Josh Brolin’s Cable has a far simpler backstory than Marvel readers remember, but that’s how the character’s creators intended it.
When Deadpool was released in 2016, it was praised for the accuracy in which it depicted its central character. Despite some minor alterations to his origin and the emphasis on a love story – a surprisingly touching one, Deadpool stuck the superhero landing as one of the most accurate portrayals of a comic book character in film. The successful collaboration between star Ryan Reynolds, director Tim Miller, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick set a new standard for comic book accuracy in film, and they did it with an R-rating and a $58 million budget to boot. This accuracy was rewarded with a $783.1 million global take, and the ability to chart a bigger course for the sequel. But new challenges come with bigger expectations and a vaster landscape to play in. There are few courses larger, more tangled, and emblematic of the best and worst of comic book narratives than Cable’s. For a film that’s success hinged on comic book accuracy as well as the simplicity of its narrative, Deadpool painted itself in a corner during the post-credits scene by promising the time traveling mutant from the future, Cable (Josh Brolin), for the sequel. But as this weekend’s release of David Leitch’s Deadpool 2 proves, the corner is where the minds behind the movie work best.
On the page, Cable may seem simple: a soldier from the future with a metal arm and a poor sense of humor. But keep turning those pages, and what’s revealed is a complex backstory involving the X-Men’s leader Cyclops having a child with the clone of Jean Grey, Madelyne Pryor, in the aftermath of the former’s death in Chris Claremont’s famed “Dark Phoenix Saga.” That child, Nathan Summers, was then infected with the techo-organic virus by ancient mutant despot Apocalypse, resulting in the living metal tissue that makes up a good portion of his body. The only way Nathan could be saved was to be sent 2000 years into future where he could possibly be cured. In the future, Nathan Summers grows up as a prophesized messiah who can free the world from the tyranny of Apocalypse. While one of the most powerful mutants in existence, with telepathy to rival Xavier’s, and telekinesis that could extinguish stars, his mutant powers are fully occupied by keeping the techo-organic virus from consuming his body. Thus Nathan Summers is forced to rely on weapons and tech instead of his mutant abilities, essentially becoming a one-man army. The name Cable stems from his father telling him that he’ll be “a cable that unites the past with the present and future” (Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix No. 4, 1994). Realizing it’s the only way he can truly stop Apocalypse and his protege Stryfe (a healthy clone of Cable), he travels back to the past and meets up with the then-present day X-Men and co-opts Xavier’s dream to create his own hard-knock school of soldiers, the X-Force. Yes, it’s exhausting and brilliant in the way that only X-Men comics can be.
It’s clear to see why trying to present this comic accurate version of Cable would be a challenge, particularly when he’s not even the central focus of the movie. The X-Men movies, despite being six films deep, have yet to even reach the point where Cable’s backstory could be seamlessly worked into this world, even with the time travel shenanigans of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) considered. Instead of trying to streamline Cable or drastically alter his character, something that Deadpool knows firsthand about via X-Men Origins: Wolverine(2009), the sequel takes the character back to his roots and presents him as simply as he was presented on the cover of his first appearance in 1990’s The New Mutants No. 87 as “the man called Cable!!” As originally conceived by Rob Liefeld, Cable was a Terminator-esque cyborg from the future, who could upset the status quo of Professor X’s peaceful agenda. After Louise Simonson and Liefeld brought the character to life, it was later decided by other parties at Marvel, including comic superstar Jim Lee who revitalized the X-books in the 90s along with Liefeld, that Cable should be Nathan Summers and thus connect back to that larger narrative. Deadpool 2 goes back to Liefeld’s original vision for Cable, and in this small space the character is able to be interesting on his own rather than as a result of his relation to the wider X-Men cinematic universe.
What Deadpool 2 does so brilliantly is that it manages to present an accurate version of Cable by only presenting what’s necessary for the context of this particular film. This isn’t to say that the film’s version of Cable isn’t Nathan Summers: messiah, but rather that for this film it simply doesn’t matter. He alludes at fighting other tyrants in the past in order to save the future, but his mission in the film is defined by it how it relates to Deadpool’s personal arc, rather than how it relates to an audience seeking to piece together canon. While so many superhero films are focused on planting what comes next, Cable isn’t defined by what we know from his comic book narrative, but rather by Brolin’s ability to create an empathetic asshole who is able to find hope in the past. There’s a sense of physical fatigue in Brolin’s every movement, giving us a sense of Cable’s never-ending mission. This unending war Brolin imbues the character with also creates subtle dimensions in how he’s sees the people around him, tragically damned and cartoonish projections of beings whose status in reality could change in an instant. Brolin’s Cable is the equivalent of Bob Hoskins’ Eddie Valiant from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), forced to find substance in a world he’s dismissed as fiction beyond his personal desires.
When it comes to Cable, Deadpool 2 manages to do more with less by delivering only the comic-book accuracy that’s needed and holding back the rest. There’s plenty of room left to go with Cable’s character in the future, and there’s little doubt that the twisting avenues of his backstory will eventually be explored on film. But by opting not to try to fit decades of narratives and retcons into a character introduction, Deadpool 2’s Cable showcases that increasingly complex comic book films can still find precision in simplicity.