Why Deadpool’s Astounding Success Poses a Challenge for Fox

Photo: Marvel, Twentieth Century Fox

Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds’s outlandishly vulgar take on the cult-favorite superhero, is a bona fide phenomenon. It made $150 million in its first four days domestically, breaking all kinds of records, as well as $268.4 million worldwide, meaning it grossed more in half a week than all but 26 movies did over the entirety of last year. At this rate, it’ll have a good shot at a billion dollars, and a sequel from the same writers who had already been confirmed when the film was only tracking to open at $65 million — less than half of its eventual performance. With these numbers, expect Fox not only to roll out another Deadpool, but also other films that will feature the character, including an X-Force movie, which producer Simon Kinberg said could be similarly R-rated.

Now, Deadpool’s success is all the more notable for its R rating, a story we’ll be returning to at some point soon. And certainly, with its astronomical gross, other R-rated superhero movies have become not only possible but a likelihood; clearly, audiences responded to the chutzpah and stylistic excess of the film. But there is an interesting question that lies behind the door opening on R-rated superhero movies, and it’s one that exists right at the heart of what makes this genre the dominant driving force in the contemporary box office.

First, let’s look at Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which is under the aegis of Disney. To be clear, Deadpool is a part of Fox’s superhero universe, which includes various Marvel characters that Disney does not have the rights to, including Deadpool and the X-Men. (Then there’s Warner Bros.’ DC Comics universe, which features Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Suicide Squad. Confused yet?) Fox and DC are very much hoping to replicate the success Disney has had with the MCU, which has produced 12 movies so far and has almost a dozen more planned.

The economic genius of the MCU lies in the Avengers sub-franchise, which combines each superhero from the stand-alone movies into a gigantic, event-of-events blockbuster. But by focusing its tentpoles around these everybody-in behemoths, Marvel also requires something of its films: They must all, essentially, be the same movie. Not the same movie plotwise, though they are often that, but the same movie tonally and aesthetically; they have to be interchangeable and easily jumped between, so that the eventual combination of the many elements doesn’t jar any fans who were introduced by, say, Iron Man, or Captain America: The First Avenger. Sure, some of the films have slightly varied sensibilities — Iron Man is rakish and troubled; Captain America is earnest and heroic; Thor is earnest and bizarre — but these sensibilities are simple to port into the hub films because they live within the characters.

Deadpool is a different story, as embodied by its R rating. Deadpool could not exist within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It would be impossible to put Reynolds’s Deadpool, a constantly cursing sexual being who speaks directly to the audience and seems to delight in killing, in the Avengers movies, which contain only characters who are basically the opposite of those things; the two styles could not be married, either stylistically or tonally or aesthetically, without undoing the fundamental spirit of one or the other. As such, doors opened or not, there will be no MCU Deadpool equivalent. There might be hints taken from Deadpool, whether it’s some barely risqué dick joke made with great ceremony or a winking acknowledgement of the audience. But there just isn’t the room for that kind of expansion within such a rigid system of interlocking parts. Have you seen the list of characters who are going to be in Civil War? Managing that plot is like running a city.

You can see echoes of this in DC’s universe. Sure, there are boundary-pushing elements of Suicide Squad, if you consider “Jared Leto laughing” to be a boundary. But dating back to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, DC and Warner Bros. have staked their interpretation on darkness, and their movies are consistently dark: visually dark, thematically dark, tonally dark. By making Superman this dark, Zack Snyder was able to seamlessly slide Batman into his world, and then they can all collide with the Suicide Squad somewhere down the line. And these movies are heavy — like, “Wagner and the fate of mankind” heavy. Again, Deadpool would be about as marriageable with DC as the Hangover franchise.

Here, then, is Fox’s problem. Fox does not currently have a true universe, but it does have a franchise: X-Men, run consistently, after a brief interruption, by Bryan Singer. (The two Wolverine movies function as spinoffs rather than their own separate branches, although X-Men Origins: Wolverine is where Deadpool was introduced, albeit a very different version of Deadpool.) With the success of Deadpool, Fox now has its opportunity to form a universe. Sort of.

The X-Men franchise under Bryan Singer exists somewhere between the MCU and Warner Bros. take on DC. It’s Very Serious Stuff, geopolitics and human rights intersecting with the individual plight of the outsider. But it’s also handled with a far lighter and brighter touch than that of Zack Snyder’s black-and-blue crayon drawings. What it does share in common with those universes, though, is that it’s equally hard to see how Deadpool fits barring a drastic reimagining. Uzbek censors aren’t the only reason it’s taken so long to make a Deadpool. Such a knowingly and proudly self-referential, iconoclastic film is incredibly difficult to pair with a normal superhero movie.

A hint of the difficulty can be seen in the demographics that came out for both films. According to The Hollywood Reporter, 37 percent of Deadpool's audience was between the ages of 18 and 24, compared with only 19 percent of the audience for Days of Future Past, the most recent X-Men movie and precursor for Apocalypse. That was a direct result of the film's marketing, which went hard and fast for a younger audience that would be engaged by its edgy sense of humor. Marrying the two franchises isn't just something that can be achieved with a casting announcement — it would require altering the fundamental DNA of one or the other. If you put Deadpool in a PG-13 X-Men movie, you're actively turning your back on two of the qualities that made Deadpool such a hint: its unrepentant vulgarity and violence, and its have-your-superhero-cake-and-eat-it-too metanarrative.

A knowing wink likely wouldn't be enough; you're essentially betting on audiences being attached enough to Ryan Reynolds in a red suit, regardless of what he's doing or saying in that red suit — and audiences are often very quick to turn on the dilution of something they love. On the other hand, you can make the X-Men go full R, but that's a huge risk in and of itself, essentially the shifting of an entire franchise onto another wavelength. It's one thing to do it in comics, where the audience is smaller and more narrow along demographics; these movies have to please nearly everyone.

Most likely, then, is some sort of compromise: Treat Deadpool like its own separate entity, giving Reynolds & Co. an X-Force and the characters it contains to play around with, and then, one day, once X-Men has finished following whatever arc Singer has planned for it, there can be some tentative meeting of the twain, handled very diplomatically and selectively so as to not compromise the core appeal of either franchise. Considering the caution with which Fox has handled X-Men, and their considerable awareness of the value of the Marvel characters they do possess, I wouldn't expect anything drastic.