Surprise — “Deadpool” is a hit! It’s actually more than a hit; one could probably justifiably call it a phenomenon, the first non-“Star Wars” one America has had in 2016. The film defied all expectations — including my own — to become a box office champion and, surprisingly, a potential game-changer when it comes to the way superhero movies are made. And, of course, Hollywood — specifically Fox — looks to be learning the wrong lesson from “Deadpool’s” success.
In the immediate wake of the Merc’s movie success, two stories popped up: one stating that “X-Force” could conceivably get an R-rating, and another revealing that Fox has apparently targeted “Wolverine 3” for mature audiences only. Okay, attention everyone — who had “All superhero movies should be rated R” in the Wrong Lesson Fox Learns From Deadpool’s Success betting pool?
“Guardians of the Galaxy” writer/director James Gunn did, basically. Gunn praised “Deadpool’s” originality in a Facebook post and pinpointed what he thought movie studios would take away from the hard-R “Deadpool’s” success.
“So, over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They’ll be green lighting films “like Deadpool” – but, by that, they won’t mean “good and original” but “a raunchy superhero film” or “it breaks the fourth wall.” They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do.”
Judging by those “X-Force” hypotheticals and that way early “Wolverine 3” listing, it looks like Fox, at least, thinks that the real lesson to learn from “Deadpool” is that their Marvel movies — or at least more of them — should be rated R. Everyone — an R-rating is not what made “Deadpool” work.
Okay, yes, I am the guy that championed a PG-13 “Deadpool” a year ago, mainly because I didn’t want my 14-year-old nephew and all the other teenage Merc-a-holics forced to devise theater-jumping capers in order to see a comic book movie. But after seeing “Deadpool,” I was pleased to see that they took the R-rating and ran with it. If you’re going to do something, do it hard, and “DP” pushed well beyond the borders of what we’ve seen the character do in the comics and presented a version of Deadpool and his world that felt right in line with the spirit of the character (albeit dialed up to an R-rated 11). While I still think the film could have been as comic-accurate with a PG-13 (remember how 99% of Marvel Comics’ output is rated the equivalent of a PG-13 or tamer?), I do think everyone involved — screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, director Tim Miller, and decade-long-cheerleader/leading man Ryan Reynolds — worked extraordinarily well together to create a fully-realized R-rated comic book movie that rarely felt like it was pulling its punches (and when punches were pulled, the film called itself out).
But the key to “Deadpool’s” success wasn’t being rated-R. The key to “Deadpool’s” success was, at the risk of sounding like the last five minutes of a “Full House” episode, confidence.
Unlike a lot of Fox’s Marvel movies, “Deadpool” showed a nearly unrestrained confidence in the source material. Fox rarely gives audiences X-Men movies starring actual teams of X-Men and the studio ran screaming from everything that made readers like the “Fantastic Four” comics, so the fact that “Deadpool” actually used so much deep-cut stuff from a comic book series that teetered on the verge of cancellation in the late ’90s is astounding. Reese and Wernick actually read a lot of “Deadpool” comics, and they actually pulled from those comics to create a new version of ol’ Wade that worked as a fresh start for the character while incorporating so much of the things that fans of the character, whether they met him in 1991 or 2012, absolutely adore. The badass attitude comes from co-creators Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza; a chunk of the supporting cast and the villain comes from Joe Kelly, Ed McGuinness and Walter McDaniel; the fourth-wall breaking was a Christopher Priest addition; the rapid-fire humor feels true to Daniel Way’s run. The movie didn’t shy away from any corner of the Merc’s mythos.
