C'mon Hollywood: Why Deadpool was a success and what we can learn from it
In the world of Hollywood we all know what happens once a movie is a huge success: They try to replicate it. Not just in sequels, spin-offs, and the like, but by combing the sea for new or existing properties that can in some way emulate the success of a mega hit. And hey, it’s business and a competitive one at that, so it makes sense to want to get in on that action. The problem comes when Hollywood tries to replicate that success by very quickly (and without much thought, passion or attention to detail) shoving something out there to ride the coattails of that magic.
Such is likely to be the case with DEADPOOL, which cleaned up at the box office this past weekend, raking in more than $135 million domestically in a 4-day period. In February. That’s a hell of an accomplishment to be sure and one that hardly anyone saw coming. Well, except those that know the character and how significant he’s been since his inception. Created by Rob Liefeld & Fabian Nicieza in the pages of Marvel’s The New Mutants #98, DEADPOOL took off like crazy, selling 7 million copies combined of his first three appearances. That's not a regular occurrence in comics. Looking very much like “Spider-Man with guns and swords” and with a smart ass attitude that grew even crazier and more intense throughout the years as he was passed on from creator-to-creator, DEADPOOL took shape as not only a popular X-books character, but a staple in pop culture as a whole.
One thing I've noticed in many of the think pieces aimed at trying to put a finger on why DEADPOOL was such a success is a complete misunderstanding of the character's popularity altogether. Part of that comes from the disregard of comic books and fans alike in this whole scheme. Many venues are at a point now where they have to report on the comic book medium as it relates to film seeing as it's the leading genre, but it's done so in a way that pays no mind to where these things take root and can often feel condescending. Just as I saw in art school where instructors regarded comics as "mindless pop art" that had no bearing on "real" art, I think that translates to mass media outlets reporting on CBM's as well (outside of most movie news sites, of course, who generally "get it"), who see only "funny book" characters that "the kids seem to enjoy" making a ton of money until the bubble bursts. Not that I personally give a shit if some of them feel that way. We live in an era where the nerds have won the popularity contest at the box office and I'm more than happy to support and be a part of that for however long it lasts.
However, it's the antiquated mindset that hurts the true understanding of who Deadpool is, why people care, and, ultimately, why it brought in shitloads of money this past weekend. In fact, while on the set visit for DEADPOOL there were many journalists there who simply did not "get" Deadpool and expressed their discontent that it was a superhero film they couldn't take their kids to, as if each film that comes from a comic must meet that criteria to be legitimate or successful. It's this mindset and preconceived notion about what a comic book character is and how they fit in the general structure of the comic book movie medium that hinders (and will continue to hinder) Hollywood execs and non-fan media venues from "getting it". Quite simply, they don't read comics or care to start reading them, thereby allowing box office receipts and a common formula to dictate what is successful, rather than look at WHY any given film would make that much in the first place. One guy cracked that code a long time ago and his understanding has led to the biggest and most successful comic book cinematic universe currently in play...
“I would hear people, other executives, struggling over a character point, or struggling over how to make a connection, or struggling over how to give even surface-level depth to an action scene or to a character. I’d be sitting there reading the comics going, ‘Look at this. Just do this. This is incredible.’ ” - Kevin Feige, Bloomberg, 2014
DEADPOOL appeared in the animated film HULK VS. WOLVERINE and later in Ultimate Spider-Man, amongst others. He also had his own best-selling video game, where he continued to take shape, while still barraging the pages of Marvel comics in a series of solo and team-up books, including guest appearances galore, solidifying him as one of the most popular modern-era comic book characters. Hollywood took some notice and decided it was time to make his big screen push, which would be in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE. Unfortunately, that push would be a miscalculated one, leaving DEADPOOL in less than stellar hands and presumably killing the hopes of seeing him pop up properly in future X-films, let alone a solo venture.
