This article contains spoilers for “Deadpool,” which is in theaters now.
“‘Deadpool’ is a risk,” they said. “Blending action and comedy often results in a tonal mess,” they said. “An R-rated superhero movie limits the audience,” they said. “Ryan Reynolds can’t open a movie,” they said. “The character doesn’t have mainstream recognition,” they — whoever these Deadpool-doubters may have been — said.
Well, it was a risk that paid off. Along with enthusiastic word-of-mouth and largely positive reviews, the first film starring Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza‘s Merc with a Mouth opened with a $135 million domestic weekend take, and added another $125 million in worldwide box office. That means it’s already sailed way past its reported $58 million production budget, broke all sorts of box office records and outperformed the opening weekends of plenty of fellow Marvel-based films like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
The film — directed by Tim Miller and released by 20th Century Fox, placing it firmly outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe — accomplished this both by capitalizing on the (almost) always-reliable track record of superhero movies, but also by presenting something very unique within that category. This “familiar but different” vibe extended beyond the obvious — clever cursing, crude humor and rampant fourth wall-breaking — by making genuinely fresh storytelling choices that made “Deadpool” more than the sum of its f-bombs. It’s fair to use the term “game-changer” when discussing the 16-years-in-the-making “Deadpool,” and here are some of the ways it rewrote the rules.
LOW BUDGET, LOW STAKES, HIGH REWARD
For a long time, it was hard to get intel on the “Deadpool” production budget other than “it cost a lot less than typical superhero films.” Recently, a number surfaced: $58 million, which doesn’t count the surely sizable marketing budget (seriously, you couldn’t avoid Deadpool — or zoomed-in images of his crotch — if you tried). To put that in perspective, “Ant-Man,” colloquially known as “the Marvel Studios movie that didn’t cost all that much,” had a reported $130 million production budget.
“Deadpool” is proof that bigger isn’t necessarily better in comic book-based movies. Not everything has to be a large-scale epic to succeed, which could (hopefully!) mean that viewers will get more “smaller” stories starring well-known superheroes, and studios will have the confidence to take more chances on riskier fare.
Not only is the budget on “Deadpool” low, so are the stakes. The universe is not at risk in “Deadpool”; at worst, a decommissioned aircraft carrier (Helicarrier?) is going to get destroyed. It starts out as a very personal story, and it stays that way — no cities being destroyed, no doomsday devices to dismantle, no diabolical plot to transform people into lizards or mutants or robots or demons or aliens or cowboys or hot dogs or whatever.
BEST USE OF THE X-MEN IN YEARS
There have been a lot of X-Men movies, but there isn’t always a a lot of “X-Men” in them. The films are primarily focused on four characters: Wolverine, Xavier, Magneto and Mystique, only one of which is really a classic team member (Xavier’s the founder and rarely serves in the field). For as many X-Men movies as there have been (five with a sixth on the way, not counting “Deadpool” or the two Wolverine solo movies), fans have seen comparatively little of the X-Men acting as an actual team on screen — they’re usually getting together or being pulled apart in the shadow of Wolverine, but rarely working as a unit (though May’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” may well change that).
There are only two X-Men in “Deadpool”: Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead. While the latter is essentially a reinvention of character from the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely “New X-Men” (played delightfully by Brianna Hildebrand), the Colossus seen in “Deadpool” is a very faithful rendition of the fan-favorite character introduced by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum in “Giant-Size X-Men” #1 back in 1975. He looks like Colossus, he talks like Colossus, he acts like Colossus and even has a clear soulful/poetic streak. This take on the character is much more nuanced and faithful to the comics than the mostly silent version we’ve seen in previous “X-Men” films. Sure, he’s played for comic relief, but so are a lot of conventional heroes when paired with Deadpool.
These are X-Men that seem like X-Men — even though we only see the two (something the film jokes about and attributes to a lack of budget), they operate as a team and there are clearly more of them out there, functioning as active superheroes (who knows where it might fit in with the increasingly complex timeline of the X-Men films, other than “it doesn’t matter”). Negasonic Teenage Warhead even wears a classic black-and-yellow X-Men jumpsuit towards the end of the film. The X-Men element of “Deadpool” is a fun surprise for X-fans, and implies that we might see a more traditional X-Men team on screen after all.
HE DOESN’T LEARN ANYTHING
If you creative writing types out there have studied Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, you know that the outcome of the hero’s journey is to return to their familiar situation, having changed. That didn’t really happen in Deadpool.
Sure, he’s more at peace than he was because he’s reunited with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). But when Colossus gives him the chance to spare Ajax/Francis’ (Ed Skrein) life — he very emphatically does not. We’ve all seen superhero movies where the protagonist somehow has to realize that it is, in fact, a bad thing to kill people, but this one gleefully skips that part; in true Deadpool fashion, he’s cool with killing in the beginning, and he’s cool with it at the end. And it’s not like anyone was rooting for Ajax to survive; dude was pretty despicable.
NON-LINEAR ORIGIN STORY
What slows down the first installment of a superhero franchise more than anything? Origin stories. Sure, there are some great origin stories in comics, and they’re frequently effectively adapted in film — but let’s be honest, we buy a ticket to see people fighting crime and wearing costumes and doing cool things with their powers.
“Deadpool” gets that. Sure, there’s plenty of origin — too much, according to some critics — but it doesn’t start out with any of that. It starts with Reynolds in full Deadpool mode, doing what he does best — killing bad guys (er, worse guys?) and cracking jokes. So when you do get to the origin stuff, you’re not feeling antsy, it’s actually paying off your curiosity as to what series of events brought Deadpool to that freeway in the first place.
HE HAS SEX
Think of how many superhero movies there have been. A lot, right? Think of how many times you’ve seen a character in one of those movies having sex. Not implied sex or innuendo or waking up in bed together, but like, getting in flagrante delicto on screen. Not a lot, right?
The montage of Wade and Vanessa breaking out the nasty mat in a variety of ways (including one way that, even in an R-rated “Deadpool” film, no one likely expected to see on screen) — pretty much automatically lands at the top of the list of superhero movie sex scenes. And it’s positive, loving, consensual sex at that — which isn’t something you see a lot in action/genre entertainment of any kind. Between “Deadpool” and “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” on Netflix, we may be on the cusp of a superhero sexual revolution.
“Deadpool” is in theaters now.