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Unlikely allies: ‘Spider-Man’, ‘Deadpool’ redefine a genre

By Jack Trainor / Culture Editor

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If “Deadpool” can see, it is because it stands on the shoulders of a web-head.

It’s hard to think of anyone more deserving than Ryan Reynolds for delivering us this year’s massively successful “Deadpool.” The film has not only inspired a rapid industry rethinking of what superhero movies can be, but is now also the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time.

Not many would point to 2002’s “Spider-Man” as having to do anything with a “Deadpool” movie, given the 14 years between them, but the former’s impact on the latter mirrors the effect “Deadpool” is creating for future superhero movies — not to mention both films making improbable comebacks after being all but dead.

To get to “Deadpool’s” recent success though, we have to look at the heroes that came before him — particularly one in a different skintight red suit.

It’s hard to remember a time before the box office was oversaturated with superheroes, but after “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” tanked in 1987, Hollywood decided it could do without spandex and capes.

This allowed Israeli producer Menahem Golan to buy the rights to Spider-Man from Marvel Comics when they became available for the first time in 1985, 23 years after the character’s first appearance in “Amazing Fantasy” No. 15.

But after years of failed funding attempts and a slew of legal issues, a courthouse ruled in 1998 that Golan’s ownership over the rights had expired, reverting Spider-Man back to Marvel. Marvel then sold the web-head to Sony, who went on to produce its film, and the troubles continued.

The project shed directors and stars, like James Cameron and Leonardo DiCaprio, and entertained a dozen scripts before settling on little-known director Sam Raimi and actor Tobey Maguire. It was then pushed back from a Christmas 2001 release to May 2002 for added special effects.

Despite 17 years of setbacks, “Spider-Man” remains one of the best-reviewed superhero films of all time, with an 86 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. To date, it is also the highest domestic grossing superhero origin story movie, per Box Office Mojo, beating out “Iron Man” (2008), “Man of Steel” (2013) and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014).

But the movie’s success isn’t just measured in its individual accomplishments, but what it set the table for — an entire Marvel cinematic universe that brought “The Avengers,” “Iron Man” and “Deadpool.” If Raimi’s wall-crawler flick been a dud, who knows how long it would’ve been until another producer took a chance on super heroes again?

“Spider-Man’s” failure was a real possibility, given the abysmal 1990s movies like “Batman Forever” (1995), “Batman and Robin” (1997) and “Blade” (1998), all of which scored under 55 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The stakes were high when “Spider-Man” re-introduced super heroes as a light hearted, family-oriented venture and viable film market in the 21st century.

Granted, “Spider-Man” also opened the door for a barrage of money-grabbing garbage like any of the three “Fantastic Four” movies, 2003’s “Hulk” and “Daredevil” (2003).

But the good has far outweighed the bad. A number of acclaimed spin-offs and franchises have popped up since “Spider-Man,” such as Netflix’s “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” — a shining example of a leading female role far too scarce in the medium. The “X-Men” franchise has also found massive success, following 2000’s original that earned one-fourth of the domestic earnings “Spider-Man” did.

Similarly to Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” “Deadpool” almost didn’t get made, overcoming 10 timid years as 21st Century Fox kept putting off the project.

Reynolds famously debuted as Deadpool in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but hardly resembled the character, instead appearing as a mangled nightmare with his mouth literally stitched shut.

Fan outcry and leaked CGI test footage over the Internet in 2014, though, finally forced Fox’s hand on an origin movie. Reynolds and first-time director Tim Miller were given full creative control, but with a mere $58 million budget.

The result pulled in $355 million domestically and earned an 83 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. As a very R-rated Marvel movie, the first of its kind and complete with a Stan Lee cameo, “Deadpool” has had an immediate effect on the genre. Its extreme — albeit often comical — violence and character-true self-awareness felt like the kind of edgy comic book movie the 1990s had always chased but could never grasp.

In many ways, “Deadpool” represents a second shift in the comic book movie genre. Whereas “Spider-Man” brought the genre out of the 1990s’ campy sludge, which saw Jim Carrey playing the Riddler and an overbearing “Spawn” adaptation, “Deadpool” is the successful conduit back into that territory.

Previously, an R-rating for a superhero film came more or less as a death sentence, unable to pull in both audience and critics. “Kick-Ass” (2010), for example, is perhaps the second best-received R-rated comic book movie, with a 76 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, but earned a scarce $48 million domestically.

Both “The Punisher” (2004) and its sequel in 2008 achieved a “rotten” rating from critics, as did all three R-rated “Blade” movies from 1998’s original through “Blade: Trinity” in 2004.

In “Deadpool’s” wake, other projects have suddenly started rethinking this logic.

The currently untitled “Wolverine” sequel, Hugh Jackman’s final go-round as the iconic X-Man, has announced that it will seek an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America. While it might have sought this rating despite “Deadpool,” the movie’s success makes this goal more realistic as no X-Men movie or spin-off — which Fox also owns — has had an R-rating in the past.

Director Zack Snyder also declared that his PG-13 “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” movie will be released on Blu-ray with an R-rating after leaving theaters — although extending the two-and-a-half hour movie will almost certainly hurt it and its 29 percent Rotten Tomatoes score more than help.

The new “Suicide Squad” movie, which hits theaters in August, was also rumored to be seeking an R-rating, but producer Charles Roven recently quashed that, saying that the movie will stick with its PG-13 rating in order to stay consistent with the rest of the DC Comics cinematic universe.

“Ant-man” director Peyton Reed commented on the stir “Deadpool” created when he jokingly tweeted in February that the sequel, “Ant-man and the Wasp,” was “going FULL NC-17. Confirmed.” While the thought of “Deadpool” turning a franchise as light as “Ant-man” or “The Avengers” into a curse-ridden bloodbath is laughable, the hope it’s given to other projects to reach their full potential is not.

The first Batman project to get an R-rating, for instance, could come this summer with the animated “Batman: The Killing Joke” adaptation. The Alan Moore and Brian Bolland-penned graphic novel, which debuted in 1988, has been criticized for its suggested sexual violence — perhaps the main reason it’s remained exclusively in print for so long despite fans’ pleas.

But Warner Bros gave its approval for an R-rated animated movie last October, which will reunite Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy as the acclaimed voices behind the Joker and Batman, respectively, from the Emmy Award-winning “Batman: The Animated Series.” It’ll be up to director Sam Liu whether to make the movie worthy of an R-rating or not.

While blindly giving “Deadpool” credit for all of the sudden wave of R-rated, unafraid comic book projects is a stretch, it’s success undeniably deserves partial credit. And while Ryan Reynolds’ determination was instrumental in getting the merc with a mouth on the big screen in the first place, it took an established comic book movie culture to even consider putting a B-list Marvel character there.

Thanks to “Spider-Man,” a web of characters made the transition from page to screen — and now “Deadpool” is making sure no story is too controversial to ignore.

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Unlikely allies: ‘Spider-Man’, ‘Deadpool’ redefine a genre