Deadpool: A hero reborn
Ryan Reynolds has played superheros before, and none of those movies quite hit the mark. So why should we think that his latest film Deadpool will be any different? Because this time Reynolds is in charge, with a twisted, crazy character that plays to his strengths, and a very big point to prove.
Ryan Reynolds is on a mission. Not the kind of mission that Deadpool, the superhero character he plays in his latest movie, might embark on as the wise-cracking antihero, ‘Merc with a Mouth’ who uses swords, guns and a knack for cartoon violence to get the job done. Reynolds’ mission is a lot less bloody: he just wants people to see his movie, and for them to think it’s good.
That should be the goal of any serious actor, but Reynolds has a lot riding on this project. He has been voicing to the comic-book community his desire to play Deadpool for over a decade, and personally lobbied Hollywood executives to get it greenlit. Reynolds was also involved in the script, and this is the first time he has put his name to something as a producer as well as its star.
He also has a point to prove. This is the fifth comic-book movie that Reynolds has starred in, with his earlier efforts generally derided by fans. Bad script or directing choices have been the culprits, and, in the case of 2011’s Green Lantern, a poorly rendered CGI costume. This could be his way of trying to make amends, and there are plenty of reasons to suggest why he might succeed.
The first advantage is that Deadpool plays to Reynolds’ strengths. With his chiselled physique and good looks it is easy to see why Hollywood views him as superhero material. And with comic-book movies being such big business these days [Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3 are all listed in the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time] there is no shortage of characters to play. Reynolds is also naturally funny, and perfect for playing a hero with a sharp sense of humour; as demonstrated in fratpack-style comedies (Van Wilder: Party Liaison, The Change-Up) and rom-coms (Definitely Maybe, The Proposal, Just Friends), but never really harnessed while in a costume.
Image: Guy Aroche
Reynolds is fully aware of how easily humour comes to him.
“I started in this industry not taking myself seriously,” he says. “I think I recognised early on – at 19 years old – that that’s what got my foot in the door. I liked having my foot in the door, so I wasn’t going to stop doing that. I’ve never taken myself very seriously, and there’s lots of material there to make fun of.”
But of course he is only telling half the story. If you take a look at how he got to this place, he’s worked as hard as anyone to prove himself in Hollywood, as his backstory tells us. Born in Vancouver on October 23, 1976, and the youngest of four brothers, Reynolds’ father was a food wholesaler while his mother worked in retail.
He recalls a paper round and driving a forklift truck as two of the jobs he held before taking up acting – joking that as Canada had so few actors, he knew he would always get a call whenever Hollywood showed up to film. His death in the pre-opening credits sequence of an old X-Files episode is one role that proved this theory right.
Then one day, which he says was on a whim, Reynolds decided to drive to Los Angeles, where he begged an agent to send him to auditions, promising to land at least one role. That jokey charm clearly impressed, as he managed to bag himself a lead part in a primetime sitcom, Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place, which ran for four seasons.
Van Wilder: Party Liaison was his comedic transition to the big screen. His flair for one-liners coupled with a strict gym regime then made him perfect for his first comic-book role, as a vampire hunter in Blade: Trinity (below). It also led to his first encounter with Deadpool. “The comics were sent to me in bulk,” he recalls. “I read them and loved them. I became a little obsessed with the character too – the idea that he’s meta and breaks the fourth wall. I was pretty fascinated by it. But I think most people just didn’t know what to do with it, because it was kind of obscure and odd, and a very weird thing to turn into a movie.”
Reynolds had chanced upon a character different to the one he was playing, or to any traditional comic-book hero. Deadpool is funny, potty-mouthed and violent, but also self-aware – a hero that knows he is inside a comic book, who addresses the reader directly and references past battles with villains by quoting the issue number at them. To everyone else in the Marvel Universe, it is an accepted part of his craziness – a side effect of the government experiments that gave him his healing powers – but to readers it makes him different and fun. As a result Deadpool is one of Marvel’s top-selling comics of the last 25 years.
To a Hollywood studio in 2004, however, Deadpool still seemed like a risky bet, even for 20th Century Fox who held the rights.
The character exists within Marvel’s X-Men universe, which Fox had acquired years earlier and made into two successful movies.
Introducing Deadpool in a solo flick, or even as part of the ensemble characters, would be tricky. How do you take that quirkiness and make it palatable for the mainstream?
With these concerns in mind, the project was put on the back burner and Reynolds looked to develop his career elsewhere. While Blade: Trinity failed to perform at the box office, it did at least show that he could handle action and potentially more serious roles. The offer of more comedies was inevitable, but then so too were roles in Smokin’ Aces, The Nines and Chaos Theory, along with thrillers like Safe House and Buried. Reynolds could easily be a romantic interest to Sandra Bullock in one film, and a government agent or hitman in another.
“The studio said, ‘You’re going to make your movie, but it’ll be for the catering budget of most superhero movies.’ We said, ‘Fine, let’s go. We’ll figure it out.’
