How 'Deadpool' Raised the Bar for Superhero Movies

February 17th, 2016

Deadpool is merely the first of seven scheduled superhero films in 2016, and now they all have a big bar to get over. With over $150 million in its first four days, critical and fan raves and relief that Deadpool has finally been done right, it gives Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange and perhaps Gambit much less of an excuse not to do better.

How did a virtually unknown comic book character -- and one of the most unheroic and graphic ones at that -- who was roundly panned for his part in the loathed X-Men: Apocalypse years ago end up with an opening like this? How did someone who hardly has the star power of Batman, Superman, Captain America, Iron Man, the X-Men and the Joker -- and with an actor who hasn't been a real box office draw in years -- wind up grossing more than all of them may make in their own opening weekends? And what, if anything, can those films do to have the same big word of mouth and fan approval?

These are some of the elements Deadpool mastered that helped it open so big -- only some of which are available to its superhero peers in 2016. However, if these upcoming films have at least some of these factors on their side, maybe Deadpool won't set the financial and creative bar for the entire year in the comic book movie world.


20th Century Fox

Most everyone agrees Deadpool specifically caught on for being a filthy and violent R-rated comedy that breaks the fourth wall, and mocks the superhero genre and the X-Men in particular. In an era of safe PG-13 superhero films with time honored characters, doing something different with a relative newcomer who doesn't play by the rules is apparently what fatigued audiences have been waiting for.

There's certainly no way Batman v Superman, Civil War, Apocalypse and Doctor Strange could have such demented humor and satire. However, the one film that stands a fair chance may be Suicide Squad, which has a whole collection of antiheroes and villains as leads instead of just one.

Warner Brothers Pictures

Most specifically, Suicide Squad has the latest incarnation of the Joker -- who is basically the eviler version of Deadpool, with less fourth-wall breaking and more indiscriminate murder. But the Joker has been seen over and over again and is stuck in PG-13 limits for his blacker than black comedy and evil, even though Jared Leto and his tattoos may still push those envelopes.

The real Deadpool like breakout that may come from Suicide Squad is Harley Quinn. She is relatively new to mainstream movie audiences as well, has the same black comedy tastes and insanity, stands to shake up the comic book movie genre as a new kind of female antihero/villain, and has set the Internet on fire with her early sneak peeks just like Deadpool did.

The demented and abusive dynamic between the Joker and Harley may be no laughing matter in the end. Yet just as Deadpool got comedy from a deranged character, tortuous trauma and extremely anti-social brands of heroism, Suicide Squad may be the only superhero movie left in 2016 with the chance to do the same.

Even if Civil War and Doctor Strange are funny, and even if Batman v Superman has far more of a funny bone than expected, they probably can't go for laughs in the same uncomfortable and risky ways.


20th Century Fox

The other big factor in Deadpool's runaway success has been its marketing. Since last year's Comic-Con, sneak peeks and countless viral stunts have primed audiences for Deadpool's wicked brand of humor and action. In fact, many of those ads and teasers might have been funnier than much of the actual movie itself.

Whether or not the movie itself is such a triumph of doing things differently, Deadpool's marketing is an unquestioned triumph in that regard. Marvel and Warner Brothers regularly hype up their movies for months on end, and even have viral stunts of their own, but even their best campaigns haven't had this much of an impact. Of course, they don't usually need to put the same amount of effort that a Deadpool does to get noticed and stand out.

Suicide Squad hasn't gone quite so overboard with its early marketing, yet it has only needed two trailers to get fans excited. Like Deadpool, Suicide Squad's first trailer at Comic Con was so big that it was leaked online in no time -- but Warners had to officially release it online days later and much earlier than planned, while Fox held off on Deadpool until a world premiere on Conan O'Brien weeks later.

Batman v Superman hasn't had that kind of online excitement, even with countless more trailers. In fact, Warners allegedly doesn't know how to correctly market it, and being the next superhero film after Deadpool could now work against it further. X-Men: Apocalypse has also stumbled in selling itself, as its own Comic-Con trailer merely inspired jokes about its arch-villain's purple look -- and now the shadow of Deadpool could reflect harsher on this much more serious X-Men related film.

Marvel has been doing well with Civil War, especially with its first hit trailer, but marketing has never really been the MCU's problem. It could be doing more to make Doctor Strange catch on, as it too features a relatively unknown comic book hero and has very offbeat elements of its own. But while Deadpool hit the ground running, Doctor Strange only has an Entertainment Weekly cover story and no trailer to speak for it so far.

Star power

20th Century Fox

Deadpool offered a comeback story for Ryan Reynolds, who notoriously failed twice to be a superhero star. However, this finally gave him the chance to do it right, and show why he looked to be the next really big thing five years ago.

Batman v Superman has the best chance to offer such redemption, in the form of Ben Affleck. Although Affleck has come back from the depths time and time again, this is his first chance to do it in the superhero genre after Daredevil was panned 13 years ago.

Warner Brothers Pictures

That failure was just one reason many fans protested his casting as 'Bat-fleck.' But as it stands, Affleck is one of the most promising elements in Batman v Superman trailers so far, and word from those who've seen the film has been very strong on him. If Affleck proves past critics wrong, it wouldn't be the first time and might not be on the level that Reynolds did in Deadpool, but he at least couldn't be blamed if the rest of the movie lets him down.

Both Civil War and Apocalypse have major stars like Robert Downey Jr and Jennifer Lawrence, but they aren't dependent on them. Suicide Squad has all eyes on Jared Leto and Margot Robbie, yet the star power of Will Smith may still be needed for an extra nudge. And Doctor Strange has Benedict Cumberbatch, who has Internet adoration in some circles and an Oscar nomination, but who hasn't opened a big film like this before.

Daring to be different

Deadpool sold itself as breaking the superhero mold, and in many ways it did -- although it could have gone a bit further in the movie itself.

Suicide Squad is also making itself look different because it has villains as heroes, yet the last trailer made it look like DC's Guardians of the Galaxy to many viewers. Still, if it has the comedic tone of that trailer, it will be different for being a DC film that isn't entirely grim and dark, especially in the wake of Batman v Superman.

Marvel Studios

Civil War is trying to change things by having the Avengers go to war, yet they might need more wrinkles to the time honored and often criticized Marvel formula. X-Men: Apocalypse looks like more of the same so far, with the difference of the younger Jean Grey, Storm, Cyclops and others debuting in the prequel saga.

Doctor Strange could certainly break the mold, with its focus on magic, other dimensions and other weird elements the MCU hasn’t shown before. Yet without much real scoop so far, there's no way to know for sure now.

James Gunn just argued that being different in ways beyond ratings, language and violence is what made Deadpool succeed, and will be needed for the genre’s survival. Hollywood may miss that point in future years, but maybe if a few of these PG-13 films don’t, it can send an equally powerful message.

Civil War and Suicide Squad have high hopes to send that message, while more are worried about Batman v Superman and Apocalypse, and Doctor Strange and Gambit remain blank slates. For this historically large slate of comic book films in 2016, they may need to do better than salvage a split – and have to hope Deadpool isn’t still the year’s standard bearer when it’s over.

20th Century Fox