Superhero movies are obviously today’s bread and butter in terms of Hollywood blockbusters and box-office, but even by those standards, 20th Century Fox’s “Deadpool” has been a smash sensation that has obliterated records and exceeded the wildest of expectations. An R-rated comic book movie — not the first of its kind, but certainly the first in our current golden age of interconnected superhero films — based on a largely unknown character (at least to mainstream audiences), “Deadpool” would have been considered a hit had it opened to $50-60 million (by comparison, the highest-grossing R-rated superhero film previously was 2012’s “Watchmen” which opened to $55 million). However, the film had a mammoth $132.3 million opening weekend, the biggest debut weekend by an R-rated movie ever, and the sixth highest comic book movie opening of all time. It bested the opening of all Marvel movies but three (all of them ‘Avengers’ films or a third sequel) and has grossed over $500 million worldwide in a mere two weeks. “Deadpool,” and the cultural cache it's accrued, is just getting started.
Two of the key creative stewards of “Deadpool,” screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (known for the 2009 hit “Zombieland”), stuck with the project through thick and thin for six years, and were described in the film’s opening credits as “the real heroes.” How did they feel after the smash opening weekend of “Deadpool,” especially considering the project was, at various stages, either dead, or of seemingly limited interest, to the studio (Fox were never 100% sold on the property at first, said no often, and wanted to ditch the solo movie at one point and instead introduce the character in a ensemble movie)?
“Vindication is a good word for it. Relief is another,” Wernick quipped in a conversation with The Playlist by phone this week. “As hard as we worked to get this thing made, pushing the rock up the hill and having it roll down on us over and over again over the course of six years, the fact that it does have a happy ending is just especially gratifying.”
Much of the narrative surrounding the film’s runaway success has been how not a soul in Hollywood saw “Deadpool” coming, the phenomenon taking the town by surprise (studio projections were off by close to $70 million). And while the writers admitted they couldn’t have predicted this kind of overwhelming connection with audiences, Reese and Wernick believe the reason the movie was made at all is because they, along with director Tim Miller and star Ryan Reynolds, never gave up faith in the character or his potential.
“The short answer is no [we couldn’t have seen this size of an opening happen],” Reese explained when asked about the opening box-office windfall. “But I do feel like Ryan [Reynolds], Tim and Paul and I all felt like this was a money maker in the offing. At various points we said, ‘Man, if we only had $50-$60 million, we would finance this.’ If we had that kind of money lying around, we’d bet our hard earned money on it. That’s how much we believed in it.”
“We were hoping for a big number, but the reality has exceeded our even most fervent hopes,” Wernick added.
As Hollywood scrambles to play catch up on the #Deadpooleffect, reconsidering PG-13 ratings (for example, Warner Bros. announcing an R-rated home video cut of "Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice"), the screenwriters and exec-producers hazarded their own guesses why “Deadpool” connected in such a monumental way.
“I think more than anything it broke all the rules, it was unpredictable,” Wernick said of the meta and irreverent character. “And you didn’t know how it was going to play out from start to finish. In a traditional superhero movie, you can often chart how a movie is going to play out, whether you’re a Hollywood screenwriter or not. I do feel like this roller coaster of a ride, this opportunity to break all the rules left the audience on the edge of their seats, was a big reason.”
“He’s a wonderful character in that he’s both funny and tragic and I think audiences really latched onto that,” Reese added, laying the success of the movie at the comic book character’s feet. “I think he made them laugh, but I also think he elicited feelings from them in his relationship with Vanessa, in his own fears, insecurities and self-loathing. I think people really felt for him so I think what’s great about Deadpool is that he’s at this confluence of heart and laughter and that proved to be a winner for us before with ‘Zombieland,’ and it’s always something we try and get into our projects. We like to make people laugh, but we also like to get them misty eyed a little bit.”
During the long development phase, Reese and Wernick said most of that time was spent waiting on the studio to say yes, and finally be comfortable in green lighting an R-rated superhero film (which traditionally have a lower ceiling in terms of openings and grosses). However, when it came to writing, the process was relatively painless and little changed.
“We definitely made some changes, based on notes, but in the grand scheme, this was a little-developed script and I think its one of the reasons it retains its teeth,” Reese said. Wernick noted there were a couple of big milestones in that development nonetheless: the support of James Cameron and David Fincher who vocalized their support to Fox execs, the script and VFX reel leaking online to much fan enthusiasm and lastly, the co-signing support of writer/producer Simon Kinberg who has been tasked to oversee the greater “X-Men” universe which Deadpool is part of.
“When he came on board it was almost the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Wernick explained. “Simon loves this, he sees this as a way to make this franchise work within the greater universe and I think we were kissed into the trust they have in Simon.” Indeed, in an unlikely move that sounds much more in the vein of TV showrunners, Wernick and Reese were on set every day and were heavily involved in the post-production process — a role usually not afforded to screenwriters.
Hollywood loves to chase a trend, so the big question now, since ‘Batman V Superman’ is going for an R on DVD and “Wolverine 3” is reportedly considering an adult rating: will all super hero movies be R-rated from now on? “Well, we hope not,” Wernick said cautiously. “That shouldn’t necessarily be the lesson that everyone takes from ‘Deadpool,’ that all super hero films should be R-rated. It’s great that some of them will be R — a lot of our favorite movies from childhood, ‘Die Hard,’ ‘Terminator,’ ‘Matrix,’ they were all R-rated action movies. More than anything, the lesson we hope people take away is: you’ve got to take risks. Sometimes that risk will be an R-rating, sometimes it won’t, but to trust the lunatics is the lesson to take away from Deadpool’s success.”
“When people analyze Deadpool, trying to figure out what went right to try and replicate it, I think that’s entirely missing the point," Reese explained. " 'Deadpool' exists because we didn’t analyze the movies that came before it and try and figure out what made them special. We just went off on our own path and if there is a lesson it’s to encourage and nurture that.”
"Deadpool" is in theaters now.