When it comes to Hollywood, you can pretty much bank on success breeding imitators. It’s happened time and time again, most recently with the YA boom following The Hunger Games’ explosive opening, and it inevitably leads to a string of misfires that learned the wrong lesson in the first place. With The Hunger Games, character and thematic resonance were key, but other studios simply saw “dystopia + female lead” and ran rampant with adaptations like Divergent and The 5th Wave. So it stands to reason that, in the wake of the unprecedented box office success of Deadpool, the comic book movie genre is in for a shakeup. But how, exactly, will this play out, and what effect will 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool have on existing superhero franchises?
The wrong lesson to glean from Deadpool’s success is that audiences just want R-rated superhero movies. Folks didn’t simply turn out in droves because Deadpool had naughty language (this isn’t the first R-rated superhero movie, after all—see: Kick-Ass, Watchmen, etc.). They came for the uniquely irreverent tone, from which the profanity, violence, and by extension R-rating sprouted organically. Deadpool offers something entirely different within the superhero genre—something audiences have never seen before—and that’s why it was such a huge success. Well that and a brilliant marketing campaign.
While we’re in the midst of the superhero movie’s heyday, the genre is constantly evolving and Deadpool could mark another step in that evolution. 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy proved that superhero movies didn’t have to be either dark and serious or colorful and fun, they could also be weird and non-traditional, and Deadpool takes that weirdness one step further by refusing to take the genre as a whole seriously. Superheroes are silly and while Guardians had its fair share of self-referential material, Deadpool addresses this explicitly, calling out the conventions of the traditional superhero movie and turning them on their head.
So what does this mean in the immediate future? It’s hard to tell, but the lukewarm fan response to Avengers: Age of Ultron (which was its own kind of weird, but more serious), intense passion for Guardians of the Galaxy, and wild success of Deadpool could signal a step further into “fun” territory, which means a step further away from the dramatic and serious boon that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight began.
The real litmus test here will be just how big Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is. The film is very much being sold on the grave seriousness at the heart of the story, which stands in stark contrast to the Marvel Studios mold. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but if Deadpool has audiences climbing the walls, it’ll be interesting to see how they react to Batman v Superman—a tone and story arc they definitely have seen before, and many times. Is there still room for the Christopher Nolan approach, or have audiences tired a bit of that kind of superhero movie in favor of something, well, different?
The Warner Bros. mold tackles its comic book adaptations with a much more dramatic angle, but the studio already seems to be hedging its bets by selling this August’s Suicide Squad as their version of fun and irreverent (though not necessarily self-referencial)—the most recent trailer screams Guardians of the Galaxy. It feels like David Ayer’s villain-centric pic has the potential to be the studio’s big breakout film of 2016, but the fact remains they’ve got a slate built on Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman tone that includes a World War I-set Wonder Woman and a Snyder-helmed Justice League. If audiences react less than enthusiastically to Batman v Superman when the film opens next month, it may be time to rethink that strategy.
But Warner Bros. does have the option of going R-rated, and it wouldn’t be entirely out of the realm of possibility. Producer Charles Roven previously told us all of their planned films up through Justice League are intended to be PG-13, but those plans could certainly change on account of Deadpool’s success. Levity is key, though, so one imagines the studio would want to tread carefully when combining their dramatic approach with an R-rating to avoid getting mired in the doom and gloom, not to mention the rating should be the right fit for the property—an R-rated version of The Flash is probably not the best of ideas, and there’s no way they make an R-rated Batman movie, right?
Marvel Studios, meanwhile, has an advantage in that their approach has never been overtly serious. They take their characters seriously, yes, but the colorful palettes and humorous sensibilities always shine through with an acknowledgment that superheroes are inherently a little silly, and with an upcoming slate that includes Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Doctor Strange, and a Taika Waititi-directed Thor: Ragnarok, they’re not exactly lacking in the variety department. What they don’t have is the ability to venture into R-rated territory, given that they’re owned by Disney, so while they can certainly get irreverent to a point, the Marvel approach is family friendly at its core.
And then there’s 20th Century Fox, the studio that for so long resisted the risky Deadpool adaptation and now stands to gain the most from its success. The Ryan Reynolds-fronted film now exists within an interconnected X-Men universe, so injecting his character into future films like present day-set X-Men sequels and the Gambit spinoff would automatically infuse those movies with a smidge of the Deadpool flavor, but as producer/Fox superhero guru Simon Kinberg recently said, not every superhero movie is improved by making it R-rated.
Kinberg did mention one specific property that, should it get off the ground, he could envision as being R-rated in nature, and that’s X-Force, which is like a darker version of the X-Men. That seems like the next logical step for Fox, besides the Deadpool sequel, and the film that could carry this very specific, self-referential tone squarely into the “shared universe” era. It’s also possible that Hugh Jackman‘s final Wolverine movie could land an R-rating, given that The Wolverine nearly did.
While it’s unclear exactly what will happen next on account of Deadpool’s success, we can definitely count on some sort of reaction. Studios will no doubt want to capitalize on the profitable nature of Deadpool’s performance by making their own smaller-budgeted, more risky adaptations (ie. R-rated), but the question is whether they’ll have learned the right lesson—that Deadpool worked because it’s irreverent and unique, not just irreverent—or if we’ll simply get a slew of pale imitations, no doubt of the R-rated nature. Speaking from experience post-Guardians of the Galaxy, filmmaker James Gunn seems to think it’ll be the latter, and history tells us he’s probably right, but I’d argue one studio that got the right idea from Guardians was Fox, who saw that “risky” Marvel movie’s success as a big reason to take a gamble on Deadpool—it’s no coincidence Fox finally gave the film the greenlight a month after Guardians opened in theaters to massive success.
So then what, specifically, will we see happen at the major studios currently making comic book movies? Marvel’s family friendly atmosphere may mean business as usual, but between Warner Bros.’ very serious tone and Fox’s position to capitalize on the Deadpool craze directly, the scramble could be on to either change course significantly or quickly put a different kind of comic book adaptation into fast development. Whatever the case, Deadpool’s success is a testament to the passion and perseverance of Reynolds, director Tim Miller, and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick in the face of continuous pushback, so it’s serendipitous to see them now leading the charge of the next stage in the superhero movie genre’s evolution.