Deadpool 2, and the Challenge of the Movie Sequel

Reports suggest director Tim Miller left the sequel over plans for a radical follow-up. But is that what we want from movie sequels?

The last week or two have been the latest bumpy chapters in the cinematic battles to bring Deadpool features to the big screen.

The story behind the first film is almost heading into folklore already, given that 20th Century Fox was nervous about greenlighting anything other than a PG-13 take on the character, leaving the Deadpool movie in limbo for nearly a decade. It took the ‘leaking’ (let’s go with that) of test footage for the film online to grease the necessary wheels, as said ‘leaked’ material spread around the web at speed. Enthusiasm was off the charts, and people wondered when the actual film would follow.

20th Century Fox duly took a gamble, imposing a tight budget (the final bill coming in at $58 million), and rolling the dice on an R rating (and it’s easy to forget what a risk that was. The box office take of R-rated comic book movies has been limited for some time). The Ryan Reynolds-headlined X-Men spin-off would end up grossing nearly $800 million worldwide – even without a lucrative Chinese release – and would outperform by distance the more official X-Men follow-up, X-Men: Apocalypse. The studio is also taking the chance on letting the final Wolverine movie, Logan, have an R rating too.

Deadpool, all these months later, still feels like a breath of fresh air. Sure, it’s tied to the conventions of comic book movies that it looks to ridicule, and it can entirely be accused of having its proverbial cake and eating it. But it’s a lot of fun, stands up to repeated viewing, and as an antidote to the dour, dark, and dingy direction that many comic book movies were heading in, it feels far more distinct than perhaps it should.

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Of course, it was in many ways successful in part by being a hostage of circumstance. The relatively low budget – around a third of what you’d traditionally expect to be spent on a major comic book movie – required real ingenuity on the part of the filmmakers. Director Tim Miller’s longstanding expertise in visual effects and animation was key, allowing him to realise exciting sequences that didn’t require half the hard drives of the world to be lugged at the screen. He – in conjunction with writers and producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick – chose their big moments well. The money duly went on the screen, and space was afforded to allow some proper character work. Plus, y’know, to give us the chance to hang around with Deadpool.

From the outside looking in, it was the tightness and dedication of the quartet behind the film that made it such a happy success story. Ever since Ryan Reynolds debuted the character of Deadpool on screen in the pretty forgettable X-Men Origins: Wolverine back in 2009, he’d been banging the drum for a standalone spin-off movie.

Along with Miller, Reese and Wernick, a core team of four stayed with the idea for years, gradually evolving the screenplay as the project kept edging towards a green light, before Fox got nervous again. At one stage, remember, Reynolds’ chances of reprising Deadpool were under serious threat from his commitment to Green Lantern. Had that hit, and sequels followed, then it’s not hard to imagine a timeline where the Deadpool movie never happened at all, and we got a Green Lantern boxset instead.

But happen it did, and unusually, given the sheer duration of its development, it stuck with its director, star, writers and producers throughout. They rightly earned plaudits not just for the film, but for their dedication in getting it to the screen in the first place.

Which makes it a little disappointing, in truth, to read stories – unconfirmed, I should note – that things had begun to sour between Reynolds and Miller even as the first film rolled into cinemas. I liked the image of the four of them working against the system together, and enjoying a well-earned beverage when the grosses started rolling in (possibly inviting Simon Kinberg, another champion of the project, along in time for last orders). It seems that didn’t happen.

And then last week, the four became three. Tim Miller left the project.

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Rumored reasons? Ryan Reynolds exerting his casting veto over Miller’s choice of Kyle Chandler as Cable in Deadpool 2. And perhaps more fundamentally, that Miller wanted to take the gamble further, to push the sequel in a different direction, reportedly tripling the cost of the film as he did so.

Again, it’s important to note that Miller hasn’t had his say on this, and so it’s hearsay as it stands. But it does go to the heart of an interesting conundrum with movie sequels.

