Can Deadpool & Wolverine really save Marvel?

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By Charlotte O’Sullivan, 

Disney Still of Deadpool & Wolverine (Credit: Disney)Disney

The once invincible superhero universe has seemed increasingly vulnerable recently. Its atypically foul-mouthed and adult new entry is predicted to be huge – even as it mocks its own brand.

Lewd, rude and dangerous to know, Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool is no cog in the Disney machine. That’s what the cast and crew of the first R-rated superhero adventure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would have us believe. It’s a message that may alienate some punters, and be gratefully received by others, but while some of Marvel’s recent big and small screen offerings have flopped, Shawn Levy’s Deadpool & Wolverine – which imports two beloved mutants from the 21st Century Fox X-Men film series – could be the biggest hit of the summer. Current projections suggest it will have a $160m+ opening in the US (ie even bigger than the recent opening for Inside Out 2, which leads 2024 so far).

Disney Deadpool & Wolverine brings the two characters from the X-Men film series into the MCU for the first time (Credit: Disney)Disney

Deadpool & Wolverine brings the two characters from the X-Men film series into the MCU for the first time (Credit: Disney)

But could there be hidden costs for Marvel Studios boss, Kevin Feige, in welcoming Reynolds’ anarchic anti-hero into the fold? The movie’s co-writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, worked on the first two Deadpool movies and were responsible for many of the most outrageous gags; initially sidelined by the Disney powers that be, the pair managed to get themselves re-hired, in 2022.

The script they and Reynolds have put together apparently makes Feige part of the story. We already know, from the trailers, that Deadpool will quip that cocaine is “the only thing Feige said was off limits!” Such comments potentially undermine the authority of a hands-on producer who was once seen as untouchable and, for a certain breed of comic-book fan, god-like. Back when Feige was overseeing the MCU’s hot streak, Fox, Sony and Warner Bros were desperate to ape his success. Now Feige is the one seemingly piggy-backing on other people’s ideas and the butt of wisecracks that mock everything about the family-friendly multiverse he’s created so far. 

There’s a tie-in between the film and Aviation American gin. We’re not in the milk and cookies zone, anymore

Meanwhile, there’s a tie-in between the new film and Aviation American gin, which Reynolds used to have a stake in (and still has financial links with). A series of limited-edition bottles for the new film show Deadpool welcoming everyone to the “Ginematic Universe”. A rep from Disney declared that fans would now have a “chance to engage with the world of Deadpool in a whole new way”. We’re not in the milk and cookies zone, anymore.

What will be ‘the Deadpool effect’?

True, Disney’s MCU has never been 100% squeaky clean. Remember the polyamorous dolphins in Thor: Love and Thunder; the f-bomb in Guardians of the Galaxy 3 and the umpteen dirty jokes in WandaVision? And Deadpool, himself, isn’t 100% naughty. He has a cuddly and responsible side; among other things, he risks his life to save vulnerable kids. Still, the character’s amoral vulgarity will certainly cause some Mouse House loyalists to spit out their popcorn.

Disney The marketing campaign has played up a romantic link between Deadpool and Wolverine (Credit: Disney)Disney

The marketing campaign has played up a romantic link between Deadpool and Wolverine (Credit: Disney)

That Deadpool & Wolverine is the only MCU offering of the year could be read as proof that Disney has capitulated, entirely, to Deadpool/Reynolds’ louche brand of snark. And, by ridiculing their own brand, Marvel are arguably creating problems for future MCU endeavours. We get it: adult material and self-mockery are all the rage when it comes to superheroes these days. As proof, see the surprise endurance of Sony’s Venom franchise and the high ratings of Prime Video show The Boys. But where does that leave the rest of Disney’s multiverse? 

According to Variety’s London Bureau Chief, Alex Ritman, there’s still a huge appetite for what one might call more typical MCU adventures. Ritman recently wrote a piece on Thunderbolts*, which is set to be the last entry of Marvel’s so-called Phase Five that began inauspiciously with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania in early 2023. He notes that the piece received “a lot of interest, online. I don’t think the success of Deadpool will have a detrimental effect on the other MCU movies planned for 2025/2026″. 

Ritman says Disney know what they’re doing. “I’ve just got back from CineEurope [an annual industry convention, held in Barcelona]. We were shown footage from the movie and watched a message from Reynolds. There was so much [ribbing] of Disney, such an emphasis on the fact that Deadpool isn’t your standard Disney film. But the Disney execs are clever folk. They were playing into the mickey-taking. They totally embraced it.”

Bad-boy appeal

According to author and Marvel comic-book fan, Kim Newman, “Deadpool has always allowed Marvel to poke fun at itself.” Deadpool first appeared, in the comics, in 1990. “In every iteration of the character, it’s like Marvel are saying to readers, ‘You think our characters are kind of assholes? Here’s a character who agrees!'” 

Newman views the goofy “Merc [mercenary] with a mouth” as an antidote to all things over-earnest: “He’s had a hard life. After all, he’s a cancer survivor. But he’s also a mass-murderer. If that’s who you want as your hero, because you’re fed up with Captain America, that probably says something bad, right? However, it’s understandably bad, because Captain America is kind of insufferable.”

