As the 18th year of the Superhero Boom dawned, one could be forgiven for believing its decline was nigh. Industry watchers had been predicting the apocalyptic arrival of Peak Superhero for a good long while (“Is it just me, or is the strain starting to show?” mused the Times’ A.O. Scott in a 2008 — 2008!), but when 2016 arrived, it was accompanied by some particularly grim portents. The previous year had experienced a poisoned crop. The boom had its first outright bomb, Fantastic Four; the forgettable Avengers sequel Age of Ultron disappointed its studio for falling below the stratospheric financial and critical success of its predecessor; and though Ant-Man performed well, it had the most troubled preproduction in Marvel Studios history.
What’s more, the first comic-book flick of 2016 was going to be the tale of an obscure character, helmed by a first-time director, and starring a waning movie star who had already torpedoed one costumed-crimefighter franchise a few years prior. The movie was called Deadpool and it was, as you already know, a smash. Hell, it just got nominated for best picture at the Golden Globes in the musical or comedy category, something no live-action superhero movie has ever done. What’s more, in a genre plagued by numbing repetition, the film felt fresh: It was postmodern and potty-mouthed, and it genuinely worked as an action-comedy. Indeed, when superhero historians look back on the spandex-saturated year of 2016, Deadpool’s improbable success will likely be seen as the annum’s defining event. But whether it goes down as the beginning of a new era or the beginning of the end remains to be seen.
If you’re a studio executive, there was one aspect of Deadpool’s triumph that towers above all the others: It was insanely profitable. Its worldwide take approached $783 million. That total was far smaller than the takes for Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($873 million) and Disney’s Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 billion), but raw numbers aren’t the story here. The margins are. Whereas those other two each had $250 million price tags, Fox put Deadpool together for a paltry $58 million. As a result, though Batman v Superman earned back 349 percent of its budget and Civil War got 461 percent, Deadpool snagged 1,348 percent of what it cost to make — and did so despite having an R rating and being banned in China. Let that sink in for a second.
It’s certainly already sunk in for anyone looking to get a seat at the superhero table without a costly buy-in. That could be a boon for the genre’s artistic future. If you can make a superpowered picture for the price of a decent prestige drama, you’ll theoretically be willing to get more ambitious with your product. The risk is still steep — $58 million ain’t pocket change — but if you follow the Deadpool model, you can suddenly afford to make three superhero movies for roughly the cost of one Avengers installment. Why not hand one of those three to an auteur who has a weird take on the existing archetypes? Why not try taking a played-out franchise in a weird, new direction (as Deadpool did with the X-Men empire)? Why not make a movie about an idiosyncratic character whose brand-name appeal is confined to niche geekdom?
And yet, this way lies potential disaster. If you can make three for the former price of one, that means you just might actually make all three. The superhero market has proven to be a surprisingly inelastic one — demand for these movies remains high despite ever-rising prices and the ubiquitous supply of the product. That’s unsustainable in the long run, of course, and one factor that could cause the whole endeavor to finally collapse is a glut. Up until now, superhero movies have, by and large, been astoundingly expensive to make (2012’s excellent Chronicle being a notable exception), and that enormous average cost has served as one of the only factors preventing the creation of a bona fide bubble. Deadpool may have just opened the floodgates, and the result could be a drowned marketplace.
But the money only tells one small part of the story. We have to talk about the farts. Although there had been a couple of mediocre stabs at making obscene superhero flicks in the past (remember Kick-Ass 2? Trick question — no one remembers Kick-Ass 2), Deadpool was the only one that actually took off and set the cultural agenda. The superhero-film canon has largely depended on squeaky-clean mouths and sanded-off genitalia, but Deadpool made its bones through boning and swore itself into the hearts of millions. The audiences who rolled into theaters around the world had, for the most part, never seen anything like this, and the end product’s filthy glee was gripping. Director Tim Miller and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick earned the hell out of their movie’s R rating and, in doing so, ennobled future creators to abandon the respectable monotony of the caped-crusader ecosystem.
That is, of course, a fact that may bode tremendously good or ill, depending on your tastes. The staid and moralistic Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but there’s little doubt that it’ll see increasing competition from flicks that are willing to throw standards and practices to the dogs. Indeed, one can very easily imagine a producer telling a writer to make their script “more Deadpool-y,” a demand that the scribe will immediately understand as meaning the story needs more swears and pegging. Sure, there’s value in eliminating self-censorship, but a wave of perfunctory vulgarity won’t do the genre any favors, either financially or artistically.
Speaking of artsiness: Deadpool wisely took the lead of the title character’s print version and threw in a hefty number of fourth-wall-breaking quips and observations. In doing so, it became a classic example of satire acting as a pressure-release valve for a self-serious genre. Much as The Simpsons used intelligent homages and knowing sarcasm to expand mainstream American animation outside the suffocation of Saturday mornings, Deadpool talked to its viewers like they were clever adults (or, at least, adult-sized man-children) and declared that it found tired superhero tropes as silly as they did. That approach might help save the genre from itself by empowering creators to use hero’s-journey plot devices and explosive CGI while winking just hard enough to keep the audience on their side.
In this realm, too, we may see diminishing returns. As anyone who’s watched the fourth season of Community can tell you, there are few literary motifs more eye-clawing than empty self-referentiality. Again, we can imagine that producer-writer confrontation and anticipate the latter’s frustration at being forced to add useless metatextuality into a story as a cynical ploy for cheap laughs. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn saw all this coming in a much-read Facebook post in February, fearing that moguls will start “greenlighting films ‘like Deadpool’ — but, by that, they won’t mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’” One fears how prophetic he may prove to be.
Hell, even Deadpool 2 might not learn the right lessons from Deadpool: Director Tim Miller recently walked away from the sequel after butting heads with star-producer Ryan Reynolds, allegedly due to disputes over the future film’s scope and budget. One can only imagine how many vectors of argument will happen behind the scenes as production approaches, given that everyone involved at the top level will have their own theories about what, exactly, is required to re-create the February miracle. There was some kind of lewd alchemy in Deadpool that made it both the boldest superhero film of the year and a new benchmark for a tired genre. Many will try to recreate that alchemy, but they’re just as likely to turn gold to lead.