The Dour Resurgence of Cable, Deadpool 2’s Antihero

The gun-toting cyborg, played by Josh Brolin, is a product of the forbidding, over-the-top comic-book storytelling that dominated in the early 1990s.

Josh Brolin as Cable in 'Deadpool 2'

This article contains spoilers for the film Deadpool 2.

“There are five kinds of mutants,” the comic-book character Cable says in New Mutants #99 (1991), one of his earliest appearances. “The mollifiers. The abusers. The used. The hunted. The hidden. I am trying to create a sixth kind. The survivors. I am trying to prepare you all for a very bleak future.” In the world of early-’90s superhero comics, this was what amounted to a cheerful pep talk. Created in his grown-up form by the writer Louise Simonson and the artist Rob Liefeld, Cable was a mascot for the medium’s gritty, techno-punky moment, and he looked the part, sporting a glowing eye, a metal arm, and a face marked with scars.

Decades later, Cable has finally made his first film appearance in Deadpool 2, played by Josh Brolin and sporting the same metal arm, scarred face, and generally downcast attitude. In both the comics and the movie, he’s a warrior from a postapocalyptic future, a member of the super-powered mutant species warning of a horrifying fate for everyone who isn’t as uncompromising as he is. Since the Deadpool film series exists to mock the entire superhero genre, Cable is somewhat of a figure of fun in the movie, constantly belittled by Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) for his steely demeanor. But Cable’s origins in adult-friendly comics unfortunately help illuminate many of the lazy narrative choices throughout Deadpool 2, including the character’s flimsy backstory.

As a comic-book artist, Liefeld was drawn to a particularly masculine aesthetic: His characters were totemic, musclebound creations, all arms and torsos, their faces scored by dark lines to suggest constant internal anguish. In addition to Cable, Liefield created antiheroes like Deadpool, Domino, and Shatterstar—all of whom had their own special weapons, were more cold-blooded than the typical Marvel hero, and were willing to kill when necessary. Of less importance for Liefeld, seemingly, was coming up with interesting motivations for his characters.

As a kid my favorite book up until X-Men was Avengers. What does Captain America have? He has a shield. What does Thor have? He has a hammer. What does Hawkeye have? He has a bow and arrow,” Liefeld said in a 2016 interview, explaining how he conceived of his characters. “That’s why Cable came with weapons. That’s why Deadpool had swords and machine guns and pistols. It’s like, let’s weaponize these dudes. That’s what matters.” Cable’s colossal assortment of hand cannons was much more aggressive than Captain America’s shield. But that arsenal fit the ethos of the early ’90s—when action movies were led by one-dimensional characters who’d shoot first and ask questions later, and were played by stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

At that time, Liefeld was the hottest name in comics, with his titles rocketing up the sales charts. After creating Cable and his super-team, X-Force, Liefeld left Marvel in 1992 to co-found Image Comics with other famed artists like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee. Within a few years, though, his approach had fallen out of favor (a much vaunted 1996 return to writing and drawing Avengers and Captain America at Marvel resulted in low sales and Liefeld’s premature firing). Though he’s worked consistently since, Liefeld has never again reached those uber-popular heights. But the surprise success of 2016’s R-rated Deadpool, which grossed $783 million worldwide on a relatively small (for a superhero movie) $58 million budget, suggested Liefeld’s more violent approach might be ready for a comeback.

Rob Liefeld / Marvel Comics

“I like all my entertainment adult,” Liefeld told Complex when the first Deadpool movie came out. “Once you see the adult stuff, you don’t want to see the kid stuff. I think The CW is made for kids and that’s great, [but] the reason why Walking Dead does six times that number is because it’s more adult … very violent, very gory.” The next year, Fox released Logan, a widely acclaimed, R-rated update of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine character; the upcoming films Venom, Hellboy, Spawn, and X-Force were all announced as R-rated projects with a more graphically bloody edge.

While these new movies aren’t all destined to feature flat protagonists and weak premises, Deadpool 2 is the latest evidence of how the adult label so embraced by Liefeld can easily become a storytelling crutch. The fourth wall–breaking, mile-a-minute-talking Deadpool was the most irreverent of Liefeld’s creations, while Cable played the role of a weary straight man. That dynamic remains in Deadpool 2, with Cable insisting on carrying out his mission—the assassination of a young mutant who he says will grow up to be a murderous tyrant—while the eternally skeptical Deadpool looks to find another way around the problem. And even though Reynolds makes plenty of jokes straight to the camera, Deadpool 2 has a nastiness to it from minute one.

That’s because the film opens with the murder of Deadpool’s girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), whose death spurs Deadpool to go on a mission of revenge. That’s one of the oldest, and lamest, tricks in comic-book storytelling, one so cliched it has its own nickname—“fridging,” which references the grisly manner of Green Lantern’s girlfriend’s death (she was stuffed into a fridge) in a 1994 issue. Frustrated by how often female characters were killed or maimed just to drive a plot forward, the writer Gail Simone started an online list of such incidents that spurred a genuine, ongoing discussion of misogyny in comics (a field that was then, and is still now, mostly dominated by male writers).

Deadpool 2’s writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who co-wrote the film with Reynolds), recently told Vulture in an interview that they were unaware of the term fridging, or of the larger trope. “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,” Reese said. “We didn’t know what fridging was.” Their defense of Vanessa’s death is that “Deadpool kind of works best when he’s had everything taken away from him, when he suffers,” and that Vanessa is the person that matters most to him.

Of course, it’s still a decision that reduces Vanessa to a dimensionless, largely unseen motivating factor for Deadpool. The same goes for Cable’s family, whom viewers never even see in Deadpool 2—the audience is just told that his wife and children died in the horrible future that he’s from, and that he’s here to prevent that from happening. Cable’s actual comic-book backstory is far more complicated than that (the movie, wisely, doesn’t try to delve into it), but a simple mission of brutal vengeance doesn’t give the viewer much to hold onto, either.

Ultimately, Deadpool 2 ends up undoing most of its narrative altogether. Deadpool gets his hands on Cable’s time machine and rewrites every negative aspect of the past, including preventing Vanessa’s death. Whatever personal stakes existed in the film don’t really end up mattering as a result, but with a character like Cable, personal stakes were always intended as secondary. He was more just a walking bad mood, a trigger-happy grump who growled lines like, “If life were a picnic, you’d be a family. Since life is war, you’re soldiers.” In Cable’s world, life is always war, and with multiple Deadpool sequels featuring Cable on the way, his war is far from over.