The Merc With a Mouth And Genre Indexicality

By  · Published on February 16th, 2016

This weekend, like most of you, I popped into a local theater to catch Deadpool. And while I can’t speak for my critical brethren – nothing darkens the mind faster than an average movie that blows up at the box office – I found it to be a pretty fun little romp through the superhero genre. I’ll admit that I’ve grown a little tired of the various superhero properties Hollywood has been spitting out; they’re solid but mostly unmemorable, and Deadpool, for better or for worse, serves as something of a breath of fresh air from the various comic book nonsense we’ve been subjected to (of course, feel free to check back in once they’re all rated R and making Brecht roll through the fourth wall of his coffin).

Shockingly, though, Deadpool was just barely the most self-reflexive genre rip-off I saw in theaters last weekend. On Saturday, I went to an ’80s movie marathon at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City and watched Lewis Teague’s Alligator for the first time. It’s a fine film, a fun little Jaws parody with an appropriate sense of self-worth, and even manages to make the titular alligator seem more impressive than Spielberg’s half-broken mechanical shark. The part that really stuck with me, though, is Robert Forster’s hairline. By 1980, Forster was already starting to go bald, which, hey, it happens, and it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Rather than wear a wig or avoid the elephant in the room, however, the movie tackles Forster’s receding hairline head-on. Forster’s first scene takes place in a local pet shop, where his detective character is buying a new dog; after staring at Forster’s hairline for a moment, the owner tries to sympathize. “I know just what you’re going through,” he says. “The patch on the back, the thinning in the front, you know what I mean? Same thing!”

This is the first of at least four references to Forster’s hairline in the film, the clear champion of them all being when an exasperated Forster finally tells his new lover, who had been gently caressing his bald spot, “Look, I’m fighting male-pattern baldness, I’m a little sensitive on the subject and I hope you don’t mention it again.” Every joke at Forster’s expense sparked a new round of laughter with the theater crowd and, for me at least, a new degree of respect for the actor. They certainly could have hidden it. At that point, Forster would only have been recognizable to most audiences as the robust and full-headed lead from ’70s television shows like Banyon and Nakia, so slapping a hairpiece on the actor wouldn’t have caused a single viewer to bat an eye. Instead, he chose to let the thinning hairline become a part of the character. In a 2011 “Random Roles” interview for the AV Club, Forster describes the jokes as his own decision, a way to add a humanizing touch to an otherwise formulaic film. “Because, you know, it was a genre movie,” he said. “It was a spoof of Jaws, basically.”

It’s this last part that is key. Robert Forster’s Alligator is a spoof of Jaws; Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool is a spoof of, well, everything, I suppose, but most pointedly a spoof of the other Marvel movies in circulation. Since these films were made only as a response to bigger and more expensive blockbusters, their entire existence can only really be viewed through a kind of genre indexicality. Deadpool can be a good movie or a bad movie, but it will always be a movie whose position is in relation to bigger movies. The same goes for Alligator. It might be able to stand on its own merits – it absolutely does, I’d watch it again, is it on Amazon? – but its value will never exist completely independent from a movie like Jaws. And once you embrace your own relative positioning, why bother stopping at narrative similarities? Lean into it and let your cast members make a few jokes at their own expense. Forster his hairline, Reynolds his marquee good looks and spotty history of blockbuster film. Both films benefit greatly from their leads’ willingness to get personal and make their own celebrity part of the joke.

I’ve also seen a few people share the sentiment that Deadpool ­is guilty of trying to have it both ways, of mocking things like origin story tropes while also meticulously ticking them off. I’m not sure I hold that as a negative. Sure, for all their self-reflexive bluster, movies like Deadpool and Alligator won’t deviate too far from the path, but this is really part of the appeal, not something to be worried over. The best genre spoofs work as lowbrow jazz standards, where familiar songs are player in unfamiliar ways and the differences tell us more about the singer than the composer. Sometimes I want to hear “My Funny Valentine” sung by Ella Fitzgerald, sometimes by Frank Sinatra, and sometimes – rarely but it happens – -by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. I want to see Robert Forster as the small-town cop or Ryan Reynolds as the mouthy superhero and what they themselves can bring to the role, and a little bit of meta-humor isn’t unwelcome in this context.

And while we might praise movies like Alligator and Deadpool for the jokes they make about bigger and better films, there’s also something charming about a movie that knows its place and is content to make a home there. John Sayles, the screenwriter for Alligator, is no stranger to the realm of Jaws spoofs. Alligator isn’t even his first attempt at the formula. Neither is Reynolds, obviously, a stranger to the superhero blockbuster. What makes a movie a cult classic isn’t any combination of actors or ineptitude, but the right relationship to a bigger movie and a degree of earnestness towards the final product. Most cult classics started out as an attempt to recapture some of the audience of a big blockbuster, and the best films in this mode – the ones that really know what they are doing – — use their lower ceiling as an opportunity to have a little bit of fun with the formula. What Deadpool represents, more than anything, is the acknowledgment that superhero movies can have niche audiences, box office success be damned, and hopefully this will mean fewer movies that try and hit everyone all at once. Alligator might have only made a fraction of Jaws’s earnings at the box office, but hey, it’s regarded as one of the best Jaws spoofs, and that alone will give it a long shelf life among creature feature fans. Sometimes being the best spoof is good enough.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)