However, something amazing happened in the wake of ORIGINS, and it wasn’t any one single thing that helped resurrect the character (in film anyway, as the comics didn't really feel that impact) and lead him to a record-breaking box office in a solo film. From individual passion, creator and fan-led rallying, a firm grasp on the character, studio support, some brilliant marketing and, finally, a slam-dunk film, there were a combination of factors that helped make DEADPOOL the phenomenon that everyone’s talking about. While Hollywood tries to unravel the mysteries of it's success, I think a lot of it is written on the wall, but here's my breakdown nonetheless:
Ryan Reynolds chased this property for years, immediately identifying with the character and taking ownership of it. Like Hugh Jackman to Wolverine or Robert Downey Jr. to Iron Man, Reynolds fully embraced Wade Wilson, respecting his comic lineage and in turn infusing his own blend of humor and personality into that personage. Hiring Tim Miller to work on the film brought equal passion, along with Reese and Wernick on script duties, both of whom were passionate about what they put to page, trumpeting it as the best thing they’d ever written. Coupled with the support of Deadpool creator Rob Liefeld, who stayed the course in promoting the character and those involved with bringing him to the big screen, the team kept the fires burning against all odds to make DEADPOOL a reality. In the Hollywood game where projects can quickly be written and put into production in a matter of months, DEADPOOL was a torch carried through mud and rain over several years before finally lighting the home fire.
While we can argue day and night about whether it was Donner's SUPERMAN, Burton's BATMAN, or Singer's X-MEN that helped launch the current comic book movie craze, there's no denying that it's been an up and down journey. We've seen some really phenomenal films from the genre in the last few decades, but it's hard to say whether or not we could've handled them all at once. For fans it's an easier sell, but for general audiences it took some doing. Helped largely by the MCU's slate of films and Christopher Nolan's DARK KNIGHT trilogy, today's audiences are much more keen on comic book films and are much more willing to accept something "new and different" where they might not have been before (I'd even go so far as to argue that Zack Snyder's WATCHMEN would perform better today than in 2009, but that also shows that sometimes you can do everything right and still not connect). There's the myth of superhero fatigue setting in, but in reality they've never been more popular. It ends up being a case of audiences being more accepting of something like DEADPOOL, rather than needing a "savior" to spice things up. It simply hit at a time when everyone was ready for it, rather than a time when it was too much, too soon or too little, too late.
"I just think there’s nothing else that occupies a space quite like it in any universe, in any comic book universe, and it’s been like that for a long time, um, so in a weird way waiting might have served us better than anything, because now’s the time for a movie like this in a way that, y’know, five, six, seven years ago might not have been." - Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool set visit, 2015
This is probably the most overlooked aspect of DEADPOOL’s success. Not only the fans who have been buying the comics for decades, but the fans who have furthered the character’s success in other venues, including TV, animation, and, most importantly, in toys, collectibles and apparel. From action figures to posters to coffee mugs to beanies to hoodies to LEGOs and beyond, DEADPOOL has been at the forefront. Although it’s likely that your local comic book shop has all their DEADPOOL merchandise front and center today, you can bet your ass that they had all of that stuff up years ago as well (now it’s just all at the front of the shop for new fans entering comic book Valhalla for the first time). DEADPOOL resonated with fans, standing as the badass we all want to be in his boasting red costume and awesome weaponry (not to mention that mutant healing factor), yet underneath was a confused, scarred, and conflicted character. DEADPOOL is very much a metaphor for the comic-reading audience, a metaphor that has certainly helped seal his fame amongst them.
"They [the fans] own it. And I don’t mean that as anything falsely sincere. Genuinely I feel like we owe this experience to them. It’s like, y’know, never in a million years would it have happened this way had it not been for their voice. And, social media in every aspect, y’know? People were writing Fox. It’s kinda nice, y’know? I feel like we owe it to them to give them the most authentic Deadpool possible and at the same time we also feel indebted to them for getting this movie made. They greenlit it, really. Fox just dated it." - Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool set visit 2015
Knowing The Product
This is one of the most essential aspects of making a faithful adaptation and fans have been burned at the "theater stake" one too many times as a result of a piss poor translation and lazy execution. Ironically, the latest example of that comes from Fox with last year’s FANTASTIC FOUR, a film that had a major identity crisis with no clear understanding of where it came from or what made the source material so special. We already saw DEADPOOL go down this same road in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, but thankfully the studio got the right passionate people to guide the Wade Wilson ship, knowing full well where he came from, what made him special, what was essential to be on the big screen, and ultimately, how to present him. This is basic “know your product” shit and for DEADPOOL’s solo outing it was spot on. It's a credit to Fox for not only knowing what they had on their hands, but trusting the people they hired to bring it home.