How much longer can the character go on pretending to be sexually omnivorous before he has to put his money where his mouth is? – Ryan Gilbey

Essentially, via Deadpool, Reynolds is having fun with one of the comic book world’s most intriguing bad boys – which Newman completely applauds. What Newman doesn’t appreciate are the invidious comparisons being made between Deadpool & Wolverine and more recent MCU outings, such as The Marvels. Newman actually enjoyed last year’s flop, which, as he puts it, “takes Brie Larson’s rather humourless character and teams her up with Iman Vellani’s Kamala Khan/Ms Marvel, someone who thinks Captain Marvel is a) great but b) also funny. I thought that dynamic really worked”. It annoys Newman that the very comic-book fans who rejected Nia DaCosta’s epic are now swooning over the idea of a grim and grizzled Wolverine being baited by cheeky Deadpool. “I suspect Deadpool & Wolverine is basically The Marvels, but with two very popular blokes.”

Prime Video A new wave of self-mocking superhero films and TV shows also includes Amazon series The Boys (Credit: Prime Video)Prime Video

A new wave of self-mocking superhero films and TV shows also includes Amazon series The Boys (Credit: Prime Video)

For Daily Telegraph critic Tim Robey, the appeal of Shawn Levy’s new movie boils down to “boys fighting”– as he says, “lads want to see Deadpool and Wolverine beat each other up.”

A potential romance?

But is there a more romantic side to the duo’s relationship? Deadpool is famously pansexual in the comics, and Reynolds, right from the start, has said he wanted to honour that aspect of the character. In the marketing campaign of Deadpool & Wolverine, posters cast the two leads as touchy-feely lovers, a la Beauty and the Beast. 

Writer Ryan Gilbey – whose book on queer cinema, It Used to Be Witches, is published next year – is actively irritated by such tactics. “These flirtations hint at more than a bromance, yet don’t get beyond the level of schoolyard sniggering,” he says. “Are these characters going to have sex or aren’t they? If that’s not a realistic possibility, and there’s nothing here to spook audiences when the film is shown in countries hostile to LGBTQ+ rights, then it all feels hollow and opportunistic.”

Gilbey is unmoved by the scenes in Deadpool 2, where our hero can’t keep his hands off his pal, Colossus. “Surely audiences aren’t stupid enough to fall for the ‘Deadpool is pansexual’ lie? The first film was entirely heterosexual, save for a cartoon end credits sequence of him having sex with a cartoon unicorn. How much longer can the character go on pretending to be sexually omnivorous before he has to put his money where his mouth is?”

Inside Out 2 is being described as the saviour of the year. And here comes Deadpool & Wolverine, the other side of the coin, that could well be the saviour of super-hero films – Alex Ritman

Newman, by contrast, thinks it’s entirely possible the new film will offer surprises. “In the comics, there’s an alternate universe Wolverine who’s gay. And if any popular superheroes could get away with it, it’s Wolverine and Deadpool. James Bond hinted he’d had gay sex, in Skyfall, and no one made a fuss. Let’s see.” 

Disney Another Disney movie, Inside Out 2, has already overperformed, so could the studio save the summer box office? (Credit: Disney)Disney

Another Disney movie, Inside Out 2, has already overperformed, so could the studio save the summer box office? (Credit: Disney)

It’s undeniable that blockbusters with big international markets traditionally limit themselves vis a vis LGBTQ+ representation (or make it so that controversial scenes can be easily cut). That said, it’s worth pointing out that two queer characters set to re-appear in the new movie – Deadpool’s surly ally Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Negasonic’s smiley mutant girlfriend Yukio – have already broken the mould. In Deadpool 2, the pair (who both have qualities beyond their queerness) sit around drinking from mugs that say, “I’m with her”. No one could blink and miss the passion and sweetness between them and the audience response was so positive that it’s unlikely Reynolds, Reese or Wernick would dare to mess with the chemistry (if they do, fans might not be happy). 

Ritman, for his part, is just excited about the return of Rob Delaney’s under-gifted everyman, Peter, who, in Deadpool 2, became part of Deadpool’s band of desperados because he “saw the ad and thought it sounded like fun”. “I love it that Peter’s made it into the new movie,” says Ritman. “Peter, with his dad bod and his diabetes!”

What its success would prove

Robey, whose book Box Office Poison (Hollywood’s Story In a Century of Flops) is published later this year, is keen for Deadpool & Wolverine to do well, simply because “the industry is in the doldrums and we need hits to ensure that films with a medium budget can get made”. He also feels the resistance to many of Marvel’s Phase Five offerings is part of a wider trend. “The action movies that used to be the studios’ bread and butter can no longer be relied upon. We saw that with [the underperformance] of Fast X [Fast and Furious 10] and Mission Impossible 7 [Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One]. Since Covid, audiences will only go to the cinema for special occasions and they can sniff out slightly weaker films.” Warner’s R-rated Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga lost money, argues Robey, “because the film-makers didn’t know their audience”.

Right now, after a terrible year all round in 2023, Disney are proving they know their audience again, and making a fortune thanks to the success of Pixar’s Inside Out 2. “Everyone’s delighted by this record-breaking, joyous, warm-hearted movie,” enthuses Ritman. “It’s being described as the saviour of the year. And here comes Deadpool & Wolverine, the other side of the coin, that could well be the saviour of super-hero films.” 

Both sequels will eventually be streamed on Disney+. Inside Out 2 has already joined the billion-dollar club, Deadpool & Wolverine is likely to follow suit. Disney, basically, has all the bases covered. As Newman says, with the biggest of grins, “In Disneyland, if you’re fed up with princesses, they’ll sell you a Disney villainess. Instead of Snow White, buy the Wicked Queen! That’s how you get suckered in. Whatever choice you make, you’re still part of that world.”

Deadpool & Wolverine is released in US and UK cinemas on 25 July.

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