||Superheroes are in an interesting position in pop culture in that they demand you take them seriously when actually they could, with a little tweaking, be very silly indeed. The concept of the comedy superhero took a while to really take hold on the imagination, as if the audience were reluctant to admit that the heroic protagonists they grew up with could be pretty daft if you started to examine them even with the slightest rigour, but every so often you would get Daffy Duck dressed up in an appropriate outfit in a cartoon to demonstrate that it was possible to have fun with the idea. Plastic Man was probably the first superhero to make an impact with adventures that were less than serious, and he had his own TV cartoon by and by, though that didn’t make too many waves, but soon enough Britain stepped up with Bananaman from the comic pages of Nutty and later The Dandy - that had its own cartoon series too, voiced by comedy trio The Goodies, and there was also imitation Birdman and Chicken from Krazy comic, a more Batman-influenced spoof.
In the movies, however, aside from the perception of superheroes as light relief for kids in the vein of the Batman television series, Mexican wrestling flicks and the European thread of camp that in a roundabout way James Bond's flippancy ushered in, a whole production built around the concept as essentially satirical started out as the preserve of the counterculture who wanted to see iconic and decidedly non-ironic heroes taken down a peg or two for embodying the same attitudes of American imperialism that they regarded as anathema. Following on from such pop culture appropriating efforts as the inventive 1966 Czech Who Wants to Kill Jessie? and Philip Kaufman's complacent Jon Voight-starring debut Fearless Frank in 1967, the most blatant of those was writer and director William Klein's 1969 creation Mr. Freedom, where a redneck cop doubles as a red, white and blue-clad avenger and enforcer of United States interests across the world. When we first meet him he is shooting up the tenement apartment of an African-American family who have recently seen their neighbourhood descend into riots, as was occurring in the nation thanks to the Civil Rights controversy, but Mr. Freedom doesn't care one jot about that, he wants to preserve the status quo with his notions of what it means to be American, though he appears to be the lackey of higher powers, as seen on his television screen watch which broadcasts directions and pep talks from his boss, Dr. Freedom (Donald Pleasence).
Soon he has left the United States for France where the Red Menace is threatening to take over, according to his master at any rate, and he has a bunch of cheerleaders and imitators there to build up his rallies to a fever pitch. Klein was a very individual filmmaker whose regular mode was extreme scepticism; an American in France he was keen to show up the hypocrisies of his homeland, but he was not bashing it exclusively as his targets were wide ranging. By taking the superhero and exposing him as a pretentious thug who makes claims to be fighting for justice when actually what he really likes is to bash people's heads in and blow them away with weaponry (Mr. Freedom doesn't seem to have any powers, other than impressive strength), a lust for violence that doesn't excuse the destruction he leaves in his wake. Here it was ex-baseball player John Abbey who played the title character, a strapping specimen who certainly looked the part in the variety of ultra-patriotic costumes he was given to wear, not so much a personality as a set of monolithic values dressed up with the exciting trappings of the average comic book.
Delphine Seyrig played his French sidekick Marie-Madeleine in a spangly leotard who is apparently pleased to see him and even nurses him through a crisis of confidence with cornflakes when the world is not listening to the sense spoken by the U.S.A. - according to their leaders. Klein's background in design meant the film was a riot of colour and bizarre imagery, often including actual riots, with Philippe Noiret the Soviet counterpart Moujik Man dressed in an ungainly red foam suit as the chief antagonist, and Red China Man a huge inflatable dragon breathing out smoke, but what do you know? It transpires that the fight for liberation on America's terms is more complicated than Mr Freedom ever realised, to the extent that the entire concept of "freedom" which appeared to be so concrete and solid resembles something less reliable and more nebulous than anyone can get a handle on. Imagine if Superman had a nervous breakdown and you had some idea of what it was like to watch this, which in spite of its throw anything at the wall to see what stuck attitude did manage to land a few well-aimed jabs at the establishment, though what it changed would be up for debate. That said, Beck was obviously a fan since he based his Sexx Laws video around the film, with Jack Black dressed as Mr. Freedom.
