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What's With All the Wisecracking?

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338571_marvel-2688068_1920.jpgOne of my all-time favorite readings from past editions of Signs of Life in the USA is Andy Medhurst's "Batman, Deviance, and Camp." In that analysis of how the original muscle-man clone of Superman morphed into "Fred MacMurray from My Three Sons" in the wake of Fredric Wertham's notorious accusation in 1955 that Batman and Robin were like "a wish dream of two homosexuals living together," only to be transformed into the Camped Crusader of the 1966 TV series Batman, and then revised once more into the Dark Knight of the 1980s and beyond, Medhurst reveals how cartoon superheroes change with the times, reflecting and mediating the cross currents of cultural history. So as I ponder the rampant success of the second Deadpool film in this emergent franchise, I find myself wondering what this new entrant into the superhero sweepstakes may signify. Surely this is a topic for semiotic exploration.

 

What particularly strikes me here is the difference between the gloomy and humorless Batman of the Miller/Burton/Nolan (et al.) era, and the non-stop wisecracking of Deadpool. It isn't that Deadpool doesn't have a dark backstory of his own, as grim as anything to be found in Bruce Wayne's CV. And, surely, the Deadpool ecosystem is even more violent than the Batworld. No, it's a matter of tone, of attitude, rather than content.

 

Now, if Deadpool were the only currently popular superhero who cracked wise all the time, there really wouldn't be very much to go on here, semiotically speaking. But Deadpool isn't the only wise acre among the men in spandex: various Avengers (especially Thor), along with the latest incarnation of Spiderman, have also taken to joking around in the midst of the most murderous mayhem. If the Dark Knight soared to superstar status on the wings of melancholy, a lot of rising contenders for the super-crown appear to be taking their cue from Comedy Central. Something's going on here. The question is, what?

 

I'm thrown back on what might be called "deductive abduction" here: that is, moving from a general condition to a particular situation as the most likely explanation. The general condition lies in the way that wise-cracking humor has been used in numerous instances in which a movie whose traditional audience would be restricted to children and adolescents (think Shrek) has broken through to generational cross-over status by employing lots of self-reflexive, topically allusive, and winking dialogue to send a message to post-adolescent viewers that no one involved in the film is really taking all this fantasy stuff seriously, and so it's safe, even hip, for grown-up viewers to watch it (of course, this is also part of the formula behind the phenomenal success of The Simpsons). Stop for a moment to think about the profound silliness of the Avengers movies: who (over a certain age) could take this stuff seriously? Well, the wise cracks—which are generally aimed at those who happen to be over a certain age—are there to provide reassurance that it isn't supposed to be taken seriously. Just sit back, be cool, and enjoy.

 

So, given the R-rating of the Deadpool movies, I would deduce that the almost excessive (if not actually excessive) self-reflexive, topically allusive, and winking dialogue to be found in them works to reassure an over-seventeen audience that the whole thing is just a big joke. No one is taking any of this seriously, and so it is perfectly safe to be spotted at the local cineplex watching it. Hey, there's even a postmodern inflection to Deadpool's fourth-wall dissolving monologues: what could be more hip?

 

Since most cultural phenomena are quite over-determined in their significance, I do not mean to preclude any other possible interpretations of the super wiseass phenomenon, but the interpretation I've posted here is one I feel confident of. At any rate, the topic could make for a very lively class discussion and an interesting essay assignment.

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2688068 by pabloengelsused under a CC0 Creative Commons License. 

3 Comments
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Love this exploration. Sends me off to do a bit of background research. Yes for a lively discussion in class--thank you for sharing your ideas!

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Oh, and just want to add that The Dark Knight movie was filmed on the wooded back lot at EUE Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, NC. A North Carolina shout-out from UNC Charlotte (and for UNC Wilmington).

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Thanks, Lane.  And just for a regional encore, my brother-in-law is a retired UNC Wilmington professor, and I've actually visited the area several times.  Great pine forests!

About the Author
Jack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics. At present he is Director of the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review, a task to which he frequently applies the critical thinking insights that cultural semiotics can reveal. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.