or: a commentary on the philosophy of Piotr Rasputin
Given that Deadpool came out a fair little while ago now, I’m a little bit late to the party on this one. soz lol. But this piece was swimming around my head for a little while and I’ve been struggling to find the right framework for it. Essentially the crux of this article is my inevitable conclusion that labelling Deadpool an anti-hero is a little bit shallow and the movie’s gratuitous and overbearing attempt at having Wade completely disown the hero moniker, while working really well for Wade as a character, comes across as a tone deaf conceit of the film as whole.
I wanted to frame that through discussion of Colossus. Which makes sense, assuming you’ve seen the movie, because Colossus served three purposes throughout the whole film:
- Remind viewers that Deadpool is an X-Men character.
- Be strong and smack bad people.
- Attempt to reconfigure Wade’s moral compass through constant refrain: “Be an X-Men” “X-Men are good” “X-Men do not kill” “Wade you do not need to kill” et al.
So I was really going to get stuck into Piotr and totally break down his morals and philosophy and find that limit to it – because there has to be a limit. That’s just superhero storytelling 101 really. There’s a point where someone deserves to die; the point of difference is where these characters draw the line and when they choose to cross it.
handy tip: that previous sentence is essentially the point of this essay
In the context of Deadpool my argument is actually pretty simple. Despite the film framing Ajax’s death as a symptom of revenge/vengeance (revengeance, even) there’s a really strong case for Ajax deserving to die. Like, beyond being a total prick, he’s taking advantage of disenfranchised and desperate mutants and non-mutants alike to gain fodder in crazy experiments where the end result is mindless canon fodder for wars of various types. Whether his ambivalent apathy is a result of his mutant power or not is irrelevant. He is a bad person who does bad things to lots of people, without remorse or hope for rehabilitation.
And so, down to the wire, when it counts, Wade makes the decision that Piotr cannot: he kills a bad person who unequivocally deserves it.
But I don’t want to blame Piotr for being unable to make that same decision. Beyond being a clever foil to Wade, there’s more to his philosophy than simply not wanting to kill. There’s a strength, and knowing necessity behind Colossus that requires him to be pacifying and gentle. Like, there’s a reason why, in the comics, a madman like Cain Marko can control the powers of the Demon Cytorakk as the avatar known as The Juggernaut but, when given the same powers and role, Colossus absolutely cannot control the power and becomes totally corrupted by the demonic powers.
Simply put: it’s easier to corrupt someone good than someone bad.
It takes a determined amount of strength of will to stay good. Cain is selfish and predisposed to doing bad things. There’s not much for Cytorakk to work with. But with Piotr there are doubts to play with – there’s a determination that can be broken down. There’s something to corrupt.
there’s a reason why, after these Juggernaut stories, and after being corrupted again by the Dark Phoenix, Piotr’s powers stop working
Piotr’s powers are really easy to unpack thematically. The dude literally turns to metal – he’s all about strength and power, sure, but his powers are also predominantly defensive. He’s about protecting people, shielding people – he literally doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. Why would he want anyone to die?
We don’t need to agree with the Colossus who tells Deadpool not to kill Ajax – but we need to understand why he thinks it so important. We need to understand where Piotr positions life and why and how supremely dedicated he is to people. And that’s why I couldn’t write this character assassination of Piotr Rasputin.
But then Daredevil season two hit Netflix and the whole conversation was reignited by the dichotomy between Daredevil and The Punisher.
which is great for me because i always get the words daredevil and deadpool muddled up anyway
Daredevil does a really good job of defining that line between violence and violent murder. That line is, essentially, using guns instead of blunt objects, but like I said at the top of the piece: the line is also a decision. SURE, Foggy tries to fob Frank off as actually insane, but I’m not buying it. Frank makes a decision to murder every time he murders and he chooses his words carefully; he doesn’t just kill people, he has them “put down”. These are people that Frank determines unfit to continue living, and so he removes them from the equation, to stop them from killing people who, in his mind, do not deserve death.
Where Deadpool positions the audience against Ajax, thus making it super easy for us viewers to justify Wade without Wade needing to justify himself, Daredevil is careful not to. Daredevil keeps it muddy and grey and that’s gosh darn perfect storytelling. The conflict between Frank’s vigilantism as executioner and Matt’s brand of violent pacifism is brilliantly handled and it’s all done while at nod point denying that Frank and Matt are the same.
But neither are really condoned. They’re both pretty condemned, actually, and the show is careful to leave the decision of their status to us — “are they heroes? I dunno man, you figure it out”
And that’s what I found primarily frustrating about Deadpool. Wade, constantly, unabashedly, told the audience that he wasn’t a hero. Even in a film where the fourth wall isn’t paper thin, that just rings as really transparent writing. Deadpool wanted to subvert superheroes, it wanted to subvert superhero films, and it wanted to subvert the very idea of heroism — and it wanted to achieve that purely by having Wade swear a lot and kill Ajax at the end.
which was all super great and super fun, but it totally didn’t work.
Because if the line is simply killing then, well, let’s have a look at other superhero movies. And, to be kind, we’ll ignore Man of Steel.
- Antman kills the Yellow Jacket, ostensibly to protect his child daughter, but with plenty of opportunity to simply incapacitate him.
- The Vision kills Ultron totally. Ultron is presented as beyond rehabilitation, and is also a robot, but he was still self aware.
- Pepper Potts kills the weird AIM leader extremis guy whose name I’ve forgotten. She isn’t even a super person.
- The Avengers killed essentially all of the Chitauri.
- The Guardians of the Galaxy obliterated Ronan the Accuser.
- Steve Rogers went to war with the express intention of killing Nazis and ultimately Hitler himself.
And that’s pretty much the point I want to make. Steve Rogers, literally draped in the American flag, is the quintessential hero. Captain America, by design, offers the definition of hero to the rest of the storytelling world. He sets the standard that everyone else has to live up to and he is perfectly willing to kill when it is necessary because, simply, he is born of war.
This isn’t about the morals of you or me. We’re normal people, in a normal world, where mostly we can live by those ideals. Like, it’s pretty easy to find no reason to murder when you’re living in Melbourne, you know what I mean? But in these works of fiction, where there are people who literally have the capacity to destroy worlds, murder is somewhat blunted as a term.
That’s why we need The Punisher on screen. Steve’s great, and he’ll do anything to protect a civilian, but he’ll kill whatever he needs to kill to protect that civilian. His line is really clearly defined, from a soldier’s point of view, and that’s about problematic a message as the world’s premier hero wearing the actual American flag. It can confuse the grey area a little bit. Which is how and why and where Deadpool got it wrong. It was trying to flip the script and play on the other side of grey, in the deep blacks, and in doing so it seemingly forgot that in today’s cinematic landscape even fucking Superman murders. And so we’re left with Colossus – big, beautiful, sweet Colossus – who should be so so right in the world of Deadpool, but instead reads as naive and tone deaf and that does Piotr almost as big a disservice as my original intention of blaming the character for the way the landscape miscommunicates his belief system.
Frank Castle and Matt Murdoch, drowning in their grey areas, help remind us that these points, these discussions, these issues, are not black and white. And, let me tell you, Captain America: Civil War would be a helluva lot more interesting if Steve could sit down and have a chat with the devils of Hell’s Kitchen.