Whether Beck was a fan of The Return of Captain Invincible was another question, the 1982 effort did feature songs, one sung by Christopher Lee who played the villain in this superhero parody with Alan Arkin as the protagonist, an alcoholic wreck who used to be a Superman-style hero (wasn't he a little short to convince as that superhero?). It was one of the few outright spoofs of the genre and when you see it you'll understand why, it proves very difficult to sustain the correct tone and frankly director Philippe Mora was all over the place, with not enough laughs and come curious plot twists that may have kept you watching, but didn't necessarily reward your time. In some ways it was similar to the British variation on a superpowered personality that happened along around thirty years later in 2015, SuperBob, which lost the alcoholism but kept the crisis of confidence. This was a sweetnatured story, more interested in romance than saving the world, but did indicate we were still waiting for the definitive recreation of such a character, at least until the Bananaman movie finally got off the ground. In the meantime, there had been The Tick in animated and live action form, the former often inspired and the latter fairly decent, but those were both for television.
The nineteen-sixties Batman television series remained the indelible image of not only a spoof superhero, but a superhero in general until 1978’s Superman: The Movie happened along, and even that had liberal elements of humour to get over the concept of the bloke in the costume righting wrongs to a possibly sceptical audience. Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin had become such a cultural phenomenon that even today they are hard to shift even in a world where The Dark Knight exists, and they too had their own feature film in 1966, ostensibly to publicise the small screen adventures but it was a big hit in its own right and remains a cult favourite thanks to its wacky jokes ("Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!", shark repellent spray, and a host of guest stars playing it for tongue in cheek laughs). When Disney got around to their superheroes in 1981 with Condorman, decades before they took over the Marvel Universe, they hired Michael Crawford to play a bumbling cartoonist who becomes his own creation to fight crime (and Oliver Reed), it flopped while Terence Hill's entry in the European strain Supersnooper was a global hit as he played a cop with incredible, Ernest Borgnine-dumbfounding powers. Meanwhile Turkey continued to release copyright-baiting variations, as with many of these leaving the viewer whether they were actually supposed to be funny at all.
Come the nineties, Hollywood made tentative moves towards embracing the Godlike protagonists, but there were films away from the Batman franchise behemoth that may have been inspired by that character, yet were far less confident of how beneficial he or his ilk would be in their dedication to vigilanteism. Robert Townsend's The Meteor Man found its social conscience pricked by its hero, who uses his powers with self-improving though nonetheless muddled messages after being struck by a magic space rock and taking on cartoonish organised crime to bring his community together. Similarly, Damon Wayans' Blankman had the same worries, only delivered by a hopeless, gadget obsessed loser who grappled with the gangsters for laughs; both fretted over the inner city plight of African Americans, but both were rejected by the wider audience. On a bigger budget, Mystery Men saw Ben Stiller lead a team of deliberately underachieving crusaders in a lavishly realised cityscape. It was funnier, had a genuine respect for the underdog and a novel take on comics creator Bob Burden's surreally sincere sense of humour, yet struggled to find much interest outside of the cult contingent.
Perhaps we needed a big screen version of Powdered Toast Man from segments of The Ren and Stimpy Show, a truly hilarious incarnation of a clueless superbeing, and if there had been, who better to play him than Nicolas Cage? The eccentric star had been a comic books fan for as long as he could recall, and came very close to becoming Superman in a Tim Burton-directed blockbuster, though those plans eventually fell through and we were given the considerably more conventional Brandon Routh in Superman Returns. However, there was an opportunity to watch Cage as in such a role when Marvel instead of DC recruited him to fill the boots of Ghost Rider in 2007; this was unfortunately a deeply average experience, with little of the reasoning for casting him in it when it did not play to his strengths. On the other hand, when Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor were invited in 2011 to reboot the franchise that had never gotten off the ground, fans' ears perked up: could this finally be the adults appropriate incarnation of the character they had always wanted? The answer to that was, well, not exactly, as it was a PG-13 release in America (a 12 in the United Kingdom), so it didn't go over the top with the violence.
That's not to say Spirit of Vengeance didn't go over the top in other ways, as Cage was allowed, nay, encouraged, to let rip with his more idiosyncratic side, with him telling the press he had been performing arcane rituals dressed in skull makeup on the set. Not that it did the movie any good, as it was a resounding flop, bringing the potential for a franchise to a halt once again, either too silly for the serious comic aficionados or too esoteric for the casual moviegoer, after all, it did feature as its hero a leather-clad biker with a blazing skull for a head which looked more like nineteen-seventies van art than a credible lead in a blockbuster. However, there were things this did right: it ditched the dead weight of the love interest of the first movie, and it presented a tone that skirted the outright comedy in a manner that suggested more intentional laughs would be the correct way to go to approach a persona so preposterous. In that way they could break through the absurdity barrier and make it out the other side to actual cool, which is very nearly what Cage did with his antics, be it pulling faces, laughing manically, or swapping his flaming motorbike for a flaming earth mover as this was a great "nearly" film since if the directors had been given carte blanche as in their Crank films, they could have had a success.
