Everyone into the Deadpool: Producer Simon Kinberg helps revive Marvel’s raunchy superhero
An old headline trope, long ago appropriated by comic-book fans, goes: "Pow! Bam! Comics Just Aren't Just for Kids Anymore!" It's such a cliché, in fact, that the satiric newspaper The Onion ran an article titled "Comics Not Just for Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story." Which is all a way of suggesting that while 20th Century Fox's rude ’n’ crude Feb. 12 release Deadpool isn't the first superhero movie that's not for kids—think Watchmen (2009) or Kick-Ass (2010) and its sequel, all similarly R-rated—it's probably the first to be just so darn gleeful about it.
"You're probably thinking, 'This was a superhero movie but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a f--ing kabob,'" narrates the antihero Deadpool in one of the film's red-band trailers, over a scene of said kabob-ing. "Surprise," he continues. "This is a different kind of superhero story." If that's not convincing enough, cut to legendary 72-year-old, Tony Award-winning songstress Leslie Uggams as the character Blind Al, dismissing the mumbling Deadpool with "Sounds like you have a d--k in your mouth."
"There were so many comic-book movies about to come out and so many superheroes in the culture," says producer Simon Kinberg, harkening back a year and a half or so to when he first read Rhett Reese and Paul Wurnick's Deadpool script, "that it was time to build a countercultural, R-rated movie around a raunchy hero, which seems like a strange way to describe him."
That time was a decade in coming. As star Ryan Reynolds explained last August, he'd been attached to the movie, a pet project, for 11 years by then, with the writers joining him five years after that and director Tim Miller in April 2011. And while the time now may be right and all, Fox still hedged its Deadpool bet, says Kinberg, and "committed to making it at a lower budget than they would a tentpole X-Men movie" like the $160 million X-Men: First Class (2011) or $200 million X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), according to figures at BoxOfficeMojo.com. "That was part of the deal going in," says Kinberg, who declines to specify a budget. "You guys can be more provocative, more insane, more original, more R-rated," Fox told him, he says, "but you don't have as much to make it with."
Surely also on the studio's mind was that Deadpool, also played by Reynolds, had appeared as a non-costumed mercenary under his civilian name in the critically disappointing and commercially so-so X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). Reynolds and actor/martial artist Scott Adkins also played the post-experiment version—here called Weapon XI, sans costume, and referred to colloquially by one character as "the dead pool" for the pooling of dead subjects' abilities. As Reynolds stressed over the summer, the "Deadpool appearing in Origins is not the Deadpool we are representing in this film, in any way, shape or form." He conceded, "We didn't quite get Deadpool right, so this is kind of an opportunity to get the most authentic version possible on the screen."
The new movie does seem to well represent the Deadpool of Marvel Comics, where writer Fabian Nicieza and artist and character-conceptualist Rob Liefeld created him as a supervillain in The New Mutants #98 (Feb. 1991). In both screen and print, mercenary Wade Wilson is promised a cure for his terminal cancer if he undergoes an experiment designed to create rapid self-healing. Unbeknownst to him, those in charge of the project are actually planning to control and weaponize him. He escapes to become a superpowered mercenary, whose constant wisecrack yammering earns him the nickname "the merc with a mouth." Oh, and he sometimes breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly.
That came about gradually in the comics, beginning most prominently with a plot-recap page in Deadpool Vol. 3, #4 (April 1997), in which writer Joe Kelly had three characters address the reader. But that was considered non-canonical since it wasn't part of the story itself. In issue #27 (April 1999), Kelly, within the story, had Deadpool make an aside to the audience, but that generally was explained as the character suffering hallucinations and only thinking there was an audience. The concept became solidified in the following month's issue, when Deadpool, replying to a supervillain's query about how long it's been since they last fought, replies, "Issue 16." It went on from there, including when Nicieza himself returned in 2004 for the series Cable & Deadpool.
"When you do that every month," says the writer-editor, who's also scripted for Captain America, the Avengers and other characters, "you're meta-commenting about the relationship between the character and the readers in a much more personal manner" than otherwise—although he notes, "a little of that goes a long way."
Deadpool has continued to be a cult favorite in numerous series, miniseries, one-shot specials and guest appearances, fueled by his audacious, often vulgar banter and madcap if deadly antics—the result, Nicieza says, "of the constantly regenerating cells that fight the cancer. It drives him crazy, because he can't stay locked on a thought for very long. His brain cells, like his other cells, are perpetually regenerating." He's like a wisecracking Spider-Man with no filter whatsoever and a penchant for gleefully shooting bad guys in the head. And the fan-following Deadpool inspired helped to get the new film made, Kinberg says, confirming a story Reynolds has told.
In July 2014, two-year-old test footage of the star as Deadpool in an action sequence leaked online. "And the Internet," Reynolds told late-night talk-show host Conan O'Brien in August, "put Fox in a hammerlock death-grip and they greenlit our movie." That's an oversimplification, but fan reaction to the footage indeed "was a huge part of it," Kinberg says. "There's no question but that the response from the Internet was pretty undeniable to the studio. It proved just how fervent the fan base was for Deadpool and that it could ripple out past the core fans and into the general culture, at least on the Internet."
