It’s unlikely that my sister-in-law will ever see Deadpool. She does not like violence. She’s also just rung the bell after six years of fighting cancer. She’s beaten the disease, but that doesn’t make hearing the “c-word,” much less watching someone else deal with it, very easy to handle any time soon. Meanwhile, a friend has just stepped onto this path after her mother’s recent diagnosis. Another sister-in-law works in an oncology ward. My former boss’s cancer returned after more than a decade. My mother just passed away from a disease that was not quite cancer, but it was close enough, eating her away from the inside. Cancer is a vicious disease that has touched far too many of our lives. No one is immune. Cancer is no joke. Yet, in a movie that is one inappropriate joke after another, I was struck by how prominent Deadpool’s cancer battle was to both the storyline and the characters themselves and how seriously it was taken.
Movies about the struggle with cancer are not new; however, they often are geared toward a particular audience. Romantic movies with bittersweet endings. You expect to walk out of Sweet November with tears in your eyes, and while Seth Rogen might make you laugh in the dramatic comedy 50/50, you know that Joseph Gordon Levitt’s struggle is no laughing matter. But again, these are films that will only be seen by a comparatively small audience. Deadpool, on the other hand, is reaching millions across the world thanks to a marketing campaign that has lured in not only the fans of the character or fans of comics books or fans of super hero movies. Deadpool is reaching everyone. And so is its message about cancer.
When I saw the trailer that revealed cancer to be the motivation in Deadpool’s mercenary career, I assumed it would be just that: a brief road sign on the character’s journey to mutant status. But, while people complain that most of the good jokes were already played out in the trailer, this aspect was not. When Wade Wilson and his girlfriend Vanessa Carlysle receive his diagnosis of terminal cancer that has invaded most of his vital organs, there are no jokes. Wade’s world becomes hyper focused on Vanessa and the realization that he will not only lose her, but that this disease will be just as painful for her as it is for him. In the scene at the doctor’s office, Vanessa leans in and starts asking all the necessary questions, planning the next steps. She is determined to fight for and with Wade, but he is coping in his own way—or not quite coping at all.
Vanessa Carlysle: I love you, Wade Wilson. We can fight this.
Wade Wilson: You’re right. Cancer’s only in my liver, lungs, prostate, and brain. All things I can live without.
Later, we see him with his friend Weasel. There, the jokes have returned, but with the underlying knowledge that this is the only way they know how to cope with the situation. They joke about him finally winning the dead pool bet on his life, though not in the way either of them expected him to go. Sometimes, when faced with a terminal illness, all you can do is laugh. Or cry, which is what we see later still with Wade’s silent tears during the night. Shortly thereafter, he makes his decision to find Department K for treatment. Why? Not because he’s scared to die. But because he doesn’t want to see Vanessa hurt by all of this. Only, she is hurt because not only does she believe she has lost him, but his decision, though seemingly selfless, takes away her choice in the matter—and the movie doesn’t let him off the hook, even when they finally meet again.
In fact, the movie never forgets what is at the root of Deadpool’s abilities. I like Deadpool, but have not read many of his comics, so prior to seeing the movie, I asked some fans about the specifics of his mutation and how it relates to the disease. Is his healing factor the result of the cancer? Is the cancer the catalyst? The Marvel Wiki explains that the disease was arrested with the the implantation of Wolverine’s healing factor. Unsurprisingly, the comics seem to teeter back and forth on the canon, but in the film, Ajax, who heads Department K—a group that seems to specifically exploit cancer victims for their own purposes—settles it once and for all: the healing factor mutation that Wade manifests is in constant conflict with the malignant cancer cells that will never stop their invasion on his body. Wade then spends the rest of the film trying to force Ajax to cure him so that he won’t be ugly anymore and can be with Vanessa again, seemingly not realizing that the “cure” may well remove everything preventing the cancer from killing him.
But the Merc with a Mouth isn’t just paying lip service to the cause. The first person to see the movie was Connor McGrath, a young boy who was diagnosed in 2013 with a high risk form of cancer, and since relapsed in May of 2015. Deadpool actor Ryan Reynolds posted a picture of himself and McGrath on his Facebook page, urging others to help with McGrath’s treatments.
“Cancer is a shit show, like Yakov Smirnoff opening for Spin Doctors at the Iowa State Fair kind of shit show.”
“He’s my friend. I know lots of celebrities jump up and down touting a cause — and maybe I’m no different. But holy frozen shit-slivers, I love this kid. He’s the GREATEST. And he needs your help to get well. I’ve donated to help Connor and I hope you will too.”
But it doesn’t end there. In January, Deadpool encouraged men and women to #TouchYourselfTonight with videos promoting testicular and breast cancer awareness and encouraging people to regularly check for signs of the disease.
Laughter is the best medicine, and if there’s anyone that can make an audience laugh, it’s Deadpool. But despite all the jokes, the movie and marketing have not taken the subject of cancer lightly. So take some advice from Deadpool’s friendly public health message. Go ahead and touch yourself tonight.