Deadpool 2 and Solo: A Star Wars Story spoilers below.
Last month saw the release of two major franchise blockbusters for two very distinct cinematic universes: Deadpool 2 over in the Fox/Marvel X-Men corner of the world, and Solo, the latest entry in the Star Wars juggernaut. On paper, they couldn't seem like more distinct films--a gritty, ultra violent superhero comedy versus a family friendly sci-fi action adventure. But beneath the tough outer shells of their genre conventions, they share one troubling similarity: They both rely on one of the most boring tropes in Hollywood.
Here's the problem: All the hilarious, heroic antics in the worlds of both Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) in their respective films are spurred on by a laundry list of dead or in-peril girlfriends and wives. In Deadpool 2, we have Vanessa's (Morena Baccarin) murder and the death of Cable's (Josh Brolin) wife and daughter. In Solo, it was the death of Val (Thandie Newton) to motivate the "one last job" mindset of Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and the left-to-the-wolves status of Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke) to give Han his forward momentum. In both movies, female characters are killed or shoved off-screen for the sake of male characters' stories. All other problems aside, it makes for some of the most boring and overused narrative beats in pop culture.
It's not just that Solo and Deadpool 2 utilized the trope almost back-to-back--that's just unfortunate timing for them. Murdering or otherwise shelving female characters to catalyze a male character into action has become so common in fiction that there's actually a shorthand for it. As far back as the '90s, the term "fridging" has been used to describe the trope in a movement started by comic book writer Gail Simone. She was inspired by a specific incident in DC Comics' Green Lantern #54 where new hero Kyle Rayner is shocked into committing to being a superhero in earnest when he finds his then girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, has been brutally murdered and literally stuffed into a refrigerator.
The story prompted Simone and others to begin compiling a list of similar instances they called "women in refrigerators"--female characters being brutalized, murdered, or otherwise removed from the story to motivate male heroism. They found a troubling (and incredibly easy to spot) pattern.
Now, as anyone will tell you, tropes become tropes for a reason. Loved ones in danger is a powerful motivator, and it's one that has proven to work time and time again. The problem is that it's so common, we can have two major blockbusters in the same month recycle it without missing a beat. It's become a crutch for big name action heroes on any side of the spectrum, from lovable rogues like Han Solo to wisecracking anti-heroes like Wade Wilson, and even side characters like Cable and Tobias Beckett. And it keeps happening over, and over, and over again.
To borrow a line from Deadpool himself: It's just lazy writing.
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The issue gets even more stark when you consider the sheer volume of major franchise films cranked out these days, and the level of self awareness they have to maintain to keep from instantaneously fading into the background. With shared universe extravaganzas pouring out of Hollywood, the pressure for each story to be unique, memorable, and ample set-up for sequels has never been higher. But that sustainability won't come if each new film just copies the same tired tropes.
Worse yet, it seems impossible for either film to not have some surface level knowledge that they were taking a nosedive into the cliche. As Deadpool 2's opening credits roll immediately after Vanessa's murder, the fourth-wall breaking text displays rejoiners like "Can you believe they just did that?" and "Did that just happen?"
It did, and we absolutely can--namely because we've seen it happen a million times before. Throw a dart at any male superhero's history and you'd be hard pressed not to find this exact story repeated--maybe multiple times over. In fact, it happens in X-Men: Origins: Wolverine, Deadpool's own favorite punchline, with the murder of Logan's girlfriend Kayla.
It's a two-for-the-price-of-one deal as Cable, too, is allowed to name drop his daughter, but his wife remains simply an ambiguous concept without so much as a name, a grisly reminder of just why he must press forward, join up with the X-Force, and generally look like an extremely cool cyborg superhero for the duration of the movie. It's more of the same in a franchise that advertises itself as the antidote for all those tired, conventional superhero stories.
Solo seems to care even less about its overt trope. It literally maneuvers Beckett's entire arc to center around the fact that he lost his woman, who, prior to her death, was given only enough space on screen to establish herself as Beckett's soulmate. In her generous ten minutes of screen time, Val is allowed to explain that she and Beckett both get by in the world by not trusting or caring about anyone besides one another. They even have plans to retire together, when Beckett will finally learn to pick up a hobby other than lying and thieving. It would be sweet, touching even, had she lived long enough to do anything other than make room for Han to join the crew.
At the end of the day, there are some questions that must be asked. Was there no other way to tell these stories? Is there no other possible motivator for heroism? Here's hoping the answer is "no" or we might be in for an extremely boring cinematic future--and, in the golden age of the franchise blockbuster, it's really time to start doing better.