2016 promises to be the biggest year for superhero movies yet with X-Men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, to name a few of the heavy hitters that will be slugging it out in theaters. However, kicking off the Year of Heroes on February 12 is Deadpool, one of the most anticipated comic book movies of them all. An underdog film five years in the making, it features an anti-hero who is little known to the masses but is one of the most beloved figures among fans of graphic novels, and almost certainly needs to be rated R in order to get the character right. It could also be one of the most important comic book movies on the horizon.
— Ryan Reynolds (@VancityReynolds) March 27, 2015
The story of Deadpool on the big screen starts with the bastardized version of the character that appears in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, an easy contender for worst superhero movie. Played by Ryan Reynolds, the character lacked all of what made Deadpool unique and replaced it with Cyclops’ eyes, no mouth, and retractable Katana blades coming out of his forearms.
But his story thankfully did not end there. A 2010 script from Zombieland writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick was praised by those who read it as actually getting the character, with all his fourth wall breaking and excessive bloody violence, right. First time feature director Tim Miller has been attached since 2011, and Ryan Reynolds has steadfastly remained involved, even as the light from the former A-lister’s lantern (sorry, I had to) continues to dim. After three years of trying and failing, Deadpool seemed lost forever in development hell until test footage was shown at 2014’s ComicCon, quickly made its way online, and drew so much acclaim that Fox gave the film the green light.
These days, when the schedule for every superhero movie is pre-determined by a studio years in advance to fit neatly into an overarching story, you legitimately wonder how much freedom directors have to operate and it’s rare to see a passion project actually break through. Deadpool seemed to have sidestepped that particular conundrum. Then, it was announced to be part of X-Men interconnected universe. And we all know what happens when a stand-alone superhero passion project becomes part of the machine. Positive thoughts for now.
If done properly, Deadpool has the potential to give a much needed creative boost to the superhero genre. Despite their seemingly endless popularity, superhero movies are falling into something of a rut. Regardless of what happens in the first two acts, at the end the hero(es) will face off against some super-powerful godlike being or a guy in a nigh unstoppable mechanized suit. After a massive, overlong act three action spectacle, they will defeat him by some deus ex machina ending. The better superhero movies (*cough* Guardians of the Galaxy *cough*) realize that how the bad guy is defeated doesn’t matter as long as the audience likes getting to that point. But overall, the formula is pretty set, which can make the tension of the end of the world feel less…tense.
(Of note: This is part of the reason Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga is so heralded. None of Batman’s villains were superhumanly powerful, and they challenged Batman’s intelligence and moral compass more than his physical prowess. Even his greatest physical threat, Bane, was just a remarkably strong human on fantastic painkillers.)
But Deadpool has the potential to be a different style of superhero movie. In the same way that the 2008 twofer of Iron Man and The Dark Knight essentially saved the genre (by showing that the protagonist can be legitimately fun and by showing that these films can be something more than pure action spectacle), Deadpool can also give it a new face – something completely silly, ridiculous, and sharply satirical. Because Deadpool the character exists partially outside the frame of his own story, he’s in a unique position to subvert the tropes we’ve lived with for the past 15 years. Accomplishing this while operating within a major studio interconnected universe would go a long way towards expanding the types of superhero movies we get regularly. (Gabriel talked about this some in his recent article on Spider-Man. Captain America: The Winter Soldier also deserves credit for already showing us turning a superhero movie into a spy thriller in the same way that The Dark Knight made a superhero movie a crime drama.)
The type of expansion that Deadpool can provide goes beyond subgenres and into breathing new life into the “adult audiences” superhero movie. Despite generally being good, R-rated superhero movies have, unfortunately, failed at the box office. Watchmen is one of the, if not the, best comic book movies ever made. Punisher: War Zone is an extremely underrated attempt from Marvel itself as part of its seemingly now defunct Marvel Knights branch. Of equal (if not more) importance is Dredd. Beautiful to look at and among the most entertaining movies of the comic book genre, this relatively small scale film did world building more successfully than movies twice its budget, and did it in a lean 95 minutes.
None of these movies were financial successes, while their more family friendly counterparts became global cash cows. Their failures have caused studios to shy away from pushing the content boundaries that some comic books have been stretching for years. However, Deadpool is intrinsically an R-rated character. He’s a sadistic, violent psychopath who legitimately has fun in being who he is and crossing the borders of decency. A major selling point of the ComicCon footage was him using the helmeted-head of a guy he just decapitated as a puppet and seeing parts of the neck still attached. This severely dark and gallows-style humor is what might give him a leg up on the competition. Audiences seem more comfortable with an R rated movie if it’s an over-the-top comedy rather than a drama or action film (consider the successes of The Hangover movies, many of Apatow’s films, Bridesmaids, We’re The Millers, etc.). This element of his character already exists and could be the thing that opens the film up to a wider crowd than its more broody predecessors.
Which brings us back around to the interconnectedness that the new Deadpool movie is supposed to have, which worries me but could also be the biggest key to not just Deadpool’s success but the revival of the R-rated superhero movie. If the film can capitalize on the goodwill of the X-Men series, it might inspire other comic book companies to allow for an R-rated outlier feature for some of its more niche characters within the greater universe. While it’s doubtful that Marvel Studios would screw around with their formula, it could be a boon for the darker and more intense DC Cinematic Universe, which will constantly be looking for a way to develop its own unique identity.
And it’s not completely outside of the realm of possibility for this to work. Perhaps the closest we have in spirit to Deadpool, would be Kingsman: The Secret Service. Released in February of this year, this R-rated film also possesses the self-awareness and stylized violence that should be present in a Deadpool movie, and it’s already made nearly $300 million worldwide. It might be wishful thinking, but audiences might be ready for the comic book genre to grow up. Netflix’s Daredevil series is rated TV-MA. The upcoming video game Batman: Arkham Knight got an M rating (compared to the T rating of its predecessors). And both of those are connected to major characters and franchises. It’s time for movies to take this leap, and if there’s anyone who can ease this discomfort, it’s probably the Merc with the Mouth.