Ryan Reynolds’s first appearance as the “Merc With a Mouth” wasn’t in 2016’s Deadpool. Reynolds actually popped up in the climactic scene at the end of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine as the merc with no mouth. Literally: He wears a surgically sealed fleshy mess over the lower half of his face. In other words, the singularly distinguishing factor about the iconic character — Deadpool’s ability to sling self-deprecating quips, the fourth-wall-breaking one-liners, the profanity-laced cracks — was a non-consideration for his cinematic debut.
In fact, every iconic characteristic of the Deadpool you know now was once dismissed with such a blatant disdain for the source material that the comic-book-fan community couldn’t help but see it as a raised middle claw. Fox executives insisted Reynolds abandon Deadpool’s signature red-and-black costume for eggplant hospital scrubs, his trusty katanas traded in for abnormally long retractable arm blades. More unusually, screenwriters Skip Woods and David Benioff (yes, that Benioff!) bestowed Wade Wilson’s alter ego with inexplicably arbitrary powers, like teleportation and laser eye beams, both of which have zero precedent in Deadpool’s 27-year comic-book existence (he is, however, super resistant to hangovers).
First appearances are incredibly important moments for comic-book collectors. Take Deadpool’s printed debut in New Mutants No. 98, with a pristine copy going for $500 on the reseller market, or a signed iteration with creator Rob Liefeld’s signature going for close to $2,000. Which, in Deadpool currency, equals a whole lot of chimichangas. So the fact that the introduction to Deadpool took place during a fight scene between Deadpool and Wolverine that’s less than five minutes long was difficult enough for fans to swallow. It doesn’t help that it’s also one of the most frustrating scenes of any comic-book movie to date, perhaps only second to when George Clooney’s Batman revealed his bat nipples.
For one, the melee takes place atop the thin outer rim of a nuclear silo with a backdrop that would best qualify as scenery in Minecraft. Despite precarious footing, Deadpool and Wolverine are still capable of partaking in the fighting equivalent of a Cirque du Soleil performance without falling. Then, there are the mishandled superpowers-showcase moments, including the glaring discrepancies between Deadpool’s cinematic and comic-book iterations, and Wolverine’s deflection and absorption of a steady stream of molten eye beams with his claws. On top of that, we witness a laughable CBS-procedural-like moment, in which the mind-controlling baddie (Danny Huston) types the word “DECAPITATE” into his computer.
In retrospect, the scene is especially strange when considering ’Pool’s huge fan base – and that in 2009 alone, the same year X-Men Origins: Wolverine came out, the demand was so insatiable for any original material involving the Regenerating Degenerate that Deadpool had four separate Marvel titles and seven trades on the newsstands. To figure out exactly what happened to create the odd pop-culture footnote that is Deadpool’s first cinematic appearance, I reached out special-effects company Amalgamated Dynamic Inc. co-founder Alec Gillis, who worked on X-Men Origins: Wolverine, specifically on Deadpool’s design and makeup.
“Yes, we were familiar with the source material,” Gillis says, “But we were also familiar with how this deviated from the source material … We were told at the time that this was an introduction to the Deadpool character, and that he would be getting his own movie after this one. We were also told that Ryan’s stunt double, Scott Adkins, would be filming that fight scene at the end, and you wouldn’t even need Ryan on set.”
Fox also initially told Amalgamated Dynamic that they didn’t want Deadpool to don a “leotard” in the movie — it was too early in the character’s projected long-term story arc for that reveal. Despite abandoning any adherence to Deadpool’s original costume, there was still plenty of back and forth during the actual design process; Gillis remembers presenting close to 100 rounds of wardrobe options. At the behest of the studio, Gillis presented a mouth-flap option, which was then mandated to compensate for the fact that director Gavin Hood wanted to shoot the end scene with Adkins.
