it would have been broken repeatedly, and not healed.
But let’s take a close look at the events of DeadPool 2.
After losing Vanessa, DeadPool tried the way to heaven by way of massive explosion.
It didn’t work.
But he did meet Vanessa. In fact, he had several visions of Vanessa in an after-death state. Once then, and again after his fight with Cable and hitting rock-bottom (that is, falling down a cliff and smashing his head into a rock, and then falling into the bottom of a lake.) These became his moments of clarity – meditation by way of fatal injuries – where he was show how he’d been going wrong, and what he needs to do different from here forward.
The existence of an afterlife isn’t necessarily identical to the central idea of spirituality.
But a key ingredient of a lot of the soft nihilism, cynicism, skepticism and so on is an assumption that we live and die, and that’s it. Game over. After some time here, the thinking goes, it all goes quiet and dusty. End of story.
But a different story is an idea that somehow, in some way we might not entirely understand, we might survive death. And even more, that we’re reunited with those we love after death. And for some reason that isn’t explained, someone who has crossed over to the other side might encourage those of us on this side to “get your heart in the right place.”
That’s exactly what happens to DeadPool.
Whether the above is a literal and accurate description of things, or a kind of shorthand version that simplifies it down to something we can understand more easily, the point is still this: there’s something much bigger going on.
And this turn of events sticks a crowbar right up the crack of nihilism, and breaks it apart.
If anything even remotely close to the above scenario actually takes place, then nihilism as a perspective on life – or even postmodern soft nihilism, or even jaded skepticism, cynicism and absurdism – basically disintegrates. It’s revealed to be wholly inaccurate and inadequate – a mistaken view of life, based on confusion. And once that confusion clears up, it evaporates. And what’s left is something much better.
We also aren’t claiming that if the Gospel of DeadPool says this, it must be true.
So then, what are we saying here?
We don’t know what happens after death. But we do know what makes for good stories that touch people, and what doesn’t.
For example: there’s a story of a jaded, cynical, skeptical guy who loses everything he loves in life. The story could end there.
But that would be an art-house indie flick that nobody would see, that would lose money, and that would eventually be forgotten.
DeadPool didn’t take that route. For what might be mysterious reasons, it found a way to make the story continue, and work in a way that became emotionally fulfilling out here in the real world.
How did it take this turn?
It did this by plot-twisting into good old-fashioned “meaning” and “love” and “hope” and all that cornball stuff DeadPool usually tries to make fun of. It’s a few dozen layers down, but it’s still down there.
Because when you really dig into life philosophies – somewhat like the way DeadPool interrogates bad guys when he’s trying to find their boss – it eventually comes out that the ultrahip, too-cool-for-school postmodern nihilism thing is kind of a sham. It can have its merits in some situations (like modern life), and it can be fun sometimes. But when things get hot and shaky, hollow answers crumble, sooner or later, and more often than not, the classic, tried-and-true, intuitive approaches are left standing.
This becomes explicit in DeadPool 2.
DeadPool says, after Vanessa’s nudging from Beyond, “my heart’s not in the right place.”
Soon after, he literally says “I need to become selfless.”
Somewhere in there, his flirtation with nihilism has ended.
He’s motivated not by cynicism and jaded skepticism, but by love. His entire meaning and goal is still to reunite with the woman he loves.
To do this, he has to change. Vanessa becomes a kind of mentor. He has to act in the world; he now has a mission. He adopts the kid with the splash of diabetes, and tries to make up for his past mistakes, like making fun of the poor kid’s “are you my mother?” fixation. He winds up realizing he went too far. And he even winds up helping Cable and becoming a better friend to Colossus.
In the beginning, DeadPool was pretty explicit about not being a hero. “I may be super, but I am no, hero.” And he meant it: one of his final acts is gunning down Francis, despite Colossus urging him to show mercy. It’s a deliberate rebellion against the kind of heroism we’re used to.
But at the end of DeadPool II, he literally gives his life for someone else. He voluntarily sacrifices himself to help the kid with the splash of diabetes. He willingly goes through a death. And then a rebirth.
He goes from being selfish to selfless.
Classic, traditional hero story.
