The secret of "Deadpool’s" success — and why Hollywood is almost certainly learning all the wrong lessons

Studios keep believing that box office success is just an algorithm to crack—but you can't fake what "Deadpool" has

Published February 19, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

Ryan Reynolds in "Deadpool"   (Twentieth Century Fox)
Ryan Reynolds in "Deadpool" (Twentieth Century Fox)

If you hated “The Green Lantern” or “Catwoman,” Hollywood thinks it has finally figured out why: They didn’t have enough swear words or violent mayhem.

Following the smashing success of the R-rated “Deadpool,” starring Ryan Reynolds as a spandex-wearing vigilante, reports indicate that Fox is also flirting with taking its Wolverine franchise off the PG-13 market. According to io9’s Rob Bricken, the studio announced at the recent New York Toy Fair that it would be pushing “The Wolverine 3” (or whatever Logan’s next solo outing is called) toward a more adult-oriented audience. Instead of claws that refrain from spilling a drop of blood—through the power of movie magic—everyone’s favorite pointy mutant might get to actually kill people.

The announcement was widely cheered among fanboys, as Warner Bros. also mulls an R-rating for forthcoming "Batman" installments, but at least one person isn’t impressed. “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn warned that the incipient trend is a sign that Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from the astounding box-office numbers for “Deadpool.” During its first weekend in theaters, “Deadpool” earned $132 million, by far the best February opening in history (destroying the record previously set by “Fifty Shades of Grey” by $40 million). By the end of this weekend, analysts project that the film will earn $245 million, more than what any “X-Men” movie has earned during its entire run.

According to Gunn, its success can’t be pinned on any one factor. “After every movie smashes records, people here in Hollywood love to throw out the definitive reasons why the movie was a hit,” the director wrote in a Facebook post. “I saw it happen with ‘Guardians.’ It ‘wasn’t afraid to be fun’ or it ‘was colorful and funny’ etc etc etc. … They’ll be green lighting films ‘like Deadpool’ – but, by that, they won’t mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’ They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing ‘Deadpool’ didn’t do.”

James Gunn is absolutely on target about the fatuous cluelessness of studio executives, who tend to treat films like algorithms waiting to be overanalyzed and replicated. Their belief seems to be that it’s formulas, not movies, that make money. Following “Guardians,” Gunn points out that the trend du jour is “[trailers] with a big pop song and a bunch of quips”—as if the presence of Queen in the teasers for both “Hardcore Henry” and “Suicide Squad” will be the reason anyone pays $10 to see them. At a time when “Deadpool” powerfully illustrates the benefit of doing something different, Hollywood execs are hell-bent on making everything the same.

If Freddie Mercury’s godlike octave jumps won’t rescue Hollywood from franchise fatigue, neither will "Deadpool’s" foul mouth. Contrary to popular belief, a majority of films released in theaters are already R-rated, and they earn far less money than their PG-13-rated counterparts. Executives have known this to be true for some time. Back in 2013, 30 percent of movies (or 189 in total) in theatrical release carried an R-rating, while PG-13 fare accounted for just 18 percent of releases. Despite the fact that there were nearly twice as many R-rated movies, they pulled in about half as much money as those with a PG-13.

According to the Wrap, the same was true in 2012. If 168 films were released with an R rating and their grosses totaled $2.3 billion, that means that each movie earned roughly $13.7 million. Contrast this with the 113 PG-13 films that amassed $4.7 billion at the box office, pulling in about $41.6 million each.

It’s a simple word problem that even a fifth-grader could figure out, but somehow studios keep getting the math very wrong. Last year, even more R-rated movies were released—Box Office Mojo counts 199—and they actually earned less money than before, just $12.9 million on average. Whereas the highest-grossing PG-13-rated movie was “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which has, thus far, earned $916 million in the U.S., the biggest R-rated film was “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which topped out at $166 million. While “The Force Awakens” shattered the all-time box office record, “Fifty Shades” settled for 16th place on the year-end charts.

The coming onslaught of R-rated movies is only the latest version of a message that Hollywood has been trying to sell audiences for years: Fans want our movies darker, bloodier and broodier. These days, even Superman has to be a candidate for Zoloft. This is why, next month, we’ll get “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a movie in which a sad Ben Affleck yells at Henry Cavill for two and a half hours. The superhero broodissance also brought us last year’s “Fantastic Four” reboot, which director Josh Trank promised would be “a much more grounded, gritty, realistic movie.” The film was also a lifeless bore that the studio didn’t want to be associated with. Even its actors looked vaguely embarrassed to be in it.

If the box office failure of “Fantastic Four” (which grossed a disastrous $56 million in theaters) and the underperformance of 2014’s “The Wolverine” ($132 million) is any indication, the secret to success isn’t about grit, grime or sending Wolverine to go mope in Japan. What audiences respond to most is movies that we actually want, not what we’ve already had more than enough of. 2013’s “The Wolverine” marked Hugh Jackman’s fifth time playing the clawed crusader on film, and by the time he finally hangs up his claws for “The Wolverine 3,” he will have starred in eight “X-Men” movies. No R-rating can disguise that level of overkill.

Contrast this with the case of “Deadpool.” After Wade Wilson made his cinematic debut in the poorly received “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” Ryan Reynolds fought for seven years to get his own spinoff, hoping to do right by audiences. After some test footage of Reynolds in the part leaked onto the Internet to rave reviews, Reynolds would get that chance. Despite the fact that the movie sends up the superhero genre, “Deadpool” is hardly as ironic or cynical as it believes. The film was a passion project for everyone involved, as well a giant love letter to all the fans who supported it.

If Hollywood has to endlessly copy a movie until we’re all sick of it, it could do worse than “Deadpool.” The inevitable R-rating trend might even get us a “Suicide Squad” sequel that doesn’t have to settle for a PG-13 (what’s the point of having a movie starring villains if you don’t let them be really naughty?), but for the most part, studios don’t need to break bad to make good. What the industry really needs is more love.

By Nico Lang


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