After all, most of the time, when a movie sequel is announced that leans quite closely to an original film, you don’t have to look far to find comment boards bemoaning ‘more of the same’. Just this summer, Independence Day: Resurgence dressed up a replaying of Independence Day, Ghostbusters 2016 had its foundations in Ghostbusters 1984, Now You See Me 2 just tried to complicate Now You See Me 1 and London Has Fallen attempted to replay Olympus Has Fallen, just with added racism.

With Deadpool, though, the majority of fan reaction has – unusually – been supportive of the ‘more of the same’ idea. Perhaps because more of the same in Deadpool terms means it’s still going to be different from the approach taken by pretty much everyone else (until they all catch up: if Hollywood executives smell dollars, they’ll likely be heading to their photocopier in due course). Yet appreciating that nobody outside of the Deadpool development team knows the exact story that they all want to tell, the idea for the sequel seems to be that it keeps the same visual style, the same fourth-wall breaking, the same irreverence that clearly still holds appeal.

But I do wonder what Miller was planning.

One of the key components of the original Deadpool was that it was a risk, that it was swimming against the proverbial tide, and that it was trying things that other movies of its ilk weren’t daring to do. There’s surely, then, logic to the idea of redefining things again come the sequel. To keep the risk-taking mentality at the heart of the production, and to go where others dare not to. That way, Deadpool as a movie franchise arguably has a greater shot at longevity, and just as good a shot at failing with a difficult second album. The stakes are, after all, rather high now. And that’s a big change this time around.

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For 20th Century Fox, it can’t have been the trickiest decision as to which side to back though. Assuming what we’re being told is correct, it had to pick between the film’s star (and key component of its marketing campaign), writers, producers and another $60 million-ish price tag. Or it could go with its director, and a bill that edged closer to $200 million.

The former is as close to a sure-fire hit as it can get, and a very profitable one. The latter could have paid off, but also could have killed the golden goose. Plus, without Chinese box office (the tone of Deadpool 2 is unlikely to give it any more shrift with Chinese censors) how much more money does Fox realistically think it can make out a Deadpool sequel? $1 billion may be the ceiling here, and it seems to have just as much a chance at getting that by spending $60 million on the film as it does by spending $200 million.

I guess, therefore, that most of us would make a similar call in such situations, not least if our Christmas bonus depended on it.

It does go to the heart of the unsaid about the sequel formula, though. That sequels that genuinely do take a risk, and try something different, rarely get rewarded for doing so. Superman III tried to switch tone to comedy and spluttered. Gremlins 2: The New Batch basically ripped a hole in the original Gremlins film and ridiculed the idea of a Gremlins 3, and lost out to Dick Tracy at the box office. Even Spider-Man 3 tried to play with the central character, and hit a wall – for that and more reasons – in doing so.

Then consider that even hugely successful – in every sense – sequels such as Toy Story 2 and 3, Before Sunset and Midnight, Bournes 2 and 3, Dark Knights 2 and 3 and Aliens essentially stuck within the framework that their predecessors had established. Having established their respective rulebooks, they had little intention of ripping them up, instead opting to expand upon and enrich existing material.

Deadpool 2 is likely to take a very similar approach, particularly given that the backing of Reynolds, Reese and Wernick by Fox seems like a statement of intent. There’s not a chance in hell I’d gamble against it working, either. The three of them know what they’re doing, and deserve their chance to build upon their success so far.

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But it can’t just be me that’s curious as to just what Tim Miller had up his sleeve. Could he really have lobbed a grenade into the Hollywood sequel way of thinking? Did he want to rip up the sequel rulebook? Was his take on Deadpool 2 really a radical advance on Deadpool, and if so, what did he want to do next with the character, and the style of the film? We may never know.

The bottom line is that a sequel is rarely the place to take such gambles, especially when the first film is the studio’s biggest grossing movie of the year. The whole point of a sequel, to a studio at least, is to mitigate risk, and to give a new production an immediate in-built audience. As such, built into that is the edict that you only reboot when you need to, not when you’ve just enjoyed the biggest box office surprise of the year. It is not an edict that Tim Miller will be getting to challenge anytime soon.