Deadpool, The Joker and The Possibilities of the Low Budget Comic Book Movie

With Warner Bros willing to take creative risks with its new Joker movie, why lower budgets are opening possibilities for comic book films.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie had some notable ramifications. I like the film – heck, I love the opening half hour – but on the movie’s release in June of 2009, to Hollywood analysts, it felt like a gamble that had failed. Warner Bros, after all, had heavily gambled on the film. It had gone against all known logic, and sunk some $130 million into the making of a movie, that in turn was based on an iconic comic book long-deemed unfilmable. And then it iced the cake with the apparent curse for blockbuster films: an R-rating.

Hollywood watched closely. And when Watchmen returned a disappointing $107 million at the US box office, adding just $77 million elsewhere on the planet, a collective shrug seemed to take place, and movie executives went back to their planning meetings, freshly reassured that they’d predicted an R-rated comic book blockbuster was going to stumble. They told us so.

As such, for over a half a decade, Hollywood blockbusters pretty much stuck rigidly to the PG-13 rule. That is, if you’re spending over $100-150 million on a movie, it’s commercial suicide for it to not have a PG-13 rating in the States, and a 12A in the UK. 2010’s Jonah Hex had a whole host of other problems, but that played to the narrative: an R-rated comic book movie (albeit costed as just south of $50 million), that barely clawed back $11 million in box office takings.

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In the same period, I should note, what you could get away with in a PG-13 rated movie felt like it changed a lot. It’s not difficult to see that had Christopher Nolan made his Dark Knight trilogy even five years earlier, then it would have been tricky to avoid an R in the US and a 15 in the UK for The Dark Knight Rises at the very least. But still, Nolan’s films managed to skate within ratings parameters, Marvel consequently accrued enormous box office by staying within that zone too, and woe betide anyone who tried something different.

In fact, for a long time, it was hard to find an R-rated blockbuster that could be construed as commercially delivering on expectations. David Fincher had a go, but his 2011 adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo took $232 million at the box office, and Sony would have hoped for a good $100 million on top of that (the subsequent sequels stalled, and the personnel has now fully changed for this year’s The Girl In The Spider’s Web).

Elsewhere, Kingsman: The Secret Service was in large parts an independent movie, where co-writer, producer and director Matthew Vaughn had the room to go for an R-rating (eventually opening against the cheaper, but hugely successful, Fifty Shades Of Grey adaptation in the US, at the start of 2015). Mad Max: Fury Road, meanwhile, did well, but again, you didn’t have to search far for think pieces suggesting that a softer rating would have brought in more cash.

The turnaround in thinking finally came in 2016. And even then, almost by accident. And even more even then, with caveats.

The story of Deadpool’s movie genesis is one well told. Following X-Men Origins: Wolverine, that itself skirted with an R-rating, the plan was set to spin Ryan Reynolds’ take on the Deadpool character into his own movie. There was a guerrilla approach of sorts to doing so, with director Tim Miller, writers and producers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and Reynolds himself, constantly pushing for several years to get the film made. They faced questions about how Deadpool could fit a PG-13 framework, and they knew he couldn’t, despite occasional noises being made to the contrary.

As such, they also knew the other option was to go cheap. That to mitigate the box office risk in cutting off the PG-13 audience, they figured they could bring the budget right down.

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Test footage was filmed, Fox basically passed on the picture, test footage was ‘accidentally leaked’, the internet exploded, Fox found $60 million down the back of the sofa. Spurred on by a terrific marketing campaign – whose influence on the film’s box office should not be understated – Deadpool of course proved a hugely profitable success. It grossed nearly $800m at the global box office – more than any other PG-13 X-Men-related movie had managed – and Hollywood very quickly woke up.

20th Century Fox, to its credit, was first to react. Its two spin-off Wolverine movies to that point had edged to the boundaries of a PG-13 rating. The subsequent Logan, released last year, had earned its R within five minutes of the film starting. It proved a big hit, and earned an Oscar nod too. Even Suicide Squad – a film that actually won an Oscar! – ended up with a 15 certificate in the UK, something Warner Bros didn’t fight even though the movie was PG-13 rated in America. Without Deadpool’s box office triumph earlier that same year, it’s not hard to imagine Warner Bros fighting to get that certificate down to a 12. But it didn’t.

What Deadpool has done – and the success of its sequel has cemented this – is shown Hollywood another way. It must be something of a relief to studios, who otherwise have been pouring some $200 million of production budget at a time into world-building franchise films, to have another more profitable outlet. An outlet that’s half-way between what they’ve been doing already, and the model that producers such as Jason Blum have made a raging success of (low budgets, high control, lots of reward). It’s perhaps no surprise that Blum himself is now partnering on a low budget comic book movie, the new take on Todd McFarlane’s Spawn.

Over the coming months and years, then, the R-rated comic book movie is very much a thing, and studios aren’t shying away from edges in the way they once were (ironically, of course, television shows have followed a far less family friendly path, and inversion of how such things were in the ’80s and ’90s).

Take Warner Bros. While it continues to pursue high budget, high impact comic book tentpoles such as Wonder Woman 2 and Aquaman, it’s also trying a different approach for its upcoming Joker origins movie.

Starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips, the movie reportedly has a modest production budget of some $55m. Warner Bros and DC are also backing Birds Of Prey, a comic book movie that’ll see Margot Robbie reprise the role of Harley Quinn, in this case leading a bunch of female foes from the DC universe. Again, the cost of this film is said to be much smaller than, say, Suicide Squad and the upcoming Suicide Squad 2. Sony is said to be following a similar path with some of its Spider-Man spin-off films, led by this autumn’s Venom. Warner Bros is also looking to bring Vertigo comic book properties to the screen at a cheaper price.

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This isn’t all about cost-cutting. There’s an argument – pioneered by Warner Bros’ success in the 2000s, ironically – that you’re as well spending $200 million on a huge movie than $50 million on a smaller one, because they still cost around the same to market and release. Rather, it’s about mitigating risk. About trying to cut a few costs, in order to give the filmmakers the creative control they want, and allowing them to edge into R-rated territory. A studio, it seems, is far less likely to argue against an R-rating if the negative cost is more modest. It’s worth the risk, and Deadpool has proven that the rewards can be just as rich.

Also, it saves going directly head to head with a Marvel model that looks unstoppable. To even think about taking on Marvel at its own game, that’s going to cost a good $200 million a film, require a PG-13 rating, and involve an investment not just into one movie, but many. And if your world building isn’t as good? Then your planned cinematic universe may just die before it’s really begun. Just look at Universal’s fatally wounded Dark Universe for evidence of that.

Instead, then, it seems that studios are willing to look at different templates, and it’s hard not to see the possibilities for a genuinely edgy movie based around The Joker. While I haven’t noticed an awful lot of craving to see his origin story played out in detail on the big screen – does every major character really need their origin told? – the idea of seeing The Joker in a dark, uncomfortable story without the edges sanded down is a fascinating one. Just imagine if Lynne Ramsey was allowed to direct it, too (Todd Phillips has the job).

All this comes at a time when television is pouring money into a new take on Watchmen, where the opening weekend box office is likely to matter an awful lot less. But it’s also broadening what comic book superhero material can make it to the big screen as well, something that’s far more reflective of the comic books themselves. There will be successes, there will be failures. But there’s also a sense that people, finally, are willing to take a few more risks.