In 2009, an offer to play Deadpool finally arrived, opposite Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. There was just one problem: the depiction in this film was nothing like the character in the comics. The so-called “Merc with a mouth” in fact had his trap glued shut, and was merely a pale Wolverine imitation for the lead character to fight at the end, lacking his trademark red and black costume and with his two swords sliding from his hands like Hugh Jackman’s claws.
Looking back on that first Deadpool outing, Reynolds shares the frustration of comicbook fans. In an interview with Empire he recalls that he had wanted to play the character so much, but it turned not to be the movie he wanted to make. He says simply of how the character was visualised, “Obviously, I don’t write the cheques.”
He was not alone in being disappointed. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was so poorly received that it prompted Fox to reboot the entire franchise, eventually leading to a prequel with an all-new cast, X-Men: First Class. Reynolds, meanwhile, chose to play another superhero, Green Lantern. The movie also flopped, costing $200 million and earning just $220 million worldwide. An over-reliance on special effects was its downfall, although the actor did meet his wife, co-star Blake Lively, on the set. The couple have a one-year-old daughter.
With that franchise off the table, Reynolds turned to comic books for a fourth time, starring in an adaptation of the Dark Horse series R.I.P.D. [Rest in Peace Department] with Jeff Bridges (below). The concept, involving dead cops chasing ghosts, was not handled well, resulting in another box-office bomb.
Fortunately, Deadpool was still lurking in the background, and as part of the X-Men reboot there was a chance to bring him back. But still it was Reynolds pestering the studio to make it happen. “Finally, we were given a little seed money from Fox, who paid Rhett Reece and Paul Wernick [writers of 2009 horror-comedy Zombieland] to write a Deadpool script,” he says. “We all locked ourselves in a room for four or five weeks and hammered out what the story would be.”
When Reynolds describes how the movie got greenlit, it still gives a sense of the nervousness felt by the studio. “They gave us a little more seed money to make a short presentation, which is what leaked online and got the movie made,” says Reynolds, referring to the incredible fan reaction of a short Deadpool sequence screened to executives that somehow found its way onto YouTube. “The studio said, ‘You’re going to make your movie, but it’ll be for the catering budget of most superhero movies.’ We said, ‘Fine, let’s go. We’ll figure it out.’ Since then it’s been about putting every last penny on the screen, and here we are. The studio let us be, and everyone’s been really supportive.”
The result is an origin story, ignoring the events of the earlier Wolverine film but, in a strange twist of Deadpool irony, able to reference them and also how that movie was received as part of the character’s wacky self-awareness. First-time director Tim Miller elaborated on this to Empire: “Does he know he’s a comic-book character in a comic-book movie? Does he know that Ryan Reynolds is playing him, and that Ryan Reynolds also played Green Lantern? It’s a big rabbit hole, and we explore it pretty deep.”
With the wealth of comic-book movies being released this year, this is sure to set Deadpool apart, but Reynolds is adamant that it will be the last superhero he plays. “I’ve had my spin around that merry-go-round more than I probably should have,” he admits.
“I feel Deadpool is something I’ve wanted to do forever, so it does to a certain degree feel a bit like homecoming to me. And I think it’s coming out at a perfect time. I don’t know if audiences are fatigued by superhero fare, that’s subjective. They’re still coming out to see them in droves. But regardless, they’re fluent in this language now, and it’s a great time to be able to put Deadpool out there, because it speaks to that language directly.”
Cast your mind back to Halloween. There are children in costumes, trick or treating from door to door.
Now picture a grown man joining in the festivities in a red and black bodysuit – a little reminiscent of Spider-Man perhaps, but with two huge swords on his back and a set of guns at his side. This is how Ryan Reynolds spent October 31 last year, in his Deadpool costume, leaving his wife and baby daughter at home to make a hilarious video with a group of kids dressed as X-Men characters, training them to be crime-fighters. Watch it below: Reynolds is brilliant when he’s left to his own devices and allows his strengths to shine.
Naturally, there was a reason behind it. The Deadpool movie had wrapped earlier in the summer, and Reynolds was continuing his promotional drive ahead of its release this month. It was something he had started as soon as filming began, tweeting the first image of himself in the suit, not in an action pose, but copying a cheesy 1970s Burt Reynolds photo shoot, lying across a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fireplace.
Then, in December, he launched the 12 Days of Deadpool social media campaign, releasing a poster, artwork, a funny image or short clip over consecutive days, including a set of themed emojis, which culminated in the launch of a new trailer on Christmas Day. As a final push, Reynolds even live-tweeted in character during an episode of The Bachelor, shown in the US in January, where a new Deadpool commercial was set to debut in the ad break, sharing his amusing thoughts on the contestants. Clearly, Reynolds has been doing everything he can to make this movie a hit.
The comic book fans love it, which is a very good start. This unconventional, wacky approach shows them how much Reynolds understands the character whose adventures are defined by the unexpected and surreal. Now Reynolds needs to convince the rest of us that Deadpool is worth the admission price; that he can take an outlandish persona and make it believable. It’s a task that requires passion, soul, humour and commitment. Reynolds has those qualities. Now watch him fly.
Deadpool is released in cinemas this month
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This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of Esquire Middle East. To buy a copy, click here