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The Success Of ‘Deadpool’ Isn’t About Its R-Rating (And Why Hollywood Might Fail In Replicating A Phenomenon)

The Success Of 'Deadpool' Isn't About Its R-Rating (And Why Hollywood Might Fail In Replicating A Phenomenon)

“Man, with Comic-Con buzz like that,” I tweeted back in July after Fox’s panel at San Diego Comic-Con, “‘Deadpool could end up being at least as successful as ‘Dredd.’” Clearly, I was wrong. Very wrong. The Ryan Reynolds-starring superhero movie has reached an unprecedented level of box office success. It took about five minutes to lap the worldwide gross of “Dredd,” and after just two weekends in theaters, “Deadpool” is the sixth most successful R-rated movie of all time and has domestically out-grossed every other film in the “X-Men” series. 

“Deadpool” is the first huge box-office hit of the year. Surely, rival studios are envious and will produce plenty of imitations. Opinions vary as to exactly why the film caught fire in the way that it has, but one of the more popular is that the film’s R-rating, a rarity for the genre, proved to be a selling point. And the impact —which includes the #Deadpooleffect hashtag that has already begun circulating— is already clear: Fox is reportedly considering an R-rating for what appears to be the final “Wolverine” film with Hugh Jackman, and just last night, Warner Bros. announced it will release an extended R-rated cut of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice” on home video. But is the wrong lesson being emphasized from the success of “Deadpool”? 

Quite often, the only thing in Hollywood more disastrous than a giant failure is a giant success —the latter will almost always lead to a slew of unimaginative copycats that miss the mark in capturing whatever made the original special. Think of “Battleship” following in the wake of “Transformers,” the countless YA adaptations that came after “The Hunger Games,” “Harry Potter” and “Twilight.” Or fare like Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” underwhelming after “American Sniper,” or “Need For Speed” and the “Point Break” remake attempting to replicate the “Fast & Furious” formula.

Meanwhile, “Deadpool” has seen some big names attempting to caution studios from trying to superficially copy the film’s template. “Guardians Of the Galaxy helmer James Gunn took to Facebook almost immediately after the box-office windfall, writing, “if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with ‘Deadpool.’ 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.”

“Deadpool” scriptwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese echoed Gunn’s comments in an interview conducted with The Playlist. “That shouldn’t necessarily be the lesson that everyone takes from ‘Deadpool,‘ that all super hero films should be R-Rated,” Wernick told us. “More than anything, the lesson we hope people take away is that 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.”

I’m not necessarily saying that an R-rating wasn’t a factor in the film’s phenomenal returns. It makes for a refreshing, irreverent take on the genre, and cunningly melds the superhero movie with the “Hangover”/“21 Jump Street”-style R-rated comedy in a way that feels fun and accessible. But there are other factors that probably had a big impact: a release date which made it the first real popcorn blockbuster since “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” hit theaters (and a reminder that studios can benefit from opening big films away from the crowded summer or Christmas seasons in some circumstances), a bullish and confident marketing campaign, and a sense that it was doing something a little new with a distinctive voice while not departing from formula too much.

And yet the wrong lessons seem to taking shape right now. A new focus on R-rated superhero movies may not actually make all that much difference, if only because the audience for these movies is already much older than is widely understood. “The Wolverine,” for instance, had 58% of its audience over the age of 25 on opening weekend, while even the audience of the seemingly younger-skewing “Guardians Of The Galaxy” was 55% older than 25 (despite the R-rating, “Deadpool” actually attracted more young people, with 47% of its audience under 25). Obviously, very young kids who weren’t able to sneak in were shut out, but the film still wildly outgrossed either of the two examples above, as well as any first film in a superhero franchise except for “The Avengers” (which is more of a continuative super team-up anyhow).

Meanwhile, “Deadpool,” didn’t succeed because the film was more faithful to the source material than the character’s previous appearance in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” To go back to the earlier example, “Dredd” was very faithful to the source material, violent and R-rated, but attracted a tiny audience. Capturing the spirit of the character helped retain the comic fans, sure, but it’s still a very small percentage of those who’ve seen the movie. Making the Deadpool character accessible to a wider crowd was the special ingredient that made the character connect as wide as it did —it wasn’t pandering to the existing fans that did it. And the same would apply to those who want to see Wolverine in a strip club or Superman punch someone’s head off: an R-rated ‘Wolverine’ or ‘Batman V. Superman’ might fulfill some fans’ wishes, but it’s no more inherently appealing to an audience than a PG-13 take would be.

As with so many successes as well as failures, no one really knows anything, and thanks to a variety of factors, “Deadpool” succeeded because millions really loved it. And as James Gunn says, attempts to reverse-engineer its formula are likely doomed to fail, and studios are going to lose a lot of money blindly going down that path.

The risk is that the real takeaway about the film’s success will escape many in the hubbub about R-ratings and quippy marketing. Quite simply, you don’t need to spend $200 million on your franchise tentpole to make blockbuster numbers. If “Deadpool” continues on its current pace, the film could end up earning as much as $800 million worldwide, and that’s without being released in China, the second biggest movie market in the world, where the film’s violence, sex and language have seen it blocked by censors (and this is another reason studios should be thoughtful about which R-rated superhero flicks will move ahead and at what price each makes sense, if it means alienating key markets). And that’s on a reported production cost of $58 million. That’s half the budget of a minor Marvel movie like “Ant-Man” (which cost $130 million and earned $519 million worldwide) and substantially less than the massive budgets of films like “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” and “Avengers: Age Of Ultron.” 

“Deadpool,” which had its budget cut by $7 million before production started, managed to use the kind of money that usually goes toward mid-sized fare like “Joy” or “Eat Pray Love” and made it feel like every bit as exciting as a Marvel tentpole. A few years ago, with movies like “District 9,” it seemed as if Hollywood was willing to experiment with more fiscally modest blockbusters, and that it was starting to pay off. But the scope and all-star cast of “The Avengers” saw bloat win out again, and studios have since taken expensive baths on movies like “Fantastic Four,” “Jupiter Ascending,” “R.I.P.D..” and “Pan.”

Making a film like “Deadpool” for less money doesn’t just mean less financial risk for the studio. It means more potential for creative risk for the filmmakers, and the chance to break away from homogeneity not just within franchise movies, but in more original fare. “ ‘Deadpool’ exists because we didn’t analyze the movies that came before it. We just went off on our own path, and if there is a lesson, it’s to encourage and nurture that,” Rhett Reese told us.

And the writers have clearly learned from their experience: “We’re happy in that little small budget range that they have us in; we don’t wanna blow this next one out,” Wernick recently told Collider. Not breaking the bank will buy the filmmakers the same level of creative freedom on the sequel that they enjoyed on “Deadpool,” which was embraced by audiences and paid big dividends to Fox. And this is the lesson from “Deadpool” that Hollywood executives need to take: a judicious financial and creatively open approach to superhero movies can also lead to the same success as big budget, traditionally four-quadrant pictures. However, the act of simply amping up forthcoming blockbusters with added sex and violence and hoping to reap the same rewards is a fundamental misunderstanding of why “Deadpool” has been such a phenomenon.

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