Hi-Ho Silver Lining! 6 Lessons Hollywood Can (Hopefully) Learn from the Success of Deadpool
In case you’ve been living under a rock or at the bottom of the ocean for the last two weeks, Deadpool has broken numerous records, made a bunch of money, and spawned fan acclaim.
One of the factors being touted as responsible for this, besides its broad zany humor, total disregard for the fourth wall, and multiple swipes at the superhero blockbuster status quo, is the presence of that Holy Grail for any wannabe cult classic in the making: R-rated content in the form of sex, violence and a cubic buttload of swearing and risqué humour. This is not your regular superhero movie.
Some outlets in the film/geek journalism racket have already started handwringing over whether or not Hollywood will “learn the right lessons” from the movie’s success, with the accepted wisdom that this will probably not happen since Fox is clearly so blinded by all them Deadpool dollars pouring in that the third (and presumably final) Wolverine movie is rumored to have gotten bumped up to a tentative R-rating in response.
However, as a writer who has seen less likely things come to pass and who still has a shred of optimism in his black cynical heart, I have taken the liberty of compiling a list of lessons that Hollywood in general can and should take away from the Merc with the Mouth’s solo success.
1. “Something Different Works” – Kim Newman.
In the wake of its success, a lot of column inches have been devoted to parsing out what exactly resulted in Deadpool’s unexpectedly massive windfall and what that means for superhero films and cinema in general. Many critics speculate that Fox will go in the predictable direction of making their films “darker and grittier”, or at the very least having more sex and violence worked in. The response I find encapsulates my opinion most strongly comes from writer/critic/horror aficionado/damn snappy dresser Mr Kim Newman:
The lesson of Deadpool is that Something Different works. So make a daffy G-rated Squirrel Girl movie aimed at tweens. Not Deadpool again.
— Kim Newman (@AnnoDracula) February 16, 2016
The lesson Deadpool teaches us about the current superhero landscape is that trying something that’s different needn’t be considered risky or brave; as the old chestnut goes, if you build it, people will come. Director James Gunn recently took to Facebook to respond to an article from Deadline that had quoted a nameless Hollywood exec throwing shade at current superhero movies, and Marvel Studio’s output in particular, as being unwilling to take itself less seriously. Gunn’s response was, quite rightly, a little incredulous:-
I love Deadline and get a lot of my film business news from them. And I love Deadpool even more – the film is hilariously funny, has lots of heart, and is exactly what we need right now, taking true risks in spectacle film – but COME THE FUCK ON. That’s no reason to rewrite history. This quote has to have been said by the dumbest fucking Hollywood exec in the history of dumb fucking Hollywood execs.
Let’s ignore Guardians for a moment, a movie that survives from moment to moment building itself up and cutting itself down – God knows I’m biased about that one. But what do you think [Jon] Favreau and [Robert] Downey [Jr] did in Iron Man? What the fuck was Ant-Man??!
Come on, Deadline.
Gunn rightly points out that the reason Deadpool exists and (arguably) works is because it’s something different at a time when everyone is mimicking the latest trend, and just making Deadpool again is probably (but hopefully not) going to be part of that same problem. Conversely, taking risks and expanding the intersectionality of the genre as a whole has shown proven dividends for Marvel not only in their more outlandish creations like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, but in experimenting with different genres and styles for the likes of their more conventional A-list features. Meanwhile, its expansion into TV and new media with Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter and the Netflix Defenders has given them an opportunity to spread out into genres and storytelling formats that the primary film franchises don’t have the time or inclination to deal with.
Fox, on the other hand, has had a middling-at-best run trying to make the most of their collection of Marvel IPs, either making safe bets on the likes of the X-Men franchise with the odd glaring misstep along the way (*cough* X-Men Origins: Wolverine *unconvincing cough*), taking faltering steps before giving up with the likes of Daredevil, or running themselves into the ground like their attempts to make Fantastic Four a viable franchise.
It’s easy to raise Deadpool up for meeting and exceeding its relatively modest expectations and goals as a mid-February R-rated popcorn movie, but it does not exist in a vacuum, and owes a lot of its success to the kinds of weird and out-there productions before it that strayed from the pack or broke the moud somehow, and must learn from both those that succeeded and those that failed.
