“Deadpool,” libertines and the Christian critic’s dilemma

Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

I love comedies, comic book movies and films that break the fourth wall. You would think “Deadpool” would be right up my alley. Based on a popular Marvel comic (produced by Fox, however, “Deadpool” is not part of the part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), the film stars Ryan Reynolds as a mutant superhero with healing powers — he was part of the same program that created Wolverine — and a motormouth. Deadpool is an anomaly in the world of comics, with his over-the-top violence and absurd humor. He’s aware that he’s a comic book character, often stops to comment on played-out superhero formulas, and has been known to break into song-and-dance routines.

The movie has been getting largely positive reviews and it’s on track to have a massive opening weekend. The trailers are fun; I like Ryan Reynolds’ humor, and I appreciate that the film appears to be tweaking the self-serious world of superhero movies.

But you might notice there’s not a “Deadpool” review on this site, nor will there be. I’ve decided not to see it. And I think the reasons behind my decision shine some light on the tricky business of being a Christian film lover and critic.

In several posts, I’ve referenced my discomfort with the idea that Christians should avoid movies. The church I grew up in for the first 11 or so years of my life was heavily legalistic, to the point where we had parents complain if we played Christian rock music in the van on youth group outings. When my dad did a stint as a deacon, he signed a form saying that no one in our family would drink, dance, listen to rock and roll, or go to a movie theater. My mom had to sneak my siblings and me to the “Care Bears” movie.

Legalism often backfires. The prohibition on movies is probably why I love them so much today. Growing up, they weren’t just diversions; they were dangerous, and going to the cinema was an adventure. Many of my friends went off to ultra-strict Christian colleges, some of which banned them from many of the same things. Many of those friends ended up frustrated with the constant focus on rules and left the faith. Legalism is Christianity robbed of grace. It doesn’t allow people to think for themselves, robs them of the opportunity to practice discernment and crushes the soul. Christianity without grace isn’t Christianity; it’s just another type of slavery.

But there’s a danger of reacting to legalism by becoming libertines (Brett McCracken tackles this in his excellent book “Gray Matters”). I ran into this in my twenties. Living on my own, out from under the thumb of parents and a strict church, I took my liberty and ran with it. It wasn’t just that I realized it was okay to watch R-rated movies and that sometimes films with offensive content could actually have positive messages. I reached a point were, probably reacting to the strictures of Christian subculture, I sought out the most R-rated content I could find and was proud of it because, hey, “all things are permissible,” right? Whatever comedies had the dirtiest jokes and whatever horror movies had the goriest deaths, I devoured them, reaching a point where I pretty much didn’t want to see a movie with a PG or PG-13 because I preferred things with “edge.”

But I was missing the point of Paul’s passage, which actually reads “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.” And while, as a Christian, I had the “right” to view these things, they weren’t doing me any good. I wasn’t focused on the things that were pure, noble and good. I was laughing at wanton violence and the kick I got from most the R-rated comedies was the kick a toddler gets when he knows he’s getting away with something. The defensive posture I’d strike when friends challenged me on my viewing habits put wedges in relationships. And the films with challenging content that were beneficial were too often buried under a flood of films that trafficked in graphic violence, crude language and gratuitous sex. It was easier to watch a vulgar comedy than a probing drama.

Eventually, I learned how to practice discernment. I never learned to do it perfectly, but the very attempt not only helped me grow as a Christian but it also gave me a greater appreciation of film as I searched deeper into films’ messages and intents.

This isn’t always easy, especially before a movie is released. And as a critic, I’m often on the front line, seeing a movie before anyone else knows about the content; it’s actually my job to be the voice urging you to see or avoid something. But with “Deadpool,” the answer seemed apparent. Like last year’s “Fifty Shades of Gray,” the film was selling itself on shock value. It wasn’t “hey, look at this clever twist on superhero movies.” No, all the pre-release hype stemmed from the fact that comic book fans were eager to see an R-rated movie where the hero violently kills villains, drops f-bombs, engages in graphic sex and revels in dirty jokes. I’m not a prude — one of my favorite movies of last year, “Anomalisa,” featured a lengthy and explicit sex scene (between puppets, no less). That scene was essential to the film’s themes of connection and loneliness; with “Deadpool,” I can see the empty calories coming a mile away. I don’t see anything beneficial it will add to the conversation, so I’m choosing to stay away. I don’t judge anyone for seeing it, and maybe I’m wrong, and in the end I’m missing a movie with insight. But I’m willing to take that chance here.

Again, this isn’t a moral screed against “Deadpool”; it’s simply my explanation for why I, personally, am not seeing it. And we’re not always going to agree about what is permissible for a Christian to see. It’s likely I’ll recommend a movie that offends your sensibilities at some point. It’s likely I’ll walk out of a movie wondering why I just sat through it, and my hope is I’ll be honest in my review and urge you to not make the mistake I did. And from time to time, though hopefully not too often, I’ll hastily recommend a movie that I shouldn’t.

In all these moments, we need the one thing that provides hope to both legalists and libertines: grace. Have grace with me when I get on my spiritual high horse or when I screw up. I will try to saturate my reviews in grace and not think I have the final answer. Let’s agree to be imperfect and in need of grace, and to disagree, argue (civilly) and discuss as needed. That’s how I want this conversation to proceed.

But you’re still not getting a “Deadpool” review.

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