Who is this Deadpool? He’s been making appearances in Marvel comics since 1990 and now he’s crawled his way into video games, cartoons, Internet memes and a big budget Hollywood film starring Ryan Reynolds. He goes by the name Wade Wilson, with a past that zig zags all over the place. He’s an unpredictable mercenary, who’s been hired by the government and evil forces as an assassin. What makes him a special soldier are his regenerative healing powers, which he gained by tests done on him through the Weapon X program — they’re derived from Wolverine. What makes him a unique comic book character: his special understanding of his place in the universe… That is, he knows all about the 4th wall and how to break it.
By self-referencing the media he is being portrayed in and speaking directly to his audience, Deadpool is using a theatrical technique that has been around for centuries. He breaks the imaginary 4th wall that separates performers from their audience, by acknowledging that he knows he’s part of a fictional piece. Shakespeare’s Henry V starts with the Chorus:
Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object.
Shakespeare sets the stage for this play literally by calling it an “unworthy scaffold.” He’s stating that in order to do the story proper justice, it needs “a kingdom for a stage” and the cast should be made of “princes to act.” These words are completely outside of the narrative.
Another example is Anton Chekov’s Seagull, which breaks the 4th wall in the middle of the play when Dorn, one of the main characters, gives a brief critique of the play and then jumps back into character to continue on with the story.
Deadpool makes similar references by talking about the limitations of the panels in his comic book or by directly stating which was the last issue number when he encountered a villain.
Can you create something that reaches further into the audience than classic masters like Chekov and current pranksters like Deadpool? See how far you can stretch beyond the 4th wall in this lesson.