And speaking of Fox…
2. Fox Needs More Than One Flavor of X-Men
One marker of Deadpool’s success is not just that its writers, producers and director not only knew what it takes to make Wade Wilson a character we want to spend a whole film with, but also, in Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, what audiences want from the X-Men films in general. Deadpool‘s characters are well-rounded and shine in supporting beats rather than being relegated to thankless background roles in fight scenes or vainly competing for attention next to Wolverine, Mystique, Magneto and Professor X.
Let us be frank – the 20th Century Fox of only five years prior would not have countenanced a Deadpool movie. The idea of former Fox head Tom Rothman greenlighting a film that’s very purpose was to crack wise about how shoddily their primary comic book franchise was being managed was rightly seen as absurd.
But with Rothman now ensconced in what was until recently Amy Pascal’s role at Sony Pictures, Fox has started to consider a life beyond the limits of Singer and Rothman’s gunmetal grey and black leather vision of mutantkind, and started playing with a much bigger paintbox. This seems to have even rubbed off on Singer himself. Even though the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse continues the series’ obsession with portentousness, the sturm und drang is alleviated somewhat by the increasing presence of colorful and popular mainstays of X-Men’s 80s heyday, like Nightcrawler, Jubilee, Psylocke, Archangel and a punk-inspired Storm.
However, their upcoming slate of future productions seems to suffer from a lack of firm creative mandate. The X-Men and mutant characters that Fox has purview over are some of the most diverse in comic book history, and Fox’s response so far has been to hide behind the bankability of Wolverine for most of their output, with Doug Liman and Channing Tatum’s upcoming Gambit (which could still be good, don’t get me wrong) acting as a shaky mulligan. Fox seems content to focus on refining and improving things they’ve fumbled the first time round, whilst idly toying with the possibility of a New Mutants or X-Force adaptation to fill the inevitable void of Singer running out of ideas.
To Fox in particular, I have this advice: either sell up while the getting’s good, or commit to different concepts. In the sixteen years you’ve been making X-Men films, of which there are currently eight released and a ninth on the way, only about three of them are even close to being considered great films. Deadpool is fun as a reactive statement about the current superhero paradigm, but if there’s nothing different out there for him and his movies to react to, both will become sloppy and samey. If you can’t make something different and interesting out of something as broadly recognisable as “misfit heroes battling for respect in a world that fears and despises them”, then you should probably just get used to sharing the toy chest with someone else more qualified. Just ask Sony.
3. Don’t Forget About G-Rated/Kid-Friendly Superhero Films
I’m not just talking about regular superhero films with all the violence cut out. One of the greatest aspects keeping modern comics alive and vibrant is a willingness to embrace multiple different levels of readership across age, gender and cultural lines – to whit, She-Hulk, Carol Danvers, Squirrel Girl, Kamala Khan, Angela, Miles Morales, Lady Thor, Sam Wilson, Batwoman, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, the Birds of Prey and Harley Quinn have proven over recent years that they can hold their own critically and financially against their white, straight, cis-male counterparts when given the opportunity.
There’s ample reason to think that this approach can work in comic book movies as well. The course correct apparent in trailers for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action film likewise indicates an awareness of what makes the franchise broadly fun and seems (hopefully) to indicate a step up in quality from the previous one. Sure, the original comics were darker and grittier parodies of X-Men and Daredevil, but that’s not what made the characters successful or fun – it was the goofy 80s cartoons, the weird-but-good early 90s movies, the endless toy lines and the more laidback party-dude attitudes that those works brought to the table. With the recent reveals of Bebop and Rocksteady, Tyler Perry as Baxter Stockman, and (most recently) the appearance of Krang, this next movie looks like more even footing for the kind of shenanigans the Turtles are usually involved in.
Even outside of mainstays from Marvel and DC, there’s an abundance of talented creators working on titles just waiting to get a shot at the mainstream.
4. Make More of the Right Kinds of R-Rated Movies
In many ways, the root of the problem is the industry’s tendency to either obsess over or simply fall back lazily into the trap of making everything, regardless of genre, fit squarely into the PG-13/12A age rating bracket, under the illusion that it provides a broad enough market share to make peak money at the box office. This began with the supposed death of the NC-17 rating as financially viable in the aftermath of Showgirls, and ever since then R-rated material has felt the pinch, with its notable output tending towards either splattery horror films, broad comedies like Judd Apatow’s oeuvre or The Hangover that make decent bank to varying acclaim, or ill-fated stabs at harder stuff like Dredd.
