Superheroes aren't allowed to be fat. With their bulging biceps and six packs or huge breasts and tiny waists, superheroes represent an American obsession with the “right” body, an obsession that has created a $60 billion weight loss industry and has seen at least 30 million people in the U.S. struggle with eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The predominant physique of superheroes is a reflection of our own harmful erasure of the diversity of bodies that can and should exist in any healthy society.
When fat characters do exist in comic books and their adaptations, they are often fat villains who are disgusting or gluttonous—tired tropes that belittle and vilify fat people. Even Kingpin, who is arguably one of the most devious and destructive human villains in the Marvel universe, is depicted sweating, spitting, and generally “fatting” around in the comics. To be fair, he’s also frequently depicted throwing haymakers hard enough to rattle the bones of his enemies, so it’s not all bad. Yet still, stereotypical villainous “fatties” dominate the pages of comic books.
But maybe things are changing. Valiant’s Faith, a fat telekinetic superhero, has been relaunched as the body positive hero she was always meant to be. Recovery.org, a site dedicated to helping people struggling with addiction or behavioral disorders, launched a campaign called “Reverse Photoshopping Superheroes” geared at depicting superheroes with average body sizes. And Deadpool 2 is joining the body positivity party with a new hero.
Russell Collins, aka Firefist, is not your typical superhero. He’s a teenager of Māori descent; in other words, he’s a person of color and isn’t from the US. Other than almost every character in Black Panther, we haven’t seen very much representation in superhero films outside of the US or outside of whiteness. Add to that fact that he’s fat and you’ve got one exceptional hero: a very pissed off super-powered, fat, teenage, immigrant person of color in a society that is literally not built for him.
When the X-Men first meet Russell, the police have surrounded him and he threatens to blow up his school. The authorities want to lock the kid up, the school wants him back to continue his “studies,” and the X-Men want to deescalate the whole situation. Deadpool has joined the team as a trainee and reaches out to Russell to make a connection. Hey, they’re both angry mutants, so why wouldn’t it work?
When Deadpool finds that Russell hasn’t been tutored, but rather tortured, he decides to clean house by shooting one of the school officials in the head. This results in both Russell and Deadpool being arrested and fitted with dampening collars that neutralize their mutant powers. While imprisoned, Russell says he dreamed of being a superhero before he realized that there were no plus-sized heroes. “The industry discriminates,” he tells Deadpool. It’s a minor interaction, and written as something of a joke line, but it says so much.
Being fat isn’t the main thrust of Russell’s narrative. Getting revenge on the man responsible for hurting him is. However, just showing a fat character on screen blowing things up with his incredible abilities, engaging in physical humor (like the scene where he mimes pulling himself away from a conversation with an imaginary rope), and cursing up a storm is truly revolutionary. Russell knows he’s fat and he doesn’t care—it’s not going to stop him from becoming the vengeful powerhouse he is determined to become.
Of course, Deadpool’s mission is to turn Russell off his path of vengeance and to provide the kid with the family neither of them have ever had. It’s all terribly sweet, especially for a Deadpool film.
However, Deadpool 2 isn't without issues when it comes to fatness. Deadpool makes at least two references to Russell getting diabetes—the implication being that he's fat, so obviously he must have diabetes. Once again we hear a tired stereotype repeated, one that tries to make the connection that fat people are unhealthy and gross, so it’s their own fault if they have a disease. It’s a bummer to see Russell's body positivity undermined by Deadpool’s (very believable) fat shaming.
As a fat person, I lit up when I saw Russell on screen. He was angry, he was powerful, he was fat. For the first time, I saw a part of myself that I’ve been told is gross and unacceptable reflected in the story of a superhero. As Julian Dennison, the actor who portrays Russell, so perfectly puts it, “For me, playing a chubby or fat superhero was so special because I would go and watch these movies with my friends and would never see anyone like me. I am excited to be that for other kids who look like me.”