I have simply never seen a film marketed better than DEADPOOL. They started early, getting their hooks in from the start. Whoever leaked that test footage kicked off a catalyst of marketing brilliance that topped itself again and again. From the clever R-rating reveal (which we debuted on this site) to the various viral videos, images, emojis, script pages, posters, etc., DEADPOOL covered the gamut and did so with FULL integrity. That’s an essential aspect to the marketing as well, because at no time did DEADPOOL try to sell itself as anything other than what it was; an R-rated superhero film that was more than a little crazy, over-the-top, violent, and funny. It knew what it was from the start (see: knowing your product) and sold it exactly as it was, right down to DMX’s “X Gon’ Give it to ya”.
The Finished Film
This is where it all comes together and, judging by those box office receipts, did it ever. None of the passion, players, fans, or marketing mean anything if the film doesn’t deliver and to everyone’s credit (including the studio, which is famously knocked for doing the opposite of what DEADPOOL did) everything came together and then some. While there are a handful of folks that didn’t like it (none of whom are invited to any of my future parties), the majority of folks loved it and will no doubt go back for repeat viewings. By simply allowing this film to be made the way it was made and released as such, new audiences and fans alike were treated to a film that, in rare form for a non MCU property, adapted the source material like a champ and with nary a compromise. We got the film that we deserved, not a bastardized version of something that was misunderstood, misinterpreted, and desaturated to appeal to a wider audience. In this sense, the opposite worked.
Now, with all that success in the can and DEADPOOL firmly established as a true comic book film contender, everyone in Hollywood is opening up that playbook to see how they can replicate it. However, rushing to fill that gap isn’t as easy as leaking test footage, slapping in an R-rating, and creating an immersive marketing campaign. It’s a deeper connection that starts with a character that audiences will love and connect with, a group of talented people that understand and have passion for said character, a studio that supports not only the passion of those involved, but also the integrity of the property, and finally, a genuine understanding of what they have and how to present it. In the end, all of those elements are what made DEADPOOL a success. It wasn’t a fluke or a shot in the dark; it’s kind of the prime example of what happens when everything comes together in a near idealistic state to make a film that captures exactly what it set out to do in the beginning.
Unfortunately, a broader problem that DEADPOOL could cause with studios misinterpreting its success (and I'm sure there are meetings at Marvel and WB this week discussing it) is that the influence of its tone, comedic elements, and R-rating could end up being a factor that's considered for every film going forward. Here's the deal, though: Not every comic book character is funny. Or crazy. Or like DEADPOOL. In fact, few are. Likewise, not every comic film needs an R-rating to push the envelope. Really, most don't. So, if WB ends up having meetings to see how they can make Batman or Superman funny (of which they are not) or if the MCU is adversely influenced to make something like, say, CAPTAIN MARVEL, a hard-R cosmic tale, then they've missed the point of what made DEADPOOL a success to begin with (to note, I think Marvel has a pretty firm grasp of how to handle their properties, as they've consistently proven to know their properties).
Batman's not funny. That's not what you think of when you think of Batman. Or Superman. Or Aquaman or Doctor Strange, etc. And we certainly don't need an R-rated Spider-Man or The Flash. Sure, some of them may have some comedic elements or darker tones from time to time, but to force those elements is to misunderstand their own products and, essentially, what made DEADPOOL a hit to begin with. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY director James Gunn, who took his own risks in bringing that film to a successful bow, had something similar to say in a longer post on his Facebook page, which was in response to a non-Fox studio exec being quoted saying exactly what you'd predict about DEADPOOL's success. Gunn's response is right in line with my thinking, saying (in part):
"For the theatrical experience to survive, spectacle films need to expand their definition of what they can be. They need to be unique and true voices of the filmmakers behind them. They can't just be copying what came before them." - James Gunn, Facebook
I couldn't agree more. So, before Hollywood starts thumbing through comics to find the “next Deadpool” or property closest to it and push it out of the movie womb prematurely, I can only hope that instead of trying to capitalize on the success of DEADPOOL as quickly as possible, they’ll look at what really made it a success to begin with. Failing to do so will make DEADPOOL look like a fluke, when it really isn’t. It’s simply what happens when you’re really paying attention to what you have, rather than trying to create something you don’t. Let’s not make audiences suffer from a knee-jerk reaction to replicate success, but rather reward them (and in turn, reward Hollywood) by heeding the lessons of why it made such a splash.
CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...