But after reviewing the footage, all involved could still tell it wasn’t Reynolds playing Deadpool in the clash. This meant bringing Reynolds back (who had initially appeared as a pre-Deadpool Wade Wilson midway through the movie in a brief cameo) for a reshoot — but still keeping the mouth flap. Amateur gumshoes such as myself assumed that the mouth prosthetic was merely leftover from the attempt to obfuscate which scenes starred Reynolds and which starred Adkins. But it wasn’t just that: Jeff Katz, a former VP of production at Fox, told the Geek Generation podcast that the head of Fox said, “ ‘We don’t want a guy talking during a fight — that’s cheesy.’ [And] this is how he says we deal with it: The door opens and it’s Deadpool and he’s got no mouth. Wolverine looks at him: ‘Gee, Wade. Looks like you’re the Merc without a mouth now.’ ”
Though he made attempts to pay homage to the character’s roots, Gillis says only one actually got through: the left eye’s diamond-shaped bruising. But as far as those long arm blades and the laser eyes? Fox acknowledged Wilson’s propensity for katanas, but their logic was that Wade had just escaped a laboratory, so he wouldn’t have access to weapons. So they gave Deadpool arm blades instead. “Ridley Scott once told me, ‘Stick with reality. She’ll always save you,’ and I agree with that,” Gillis recalled, “And when we presented the blades, we of course considered length because, well, how else would he bend his elbow?” The studio’s response? “Well, that doesn’t look cool. Make it longer.”
Gavin Hood was executionally powerless as well in delivering a movie that respected the source material. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was his first major summer studio blockbuster, and his vision for the movie was in stark contrast with the studio’s. Gillis mentioned during our conversation that when he finally saw Logan, he remembers thinking, Well, this is exactly what Gavin wanted to do. In a 2016 interview, Hood said, “[Deadpool now] works so well because he is allowed to be who the character really is … unencumbered by PG-13 requirements,” . He added in another interview that “working on the [X-Men Origins: Wolverine] was a baptism by fire. And when you’re working on a movie this big, making it quite quickly, there can be a lot of voices. And they’re not all so clear.” Of Deadpool’s appearance in particular, the director was fairly diplomatic when it came to attributing the blame, but acquiesced when someone suggested it was the fault of the studio heads.
Katz is less diplomatic. During his Geek Generation interview, he attributed the mishandling of Deadpool in X-Men Origins as his reason for quitting the studio. Initially, while at New Line, Katz noticed that a young actor named Ryan Reynolds was stealing all the scenes as Hannibal King in the third installment of the Marvel vampire franchise and New Line property Blade Trinity, portraying — you guessed it — a katana-wielding wiseass. “The right character for Ryan is Deadpool,” Katz recalled thinking on set. “[Then] I get hired at Fox. I’m told that Wolverine is going to be a $70 million, almost R-rated, ’70s revenge movie. But then what happens is that it becomes a summer release and it becomes an X-Men 4 hybrid.”
With a summer release comes a bigger budget, and with a bigger budget comes more explosions, plenty of CGI, lasers inevitably shooting from someone’s eyes, and, of course, an inflated cast. The studio decided they wanted X-Men Origins to have more X-Men characters to make it feel like an ensemble movie, so they brought in Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), Wraith (Will.i.am), and, as Katz remembers, Deadpool because “they liked the name … and that’s it.”
Fox invited Reynolds to film a cameo over a the course of a few days on location in Australia, but Katz — along with Kevin Feige, already a Marvel producer — still felt that this character-unveiling strategy was squandering a huge property. Reynolds was similarly frustrated about debuting a character he felt very passionately about in such an ill-conceived way, but Fox presented him with an ultimatum: They were holding Wade Wilson hostage. The conversation at the time was, “if you want to play Deadpool, this is your chance to introduce him,” Reynolds said in 2016. “And if you don’t want to introduce him in this fashion, we’ll have someone else play him.”
Nine years later, I think we can all agree that after a duet with Celine Dion and a $783 million worldwide gross, Reynolds has the validating last laugh. Mostly due in part to the fact that it’s easier to laugh when your mouth isn’t sealed shut.