So, after all this: what, then, is the philosophy of DeadPool?
The trail started with soft nihilism as the outer wrapping.
Then it became several thick layers of hard postmodern nihilism, complete with no small amounts of skepticism, cynicism, and absurdism.
But if you kept pushing all the way through to the core, it seemed to land somewhere in the realm of – well, some kind of spirituality.
Granted, it’s not necessarily the kind of stuff you’re likely to hear under the steeples on Sunday mornings. It doesn’t get much air time in conventional religion, or the road to heaven by way of boredom. It's not churchy; it's "spiritual-not-religious," and well-disguised.
The disguise is that he pretends everything's a joke.
That’s why we had to dig. The real stuff is under the surface.
On the surface: make fun of everything, take nothing seriously, be superficial, just be happy and most importantly, do what you want. It’s the typical mainstream postmodern mindset. It’s not unpopular these days. “Surface is the important part. What really matters is what’s on the outside.”
But it barely takes a poke to reveal that it's not as hollow as it pretends to be. A few layers down, it’s pure, classical Aristotle. And that does matter, to the tunes of billions of dollars, and more. It’s good old-fashioned three-act structure, the hero acting selflessly to overcome obstacles, it’s good verses evil.
DeadPool even admits it explicitly at one point. In DP2, he shoots a child molester, just a few moments after Russell accuses him. Colossus lectures DeadPool that he isn’t a one-man judge, jury, executioner. But DeadPool say, in so many words, “I do the right thing, even when it isn’t easy.”
So he confessed it: he does the right thing.
So, he isn’t what he pretends to be.
He pretends to be all postmodern nihilist. But underneath, the backbone is classical.
This new style of classical, though, is also new and different. There’s a different attitude, and culture, and method. It’s not about blind faith. It’s something closer to apophatic mysticism. It’s finding the Real by backing away from everything that’s phony. As Richard Rose described, it’s searching for Truth by backing away from Untruth. Hinduism would describe it as “neti neti,” or “neither this, nor that.” It’s not moving closer to what you think it is; it’s backing away from the bull. It’s the way of the skeptic. It’s less of Mama June after hot yoga, more of something like Jnana Yoga.
Of course, for DeadPool, it was the way of wisdom by way of the Abyss. He went through the Abyss, and beyond. It’s a route that looked nihilism straight in the eye, penetrated to its core, found the antidote that rendered it harmless, and came out the other side.
It’s not necessarily a route all the rest of us can or should necessarily take. But it is one we can probably learn from. We don’t have a thousand lives to spare, but if we learn from his story, we might not need them.
So, what can we take away from all this?
What can we get out of this intense, overly-long philosophical cavity search of a popcorn-munching superhero flick?
Maybe a nudge that we should work to Know Thyself with maximum effort.
Maybe it’s a handy tip that you can use seltzer water and lemon to get bloodstains out of clothes. (Either that, or just wear red clothes.)
Maybe we can come away with the idea that even a story with as much nihilism as possible, for it to work in a way that resonates, still has to follow a classic death/rebirth, selfish-to-selfless, antihero to classic hero story. Which might mean it’s worth doing a little spring cleaning on the insides to get rid of all the soft nihilism that’s crept in as well.
And then there’s asking why nihilism makes for such dissatisfying stories. It seems to have something hard-wired into human nature.
But all of this can lead us in our own quest.
Maybe, somewhere in here, we can use all this to improve our answers to The Big Questions of life. It might not be the easy route. DeadPool, after all, endured torture, dying multiple times, enough broken bones to fill a landfill, and turning from the World’s Sexiest Man to looking like a testicle with teeth.
So, it’s not easy.
But if we hang in there, it might help shape us into something selfless. Or maybe even heroic. Despite our best efforts to avoid it.
There are times when DeadPool turns to the camera and makes a joke. He talks directly to us, the audience. He breaks the fourth wall.
He’s a character in a story who is aware that he’s a guy in a story.
If we’re all characters in a story – if all of life is a stage, and we’re merely the players – then maybe we can break our own fourth wall, turn toward whatever camera is pointed at us, and take a look.
And maybe it’ll get a few laughs.