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Why Fox is ditching Marvel’s superhero strategy

A Deadpool sequel is in the works, but it’s in need of a director. The Wrap reported last week that director Tim Miller walked away from the project due to creative differences with star Ryan Reynolds over how to approach the follow-up. Miller wanted a bigger budget to make a more “stylized” movie. Reynolds, along with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, wanted to stick to the R-rated, comics-inspired humor that helped make the film so successful. In the end, Reynolds and the writers won, and their victory is crucial to understanding how 20th Century Fox hopes to stand out in an increasingly-crowded superhero landscape. Lagging behind Marvel, Fox is betting big on going small, in effect creating a new formula to get audiences excited about its superhero movies again.

Fox is betting big on going small

It’s a common practice in Hollywood to go bigger for action movies and their shared universes. It already defines the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s certainly why Warner Bros. has invested billions in Zack Snyder’s grim and bombastic aesthetic. But Deadpool was a hedged bet from the start, Fox only greenlighting the hard-R project — at a relatively modest budget of $58 million — after director Tim Miller’s test footage leaked in 2014. Showing Wade Wilson punching his way through faceless goons all while quipping for the camera, the footage was received by the fan community with incredible enthusiasm, pushing a studio that had been more focused on the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises off the fence. (Going small might also have had something to do with Reynold’s last turn as Deadpool in the awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine.)

But having a small budget meant Miller and Reynolds needed to lean harder on the uniqueness of the character to sell the concept. What made Deadpool so good was more than just its humor. It was also a gleeful rejection of what audiences have come to expect from the superhero genre. The on-screen Deadpool, like his comic book counterpart, broke the fourth wall constantly, referencing Reynolds’ real career and how attractive Hugh Jackman is, while also calling bullshit on genre tropes like “the superhero landing.” And, of course, there was that R rating, meaning Miller and Reynolds could be as gross and irreverent as they wanted to be. It was an anti-superhero-movie superhero movie, with a personality and style all its own. It’s no wonder critics called it “a breath of fresh air“.

Superhero franchises are hard to pull off

Fox had a choice on how to move forward: mount the big-budget sequel that Miller reportedly wanted, with all the risk that comes from that, or stick to the scrappy dynamic that made Deadpool so notable in the first place. When it came down to doing something that could have potentially ended up looking the same as every other franchise blockbuster, Fox made the conservative play by going with Reynold’s character-driven vision, even if it meant losing Miller in the process. But it wasn’t a truly noble decision, either.

It turns out superhero franchises are hard to pull off, even with the template of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Warner Bros. has so far failed to strike critical gold with its similarly ambitious DC Extended Universe, and Sony had to broker a shared licensing deal with Marvel after the failure of the Amazing Spider-Man franchise. By going with a smaller sequel — and not even trying to replicate the bigger-than-bigger strategy employed by most franchises — Fox can let the next Deadpool focus on character rather than budget-inflating effects, floating apart from the competition in a sea of superhero movies.

It’s an approach that already seems to be reflected in Fox’s larger strategy, as well. Next year’s Wolverine swan song Logan will be rated R, something that would be a definite no-no for Disney-owned Marvel. And given that Deadpool exists in the X-Men film universe, it’s all too easy to imagine the Merc with a Mouth — and all of his raunchy attitude — stepping in to prop up that otherwise mediocre franchise. If anything, not trying to simply play Marvel’s game is slowly becoming a virtue when it comes to genre properties in Hollywood. It’s why Fox and Sony felt comfortable skipping San Diego Comic-Con this past year. And the money saved from avoiding an astronomical budget can then be pumped into a marketing campaign that can raise the bar.

Fox has a real chance to reinvigorate a superhero genre that’s getting stale

None of this is to say that Deadpool 2 is now guaranteed to be a good movie, especially since Miller’s aesthetic was so important to the original. Fox is now hunting for a new director, and even with names like Drew Goddard and Quentin Tarantino being bandied about, the sequel could still easily be as mediocre as the rest of Fox’s X-Men movies. But the studio deserves credit for attempting to write a new formula. Superheroes movies aren’t going anywhere. But thanks to Deadpool accidently pushing the envelope, Fox has a real chance to reinvigorate a genre that’s growing a little stale.


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