Peter Bart On ‘Deadpool’, The Blockbuster Whose Success No One Can Explain

20th Century Fox

Peter Bart Column BadgeGiven the fact that it’s a game-changer (yes, one of those), it’s important to take in Deadpool in its proper context. This means venturing to your neighborhood megaplex and sitting through the hard-breathing trailers for Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men: Apocalypse and their rival franchise epics – a cacophony of widescreen mayhem.

At that precise moment, when you focus self-protectively on your popcorn, Deadpool’s opening credits suddenly appear – it’s a Douchebag’s Film starring God’s Perfect Idiot, produced by Asshats and directed by An Overpaid Tool.

deadpool-2OK, I get the message: Deadpool is an Imax-sized parody based on a script that is at once self-mocking and delusional. But more important, it’s a giant R-rated hit that registered a record-setting $260 million worldwide opening — one that has Hollywood asking: Why?

The putative answers have come, well, fast and furious:

— Deadpool’s success reflects the ability of the social media to deliver — a persuasive point, but why couldn’t the Twitter Masters have done more for Zoolander 2 or for the Fox reboot of Fantastic Four?

Deadpool delivers big laughs as well as big action, but that’s not precedential — Guardians Of The Galaxy had its glints of humor and even Ant-Man offered witty moments, at least for the insect superhero subset.

deadpool sit on my faceDeadpool features a terrific performance from Ryan Reynolds, but Reynolds’ previous superhero stints as a mouth-sewn-shut Deadpool in X-Men: Wolverine and or in Green Lantern were misfires, and his career has suffered from his habit of picking movies with self-defeating titles, like Buried, Mississippi Grind, and R.I.P.D.

deadpool-suitTry asking the “suits” why Deadpool has connected with its audience you elicit the usual executive hyperbole. “You can’t underestimate the value of talent input,” declares Paul Hanneman, Fox’s head of global marketing and distribution. “The audience is responding to authenticity,” reflects Jim Gianopulos, who does not detail what elements were “authentic.”

The chief of a rival studio, who did not want to be quoted, offered this exasperated analysis: “They did everything wrong and it turned out right.” He was seconded by the ubiquitous Paul Dergarabedian, who offered, “What works for Deadpool may only work for Deadpool.”

deadpIndeed Fox pursued an array of contrarian strategies in fostering Deadpool. They budgeted a paltry $58 million, less than half the normal superhero outlay. They disdained 3D. They picked a first-time director, an animator named Tim Miller, who favors both flashbacks and flash forwards and encourages his star to talk directly to the audience.

deadpool conanAnd they instructed their marketers (social and otherwise) to follow a similarly perverse course. The first images of Deadpool showed him splayed on a bearskin rug (a spoof of Burt Reynolds?). From the positioning of Deadpool’s handguns on billboards, viewers are led to believe the character is more phallic than fierce. Even the New York Times took exception to a poster using an emoji to depict excrement. Then there’s the moment when Deadpool kills his interviewer, host Mario Lopez, on air.

deadpool teaserIt’s possible to intellectualize all this by declaring that the success of Deadpool embodies the end of the superhero era, when success can only be achieved through self-parody. In the last days of the Western genre, comedy supplanted gunfights and the heroes were played by Elvis, not John Wayne.

But on the other hand, why take the time to intellectualize Deadpool?

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