But it seemed the planet was not ready for a celebrity actor channelling his more individual strengths into a superhero part, and while there had been cult movies like Super, where Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page teamed up as an extremely grim telling of the masked vigilante yarn that stuck to its guns by depicting the characters as genuinely psychologically disturbed, many preferred the far safer mockery of Kick-Ass, where Aaron-Taylor Johnson teamed up with that man Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz as what was ostensibly a critique of superheroes, but ended up endorsing them fully after an insincere lead-up, it simply added a dose of bad language and stronger violence and left it at that. It was a huge hit, though the sequel which was similarly taking the situation far more at face value than its adherents would care to admit, performed less well, suggesting the bubble had burst on the humorous heroes subgenre before it had a chance to take off and fly. With some holding out a hope for a faithful She-Hulk movie, one of the few truly post-modern comic books to raise a laugh within the confines of fairly conventional material, it appeared as though we would never get the sort of smart and funny persona that an irreverent reading of this burgeoning style of entertainment would provide.
Unless you counted the times animation got there first, most obviously with The Incredibles which took a Fantastic 4-style family of superheroes and subjected them to the Pixar treatment; there are many who believe this surpasses any other attempt to film the actual Fantastic 4, and it certainly had its share of laughs, though there were serious moments as well. In spite of the huge takings at the box office it enjoyed, it mostly triggered more straightforward superhero franchises, with Marvel including jokes but not giving in to any full on Nic Cage foolishness very often. That was until someone suggested a project centred around the anti-hero Deadpool; he had appeared in a movie before, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, part of a largely aborted bid to tell, you guessed it, origin stories of particular X-Men which were apparently adapted into backwards-looking nostalgic efforts in the franchise instead. Certainly nobody was very happy with what they did with Deadpool in that movie, which was presumably the reason they took so long to get around to greenlighting the solo story with that wisecracking ne'erdowell who happens to be on our side purely because, as he points out, there are bad guys who behave worse than he does.
Ryan Reynolds was the actor in the role, it had been his dream to get this right for years, and when it was unleashed the world agreed he was not only better than he had been as the Green Lantern (whose jokes were generally poorer than Deadpool's repartee) but he was an absolute triumph as his capacity for being the biggest smart Alec in the room was tapped for possibly one of the few films to truly use his talents to their best advantage. The results were one of the biggest hits of 2016, with Marvel especially taken off guard at how favourably audiences responded to it, and the industry promptly promised more superhero flicks with adult-oriented content, though how far this gag could be stretched by others was up for debate. Still, we would always have the original, mixing the action scenes (though not as many as planned after a nervous studio cut the budget) with the comedy, but also an unexpected degree of drama, not what was promoted in the advertisements but it was there as Deadpool, or Wade as he was known otherwise, struggled with his girlfriend (Morena Baccarin) and not simply because she was taking him up the arse with a strap-on, either.
The concept was that Deadpool was an ordinary Mr Fixit (as in providing the muscle for various problems people may have rather than a tool belt-sporting handyman) who had found the love of his life with Baccarin when it all went horribly wrong and he fell ill with cancer. Then he was offered a cure which could turn him into one of those Marvel Mutants we hear so much about, which turned out to be an evil scheme that the bad guys were plotting to create Mutants to order - and to be ordered about. So you see, not such a different origin template to what we usually had from Marvel, but as things got more grim for Wade, with his entire body scarred by the process, he had one element to keep him going, and that was more or less the theme: a lot of the time a sense of humour was all you had to hold on to, and in Deadpool's hands (or more appropriately his mouth) that was as much a superpower as anything his new-fangled body could do. Not only that, but it was a superpower easily accessible by non-superpowered folk, and with Reynolds as the constantly cracking wise hero it ended up being more inspirational than Mr. Freedom could be, and more admirable and less goofy than Ghost Rider was in his sequel. There was hope for us all! The day was saved! Depending on your tolerance for crude humour, that was, but you didn't necessarily need to follow Deadpool's lead that closely.