Spoilers for Deadpool 2 below.
In 1999, writer Gail Simone coined one of the most enduring phrases of modern pop-culture analysis: “women in refrigerators.” Now a beloved comics writer, Simone was, at the time, just a fan and critic, and she was upset about a recent Green Lantern story line. It had featured GL’s girlfriend being murdered and stuffed into a refrigerator by a supervillain. Simone didn’t like writer Ron Marz’s storytelling decision, but also saw it as part of a larger phenomenon in fiction. She and her supporters felt that, all too often, female characters are killed off solely in order to give a male hero the motivation to get even. Since then, despite greater awareness of this trope, the practice of “fridging” women remains prominent in film, television, and print.
Case in point: this weekend’s Deadpool 2. In its opening minutes, the fourth-wall-breaking title character (Ryan Reynolds) watches as his lady love, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), is killed by a vengeful gangster. The rest of the movie is powered in no small part by DP’s grief over her loss. Later, we learn that time-traveling desperado Cable (Josh Brolin) is similarly motivated, seeking lethal retribution from the person who killed his wife and daughter. Both Deadpool and Cable convey their bereavement in ways that are surprisingly touching, but the fact remains that the plot is fueled by the taking of three female souls, none of whom have much in the way of agency over their fates.
Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who co-wrote the script alongside Ryan Reynolds, admit that they could have been more cognizant about those story decisions. When asked whether they worried about being criticized for fridging Cable’s family and Vanessa, Reese tells Vulture, “I would say no, we didn’t even think about it. And that was maybe our mistake, not to think about it. But it didn’t really even occur to us.” Indeed, they weren’t aware of this genre of criticism. “We didn’t know what fridging was,” Reese says.
It didn’t have to be this way. There was a road not traveled, one with less violence toward women. “In the very first drafts of the script, Vanessa didn’t die,” Reese continues. “She ended up breaking up with Deadpool, and he was trying to earn her back. Then I think at some point somebody just said, ‘Y’know, Deadpool kind of works best when he’s had everything taken away from him, when he suffers.’ So the thought was maybe we can really, really engender great suffering for him by having his line of work be the thing that costs Vanessa her life.”
They felt comfortable with these plot points in no small part because they technically get reversed by the end of the final reel. First, Cable succeeds in averting his dark future and learns that his wife and daughter’s lives have been saved, though he has to stay in the present because his time-travel device doesn’t have any juice left in it. In a mid-credits scene, the device is powered up again and DP ventures through the time stream to right various wrongs, including preventing Vanessa’s death.
“We always had in our back pocket that we could always bring [Vanessa] back if necessary,” says Reese. “So, we ran with that. And maybe that’s a sexist thing. I don’t know. And maybe some women will have an issue with that. I don’t know. I don’t think that that’ll be a large concern, but it didn’t even really occur to us.”
Wernick hopes viewers will understand why they made the call that they did. “I would say, in our defense, the only thing that really is important, the only thing that Deadpool cares about, is Vanessa,” he says. “So if you’re doing a movie where you are trying to get Deadpool at his lowest, to take away everything from Deadpool at the very beginning, the only thing to really take away from him is Vanessa.”
He doesn’t see it as a gendered choice. “I know it wasn’t consciously sexist,” Wernick adds. “It may appear that way as the film progresses and Cable loses his family as well, but again, the desire was to give a motivation to both Cable and to Deadpool, and have it be a parallel motivation that they both lost their family, and they’re both trying to kind of find their way in the world without them.”
Both men take comfort in the fact that they think the movie is, on balance, good to its women. “I also think we definitely paid attention to trying to fill the movie with a diverse group of strong female characters, interesting, different female characters,” says Reese. “Whether it’s Domino, or Negasonic Teenage Warhead — and Vanessa, herself, obviously, is certainly that. So we’ve definitely made a point of not having this just be a testosterone-fueled thing.”