What’s Not to Love About Ryan Reynolds’ Theatre of the Absurd?

Pop Culture

What’s Not to Love About Ryan Reynolds’ Theatre of the Absurd?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The theme of this year’s much-discussed Met Gala was Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”, and many celebs were criticised for wearing pretty gowns instead of leaning into the self-referential ludicrousness of camp. But there is one actor who really understands the line between raw and ridiculous, and this week, he’s going by a new name: Detective Pikachu.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu released last Friday and has quickly become the most successful video game movie of all time. Set in a fantastical modern world where trainers have Pokémon as partners, the noir-inspired mystery features a serviceable plot, live-action Pokémon guaranteed to thrill your inner 12-year-old, and a masterstroke in casting in the form of Ryan Reynolds playing the amnesiac, coffee-chugging, New York wisecracking Detective Pikachu. His trainer, Harry Goodman, has gone missing, and Pikachu joins forces with his son Tim (Justice Smith) to find out what happened. Plot twist: Tim is the only one who can understand Pikachu.

In retrospect, the decision to have the Reynolds play Nintendo’s most cuddly and beloved Pokémon is perfection. To see Pikachu, usually confined to an anguished refrain of “Pika, pika!” in a deerstalker, spouting conspiracy theories in Reynolds’ sarcastic tones is a delightful shock to the system, and the electric yellow rodent would no doubt approve.

Ryan Reynolds / Getty Images

Reynolds hasn’t always clicked when he’s tried to go the comic book route. He was panned for the dismal Green Lantern and his first Deadpool cameo in X-Men Origins, but it looks like he was destined to be a superhero — the one we never knew we wanted, until we saw him and realised he’s exactly who we need. Underneath the ironic wit that so endears him to feelings-averse millennials lies a core of sincerity that defines all heroes. Perhaps that’s why his bizarro Pikachu remains the heart of the film, as it has been throughout the traditional Pokémon narrative.

Ryan Reynolds / Getty Images

This ability to skewer a piece of content without disrespecting its essence is signature Reynolds — which is more than can be said for Hollywood. 2019 is flooded with questionable sequels, remakes, and homages (this year will bring back Godzilla, Aladdin, and Fast and Furious, among others), but as Rob Harvilla writes in The Ringer, Reynolds’ whole career has been “crowd-pleasing meta nonsense”. So relevant is Reynolds to today’s pop culture landscape that it’s hard to believe he’s only been big since 2016, when he debuted as Marvel’s foulmouthed, hideously disfigured superhero, Deadpool. Long considered an untouchable property due to its niche recognition and ghoulish, R-rated themes, Deadpool spent 12 years in development hell. Reynolds was cast as the lead from the start.

Before Deadpool, the Canadian actor was primarily known for being a handsome, likeable B-lister, the guy who wasn’t Ryan Gosling. His bland appeal could be slotted anywhere, from an ill-conceived remake of The Amityville Horror and romcoms like The Proposal and Definitely, Maybe, to supporting roles in poorer iterations of the Blade and National Lampoon franchises. Harvilla points out that “by 2012, his celebrity had long outstripped his box-office viability… True stardom seemed out of reach, unless Dad Twitter stardom counts.”

Reynolds allows you those degrees of separation from any kind of emotional truth, creating space to examine it through a filter of farce.

Deadpool was the first movie that really, truly starred Ryan Reynolds. When he went under the black-and-red mask, he wasn’t just reinventing his own chocolate boy persona. He also honed the antidote to the glossy, heavy-duty superhero, seen in the contemporaneous Batman vs Superman and Captain America: Civil War — parodying their invincibility, taking aim at stereotypes and plot holes, making meta-references that echo the viewer’s thoughts (Sample: “You’re probably thinking, ‘Whose balls did I have to fondle to get my very own movie’? I can’t tell you his name, but it rhymes with ‘Polverine.’”)

Little wonder, then, that upon its eventual release, Deadpool shot from cult status to full-fledged cultural phenomenon, smashing box office records and impressing critics to boot. Like Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr, there is no Deadpool without Reynolds and his chronic inability to take himself seriously. The film’s Valentine’s Day release was promoted with kitschy rom-com posters, teasing at the title character’s tragic origins story: About to marry the love of his life, former special operative Wade Wilson is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He goes in for an experimental mutant therapy that cures him, but leaves him covered in unsightly scars.

Ryan Reynolds / Getty Images

Wilson’s subsequent revenge mission is the stuff of standard action movies, even if the fourth wall-breaking, self-aware treatment is not. His fear of returning to his fiancée Vanessa, however, is a world away from slicing up bad guys while cracking off-colour jokes. No matter how much Deadpool/Wilson/Reynolds (let’s face it, it’s all one and the same at this point) pokes fun at the trope of a lost romance that drives the hero, there is a poignancy in the insecure lover who watches Vanessa from afar, unable to show her the monster he feels he’s become.

Ryan Reynolds / Getty Images

Not that Deadpool would ever hit you with such a cheesy line. Instead, he’ll dance in the background of a deeply emotional Celine Dion number, pirouetting on stilettos with unmatched grace. You can choose to laugh at the incongruousness of soaring vocals and Yanis Marshall’s stirring choreography. Or you can get swept up in a performance that tries to proclaim its own absurdity, but ends up being a tour de force.

Reynolds allows you those degrees of separation from any kind of emotional truth, creating space to examine it through a filter of farce. And yet, the reason he gets away with being such an asshole, existing in a perpetual state of poor taste that other actors wouldn’t dare touch, is our assurance that he is actually the nicest guy. When he jokes he would use his wife Blake Lively as a human shield to protect his baby daughter, he means it, just as much as when he waxes lyrical about her to Humans of New York.

Spoiler alert: That’s why the best part of Detective Pikachu comes at the very end, when Reynolds, playing Harry Goodman unwittingly trapped in his partner Pikachu’s body, is finally liberated and face-to-face with his estranged son. A grey, careworn Harry and Tim stand, uncertain, on a precipice in their relationship. Harry instinctively holds back his paternal emotions and lets his son take the leap of faith. It’s a sweet, happy ending, and for a guy who up until now has only been seen as a sardonic Pokémon, it could have been a hard moment to sell. For Reynolds, though, it’s second nature — right after the impulse to crack a mistimed joke about daddy issues.