The film also showed a confidence in their budget — a comparatively measly $58 million. How measly is that? Remember how “Ant-Man” was touted as Marvel’s smallest movie (in more ways than one)? It cost $130 million. Even “Fantastic Four” cost $120 million! “Deadpool” operated on half of “FF’s” budget and has almost made domestically in its opening weekend what “Four” made in it’s entire run, worldwide. That’s impressive. But the filmmakers had confidence that they could pull off a full-blown comic book movie with just a fraction of the money — and they did it. They didn’t hold out for more money or scrap the project altogether; they forged ahead, streamlining characters and paring down action sequences in order to just get this movie made. They made up for the lack of dazzling mutant powers and city-destroying antics by increasing one low-cost — but usually overlooked — thing: character. Vanessa and Wade’s relationship, which plays out in a gloriously kinky and sex-positive montage, shows a lot more nuance than most of the other superhero romances out there. And by doing that, by confidently depicting a real relationship between partners, the stakes for this relatively low-stakes affair feel astronomical. No, there’s no Cosmic McGuffin threatening to destroy reality; there’s just a guy that we care about trying to save the girl that he (and we) care about — and that feels huge.
And then there’s the confidence with which director Tim Miller executed the film. More so than a lot of recent comic book movies, “Deadpool” feels like it has something to say, something to add to the world of super-films. You can definitely take issue with what it has to say and how it says it, but I fully respect that the film goes for broke in nearly every scene. “Deadpool” very much feels like the creators involved knew they pretty much had one shot, this being an R-rated superhero movie starring a character that the larger movie-going audience had never heard of. Fox resisted making the movie for years because they just didn’t get it, and only after the internet freaked out over leaked test footage did the studio throw up their hands and say, “Okay, go for it, we guess?” That gives the film a sense of underdog urgency, one that fits scar-covered hand in black leather glove with Deadpool as a character.
The R-rating, specifically for “Deadpool,” gave the creators the freedom to ensure that this potentially lone “DP” film did the character absolute justice. Deadpool is filthy, offensive, violent and raunchy in his approved-for-teens comics, so they blew the ceiling off and pierced the atmosphere of raunchiness. In order to confidently execute the Deadpool film they wanted to execute, they went the R route. The confidence is what “Deadpool” had from the beginning, and what should be emulated by other films; the R-rating was the byproduct of that confidence.
Where “Wolverine 3” is concerned, sure, give it an R if it’s needed. Hugh Jackman has starred in six PG-13 X-Men and Wolverine films, and this next one will be his last. Give the guy a full-blown, bloody, berserker-rage-filled, decapitation fest — but do so confidently. 2013’s “The Wolverine” proved that Logan can actually star in a decent solo vehicle, but the film still stumbled by concluding with a boss-battle final act against a giant robot that felt out of place with the preceding film. Don’t focus on making “Wolverine 3” an R-rated film, focus on making sure it’s actually a good film all the way through.
“X-Force” is another matter entirely, though. For one thing, no iteration of X-Force has been published under Marvel’s MAX line. As bloody and violent as the latter-day X-Force kill-crews got, they were still suitable for teenage readers. And violence aside, no X-Forcers are known for being as crude and foul-mouthed as Deadpool; hell, most of Shatterstar’s curses are in Mojoverse-ese! You have to push violence to a real insane, brain-splattery place in order to make it R-rated. If the film stars the original, ’90s iteration of X-Force, then that’s just fundamentally not true to what the comics were and ignores “Deadpool’s” “have confidence in the source material” lesson. ’90s X-Force wasn’t a blood-soaked, sexually charged affair. It was a macho soap opera with improbable action sequences and tons of collateral damage; it’s the “Fast & Furious” of the comic book world. If the film moves into “Uncanny X-Force” territory so it can have Deadpool on the team, a likely turn of events now, then I’ll concede that an R would probably be justified. Just, you know, do it confidently.
I went into “Deadpool” expecting “Transformers”-style lowbrow poop jokes, and what I got instead was a smorgasbord of well-executed offensiveness so well executed that I forgot to be angry. “Deadpool” is one of the most confident movies I’ve seen in a while, and it’d be a shame if other movies didn’t follow the Merc’s lead in that direction.
Brett White is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He made videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).