Deadpool, an R-rated movie about an off-beat superhero who is unfamiliar to the general masses, made more money opening weekend (domestic) than The Wolverine did in its entire run. .
I’m going to let that sink in for a moment.
There’s a lot you can take away from the opening weekend of Deadpool - what superhero fatigue? Why not open more movies that are not total junk in February? Maybe Ryan Reynolds is a star after all? - but what it should truly serve as is the final word on Tom Rothman’s management of superheroes at Fox. Rothman, now calling the shots at Sony, was the honcho at Fox in the years after the original X-Men served as the prelude to the modern superhero boom.
The version of Deadpool you saw this weekend was pretty much the same one Ryan Reynolds and crew were trying to get made six years ago. It wasn't massively updated to reflect 'modern' tastes. The script, by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, had not changed drastically since 2010, which is when Rothman personally started squashing the film. Rothman seemed to have an inherent distaste for superhero movies and their trappings, famously telling Bryan Singer he couldn’t use Sentinels in the X-films. Days of Future Past, a post-Rothman film featuring Sentinels, is the second highest grossing X-movie (until Deadpool finishes its run, that is).
To be fair, under Rothman Fox had the biggest margin of profit of any of the studios. But while Sony found incredible success with Spider-Man, as Warner Bros reached record-breaking numbers with Batman and as Marvel redefined superhero movies in general, Fox lagged behind, criminally wasting two of the greatest Marvel Comics properties, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. The failure of the Fantastic Four films are clear, but I believe that the X-Men series, which does well without being show-stopping successes, should have been the sort of juggernaut that The Avengers films are. Fox has, until Deadpool, totally squandered the property.
What was different about Deadpool? You can’t ignore the role marketing played in Deadpool’s success; while some studios this year find themselves unable to find a tone or direction for their big superhero movies Fox was able to absolutely nail the campaign. They saturated the Earth with Deadpool, but they did it in such fun, unusual and funny ways that nobody felt overwhelmed. The marketing itself was entertaining. It’s a huge part of the film’s opening weekend.
Part of the success of the marketing came from focusing on the film’s fun tone. That tone is an enormous part of why people like Deadpool, and why they like the Marvel movies. For fanboys comic book movies need to be all sturm und drang, but general audiences like to laugh and feel good while watching their popcorn films. The Deadpool campaign promised people those things, and they responded.
Beyond that the film itself worked - people like it. Part of that comes from a simple decision made early in the creative process: the film embraces the source material. Deadpool isn’t a word for word adaptation of any one comic story, but the film is identifiably Deadpool. From the costume to the comedy to the irreverence, Deadpool captures what works on the page and makes it work on the screen. This seems obvious - it is one of the secrets of Marvel Studios’ success - but it’s a choice that has eluded Fox every step of the way in the X-Men franchise.
From the beginning the X-Men movies have missed what made the comics an era-defining smash. On the page the X-Men engaged in soap operatic melodrama while battling a wide variety of villains, and the comics let the characters have fun as well as experience the terrible prejudices of a world that shunned them. The X-Men played baseball and hung out together in between cataclysms and character deaths. On screen the X-Men films have largely been movies about Wolverine and a couple of supporting characters, few of whom have convincing interpersonal relationships. They don’t hang out, they mope.They keep battling villains who feel samey and Magneto never seems to go away. And forget comics-accurate costumes, as in Deadpool - X-Men: Apocalypse returns the characters to black pleather after a small side-trip to costumes that included yellow.
The X-Men films shouldn’t be comedies like Deadpool - that would simply be wrong. But they should be fun, and that fun should arise from the characters. It seems crazy to me that the franchise has wasted the trio of Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, who showed such excellent chemistry in X-Men: First Class, in favor of jumping ahead a decade at a time and getting back to centering on poor, played out Wolverine (the only X character Fox believes works). While fans focus on every shot that has Captain America and Bucky in the same frame, nobody seems to care at all about the three-way confusion between Magneto, Professor X and Mystique. It’s a missed opportunity.
It’s possible that X-Men: Apocalypse will be the course correction needed, but if I had to guess I would say it won’t be. Bryan SInger doesn’t understand any of these characters as deeply as Tim Miller and his writers (and Reynolds) understood Deadpool, and while Apocalypse does seem the X-film that most embraces the more outlandish nature of the comics it’s still within a framework of endless moping.
Deadpool should be a wake up call to Fox - these movies can make crazy amounts of money if you make them seem fun to watch. I don’t think the lesson of Deadpool is that we need more R-rated superhero films, or that we need more comedies in the genre or that they should now insert Deadpool into every single X film (they should use him sparingly, in fact. Make his appearances special in a way that Wolverine’s never were). And fun doesn’t just mean silliness, as Marvel Studios has proven. It means having characters we love and want to follow and root for who perhaps have something funny or sweet to say every now and again. For fans of the X-Men comics the fun isn’t just in the action scenes but in the relationships and interactions between the characters, the exact thing that has driven the Captain America: Civil War trailer to such levels of popularity. It's fun to root for characters we love, and the X-Men films have shied away from giving us those characters (or keeping them around from film to film so they can grow on us).
Shedding Tom Rothman, who held the X-franchise back in major ways, was the first step towards fixing that universe. Now it's time for Fox to part ways with Bryan Singer and find someone who understands the X-Men as soap opera as well as action spectacle and heavy-handed metaphor. Someone who can bring in fun and who can allow these characters - some of the best in the Marvel Comics stable! - to flourish and become as beloved as Marvel Studios' characters.
The great writer Mark Harris (Pictures at a Revolution, Five Came Back) weighed in with some thoughts about the success of Deadpool on Twitter this weekend, and I couldn’t agree with him more:
Who should be scared? Warner Bros. Deadpool suggests fatigue w/ self-serious "dark" "epic" comic-book movies. Bad time to invest in bombast.— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) February 14, 2016
Deadpool is not signalling a seismic shift in what audiences want from superhero movies, it’s simply reaffirming what Marvel Studios has shown over the last decade. Is Harris overreacting by saying Warner Bros should be concerned?
Let’s put it this way: Deadpool’s opening weekend was bigger than Man of Steel’s opening weekend.