Let’s consider history for a moment – the dreaded R-rating never used to be such a rarity in this particular genre, with Tim Burton’s Batman (PG-13 in the US, but in the UK saw the creation of the 12 rating) setting off a wave of movies like The Rocketeer, The Shadow, and Dick Tracy that tried to channel the pulpy origins of comics. There were also film offerings based on darker and trendy independent books like The Mask, Judge Dredd, The Crow and later Blade and Spawn, even as Batman and Robin was declared to have killed comic book movies.
Two decades on, Batman has had an entire trilogy of auteur-driven films dedicated to him and is about to headline another franchise. We’ve also seen the likes of American Splendor, Ghost World, Persepolis, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, and Hellboy explore avenues besides straight-up superheroics on the big screen. The internet has turned the very mechanism of how and when these works are delivered to us on its head. Why limit a genre or medium to one specific style or brand of storytelling or mode of delivery?
It’s also worth remembering that as much as it’s beholden on fans to demand more, it’s also on them to support that change once they get it. Perhaps that Dredd sequel or Hellboy 3 that everyone (myself included) is so sure they want to see but could never prove was bankable before will stand a better chance of getting off the ground now, but it’s all for nought if nobody bothers to seek them out. Deadpool is a creation of Marvel Comics and the rights to it are owned by Fox, two of the largest mass-media outfits in the current Hollywood climate, with the money and marketing clout that those facts entail – Hellboy and Judge Dredd, of course, are not. Sadly, based on their failure to connect as mid-tier IPs that spawned well-liked but barely seen independently funded adaptations, they’re not going to get the same kind of automatic support outside the vocality of their respective fandoms.
5. Weird Shit
As an inevitable side-effect of what we’ve already discussed, I get the feeling that those studios and filmmakers that don’t stumble straight into the pit-trap of going R-rated automatically will probably end up getting ensnared in the second of Deadpool’s gallery of potential red herrings – that being funny is either too risky or else a license to mask flimsiness. Certainly the film revels in the kind of random and quirky humor typical of The American Comedy Film (for there is only one, natch), and I am not the only person who saw the loss of Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish from Ant-Man, and their replacement by Peyton Reed and Adam McKay, as an omen of ill fortune for that film’s success. Just shows how wrong one can be, I suppose.
That said, combining off-kilter talents with different superhero properties has often been its greatest asset – not only do you get a more interesting film as a result, but you more often than not get an insight into the characters that a more conventional director might not consider. Did Sony really hire Marc Webb for his keen insight into what makes Peter Parker an interesting character, or did they pick someone who could basically shoot what they wanted, didn’t argue with the executive producers and focus groups, and as a freebie had a name that sounded kind of funny in context?
Superheroes and comedy, for good or ill, have an irresistible connection, because they share a common element: refuge in audacity. Batman has inspired shows and films so varying in their alternating attempts at earnestness versus humor or stylisation versus verisimilitude, because the character at its core is inherently absurdist–insomuch as his high-minded motives, actions and values constantly run up against the fact that he is a man dressed as a small flying mammal beating up muggers in the dark. Superman’s old-school calling card – faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound – was intended to inspire awe in an early 20th Century world but sounds dated and campy in a 21st Century world that can’t quite seem to figure out what the hell to do with The Man of Tomorrow.
Marvel Studios’ approach to world-building can be considered fairly naturalistic at best with a tendency towards being overly cautious and structured, with the vast continuity of the books mostly appearing as the odd knowing wink and nudge to people in the know without it being too much at the expense of the films themselves. Where they’ve been strongest is in their choice of collaborators, hiring directors like Jon Favreau, Joe Johnston, Kenneth Branagh, and Joss Whedon in Phase 1 who really understand and are inspired by comic book trappings or else bring specific genre experience to the table. They’ve also taken calculated risks on James Gunn, Shane Black, Peyton Reed and the Russo brothers in Phase 2, creators whose work doesn’t necessarily scream blockbuster material but who likewise bring different facets to the overall continuity, much the same as comic book writers and artists do for their print counterparts.
Deadpool and the slew of out-there properties Phase 3 of the MCU promises is a reminder that the safe bet needn’t be the only option. What excites me as a film-watcher and a comics fan is the possibility of seeing something… well, different.
Make the best use of all the weird and wonderful characters and creations your extensive back catalogues have to offer. Because if you don’t, who else is going to?