He doesn't know who leaked it, he says. "I read things online—probably more than I should—and I've read all kinds of theories, from [it having been screenwriters] Tim and Ryan to, well, everyone. I think it was most likely a fan who got hold of it." Similar leaks have occurred before, of course. "On one movie that was leaked, I think it had to do with the way the dailies were shared," Kinberg says. "Another, it was the visual-effects house. You never really know. There are so many people who have access to so many parts of the process. You look at a movie's credits—thousands of people and most of them have access to something."
Kinberg himself is getting access to help shepherd Fox's version of a Marvel cinematic universe (not to be confused with Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige's uppercase Marvel Cinematic Universe featuring the Avengers, et al., at Disney). "I started as a writer on the X-Men movies and then I transitioned into producing on the X-Men movies, then writing and producing them together and then becoming more involved in trying to help build an architecture here at Fox for what to do with their Marvel properties, X-Men and Fantastic Four," Kinberg explains. So will he be the Kevin Feige of Fox?
"That's a shorthand and I get it," he says, demurring. "Kevin does what Kevin does, and what I do is different. I have profound respect for Kevin–I actually made my first X-Men movie with Kevin many years ago and he's somebody who's changed the way movies are made," with Marvel Studios successfully executing an interconnected continuity among different properties, something "that we would love to learn from and emulate at Fox."
Kinberg, who also wrote the hits XXX: State of the Union and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (both 2005) and co-wrote Sherlock Holmes (2009), is in a good position to do that: He produced the last two X-Men movies; wrote the screenplay, co-wrote the story and is a producer of X-Men: Apocalypse, due out Memorial Day weekend; and is producing two X-Men spinoffs, Gambit, directed by Doug Liman and starring Channing Tatum, and the untitled third Wolverine feature, directed by James Mangold and starring Hugh Jackman in his final turn as the character.
He's also had a hand in Fox's other major Marvel property, as an uncredited contributor to the commercially successful but poorly reviewed 2005 Fantastic Four—“I spent a few weeks on that movie, right before they started shooting. They wanted some stuff ironed out, so I spent a few weeks as a script doctor, I guess you'd call it”—and last year's even more ill-fated reboot.
"The last movie wasn't great, and I can say that as one of the filmmakers," Kinberg grants. "You work as hard as, and often harder, on a bad movie as on a good one. It's not like you were lazy on the bad ones. Nobody bats 1.000," he says, utilizing a baseball percentage metaphor for perfect success every time. "You go out there and you can be the greatest hitter in the world and sometimes you miss. But we are really excited about the potential for the [franchise's] future. We have a pretty clear idea what we want to do with the Fantastic Four, and that's something I will wait to talk about."
Kinberg, a current Oscar nominee as one of the producers of the Ridley Scott smash The Martian, comes from a filmmaking family. Born on August 2, 1973, in London, he is the son of Judson Kinberg, who wrote the Hammer Film Productions cult-classic Vampire Circus (1972). "My mother is British, originally South African, and my dad worked in film and television," says Kinberg, who was six when his family relocated to Los Angeles. "My dad came out to L.A. to ply his trade and pretty soon he became a film professor. So my memory of my dad is primarily as a film professor, first at CalState Northridge and then at USC." Simon, who attended Brentwood High School growing up, studied at Brown University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, and in 2003 earned an MFA from the Columbia University School of the Arts Film Program, where he received the Zaki Gordon Fellowship for Screenwriting.
While Deadpool isn't "the first 'hard-R' superhero," as Entertainment Weekly glibly if inaccurately claimed—consider the wildly cursing, 10-year-old-girl hero, the graphic ultra-violence and a villain named The Motherf--ker in the Kick-Ass movies—the antihero is a still a highly individualistic entity the filmmakers hope speaks to a different audience than for most such fare.
That audience appears to be there. While Universal's $30 million Kick-Ass did $96.2 million box office and the $28 million sequel did $60.8 million, Fox's own sorta-superheroish, R-rated spy-fi (spy/science-fiction) movie Kingsman: The Secret Service grossed a whopping $414.4 million on an $81 million budget. "Kingsman is a really good model," Kinberg says. "R-rated, crazy and made four times as much as Kick-Ass did. So that also helped show there was a commercial paradigm out there that worked."
Will the massive Kingsman audience or the smaller Kick-Ass audience show up? Both films were based on comics by hit writer Mark Millar, so the effect of that creator's own fan base seems a wash. Whatever happens, the X-Men pipeline shows no signs of slowing down. "X-Men Apocalypse is in post-production now," Kinberg says. "It comes out in May and that's taking up a lot of my time. We're spending quite a bit of brainpower trying to figure out what the next X-Men movie will be. The new Wolverine movie starts shooting in May, and the Gambit film later this year." For now, though, the heat is on and all concerned want everyone to jump in the Deadpool.