6. Continuity is Cool, But Character is Key
I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it a million more times: continuity can only help a story be interesting, not make it so. Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, and The Incredible Hulk all do solid enough jobs filling in a lot of the blanks with regards to the world Marvel Studios has been trying to construct over the last decade or so, but as standalone films they struggle under the weight of executive mandated story turns, uninspiring characters, and a sense of spinning the wheels waiting on something more interesting to happen in the next film.
Continuity, or lack thereof, never hurt the likes of The Evil Dead or Mad Max when it came to sequels, but the second generation of X-Men films seems to have spent half its runtime attempting to fix or apologize for aspects of the previous one that fans verbally objected to, Deadpool being that process taken to its logical (and at times illogical) extreme. Whilst there’s nothing that necessarily contradicts the events of the films up to this point, it takes some pretty obvious potshots at their inconsistency: “McAvoy or Stewart? These timelines are so confusing.”
Whilst its cool to see in-the-flesh versions of Weasel and Blind Al and Bob (albeit not affiliated with HYDRA), Deadpool never mistakes faithfulness to the source material for slavishness, and knows just how much of the comics’ backstory and Wade’s particular brand of sociopathy they can get away with before it gets boring or sluggish. Meta-humour is by now so engrained in Deadpool’s DNA as a character that straight continuity ceases to really be an essential, and the tangled nature of the X-Men film’s continuity not only makes it okay for him to flagrantly disregard it but actually gives him more ammunition to work with.
And again, the character who benefits most from a more faithful adaptation besides Deadpool himself is in fact Colossus, a character Fox has made use of at least three times before but have never really managed to get right. Given the spotlight to really shine in as a full-on CG-animated character with expressiveness and emotion and humor, rather than as a special effect that occasionally happens to be shaped like a man and occupy the same amount of space, Colossus for the first time comes close to what he is in the comics – a steadfast, optimistic, sincere big-brother figure. Not bad for a character billed in the opening credits simply as “A CGI Character”.
Likewise, Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa is strongest not when she’s parroting her role in the comics as a character that inevitably turns to evil as the mutant Copycat after Wade leaves her. Never in my life did I think I would live to see a (kind of) straight superhero lead take it like a man at the hands (and harness) of Inara from Firefly, sending a ripple of amused but nervous laughter through a theater full of young couples and middle-aged provincial Middle-Englanders, but goddamn if it doesn’t happen anyway; I can think of no better way of encapsulating what may go down in history as the ultimate piece of Valentine’s Day counter-programming.
And that I think is the film’s greatest strength – that beyond its merits and flaws as an action movie, as a zany comedy and as part of a multi-million dollar franchise, Deadpool is at its core a film that celebrates love, acceptance and camaraderie as a core theme, with a side helping of sex, violence and fanservice as a bonus.
Regardless of what Deadpool’s lasting legacy is, here’s hoping that it is this: that it emboldens filmmakers, performers and creators to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible within the medium, to pursue passion projects, and to engage with the fanbase that supports and respects their work. Let it show that executives and accountants and focus groups can’t always predict what will or won’t pan out as a worthy investment in this brave new century of cinema. Let it open the door to new and interesting and vital IPs and characters that were considered too weird or too niche to make it in prime time. Let it be part of an entertainment landscape that is fresh and vibrant and rich, and can provide for the tastes and preferences of anyone willing to champion them.
Let it be the start of a more nuanced discussion of what kinds of films get made, how they are rated, marketed and released, and how they can better reflect the differing palette and viewing habits of the growing swath of consumers these works reach. And maybe see about featuring Cable and Domino in the sequel, I guess.
For as Orson Welles states in Ed Wood, visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?
Adam X. Smith is just a poor boy who needs no sympathy. No, scratch that—he’s actually a subterranean homesick alien sleeper agent who has been sending coded messages hidden in online reviews and articles back to his extra-terrestrial masters for several years now, whilst attending the puny humans’ University of Lincoln, which recently had the incredibly poor judgement to award him a Bachelor’s degree in Drama and accept him into their MA program. You can find some of his previous transmissions to the mothership on SD card ended up in the laundry. He has a Twitter account that he never bothers with and a Tumblr that is gathering dust—you may pester him on them if you so wish. Also, he misses his wife and family very much.and Bleeding Cool, where he writes with the Thor’s Comic Column crew, and more recently on Electrolyte. He tried using Youtube vlogs and fanvids as a means of sending subliminal messages but was thwarted when his
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