Nobody, not even Ryan Reynolds at his most audacious, could have predicted the extent of Deadpool‘s success. In a year full of mega-anticipated movies that arduously lumbered through their time in cinemas, it was the must-see, making more money at the domestic box office than X-Men: Apocalypse (on a much smaller production budget). And now, despite it seeming impossible a mere couple of weeks ago, it’s become a rogue Oscar contender; scooping up major nominations from the Producers, Writers and Directing Guild Awards. All this from a film where the talent had to leak test footage to get the studio to even consider making it.
This success is made all the more satisfying when you compare and contrast to the last time Hollywood had tried to adapt the character. In X-Men Origins: Wolverine we got Ryan Reynolds as a quippy sword fighter for hire, but then they took away the Merc with a Mouth’s mouth, excusing it with a grating pun, and gave him a set of powers he’s never used before in the comics (including built-in katanas). The movie was also crippled by the fact that it was produced during the 2008-2009 Writers’ Guild of America strike, which meant that Reynolds had to write his own dialogue for the character.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘s Deadpool was and remains a bizarre treatment of an incredibly stylized character, the result of which is one of the worst parts in what is still the worst X-movie (and in the wake of X-Men: Apocalypse that’s really saying something). The only reason Reynolds signed on was because it was perceived as his only chance to play the part, and even then he didn’t actually do the post-transformation version (that ignominious task fell to martial artist Scott Adkins). The lone positive of sewing up his mouth is that its legacy powered the 2016 film, providing a perfect entry point for the fourth wall smashing and giving something for Reynolds’ eventual spot-on performance to contrast to.
But – and let’s put our conceptual hats on here before things get heated – was it really that bad an idea? Obviously, yes, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a terrible movie, failing at everything that made the originals in the main series so great, with shoddy action that does nothing to represent what’s going on otherwise, bizarre characterization, murky visuals and a lazy story that feels like several movies mushed into one. But – and this is crucial – Mute Deadpool wasn’t meant to be Fox’s Deadpool. Not exactly. Based on all the evidence, Origins isn’t really the story of Fox doing a bad adaptation, but of the studio not knowing how to build to a faithful adaptation in a fan-pleasing way.
As originally conceived, Origins was meant to be just the first step in a multi-film transformation of Wade Wilson into Deadpool; there we got the man behind the mouth and the method by which he was transformed, but later films – probably a Wolverine sequel or Deadpool standalone – would have seen him develop into the foul-mouthed, fourth-wall-breaking asshat we all know from the comics. This was actually somewhat evident in the movie itself; the US post-credits scene showed Deadpool’s body crawl over to the head, which bolts awakes and looks straight down the camera going “shhh”. It was a statement of intent for the start of a bigger character arc – he’d broken the fourth wall and next time would return in a more recognizable form.
When talking about the process of developing the character on their YouTube channel, visual effects house studioADI confirmed that the bare skin and sewn up mouth was intended to be fleshed out and made more comic-accurate in later appearances. They also elaborated on the thinking behind some of the design elements, which aren’t as slapdash as its commonly dismissed. Deadpool wasn’t the only time the studio wound up getting unfair fan ire – they made the Newborn from Alien: Resurrection, again on Fox’s command, and their impressive practical work on The Thing prequel was done over with CGI in post-production – but it definitely was the most heated case, which does distract from the fact they’re clearly fans who were just following what Fox hired them to do.
This plan is probably why Reynolds signed on to play the character – he knew eventually things would come around to what he wanted. The actor has since said that he fought against the portrayal of the character, but his opinion carried little weight with the studio:
“They sew his mouth shut, let lasers come out of his eyes. He has weird knives that fly out of his hands… I remember saying, ‘That’s really going to anger some people. That’s not Deadpool.’ And they basically said, ‘Well, you can play him or we can hire someone else to play him.’ So for me, it was… I was a little bit blackmailed.”
Despite whatever hopes Reynolds may have had to fix the character in a follow-up, the immediate fan reaction to the character was so strongly negative, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine so poorly received in general, that this whole idea was pulled and the series went in a totally different direction, leaving us with a single appearance – one that’s only half of a whole. It’s like the Darth Jar Jar theory, except this one seems to be resolutely true.
Of course, even with that in mind, there’s nothing to say this would have actually been good. At the time, Fox were in the middle of a massive slump in regards to the X-Men franchise – they were unable to deliver on the Dark Phoenix saga, the mutant cure or any of Wolverine’s backstory in a remotely satisfactory way – so even if they had got to a point where they could do Deadpool properly, it would have probably been sanitised and focus-grouped to hell.
Still, it’s incredibly hard to not admire the ambition. This was an attempt at a major cross-movie arc, setting up a character in one film before having them a key player later on, well before shared universes were Hollywood’s bread and butter. When X-Men Origins: Wolverine came out in 2009, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was only two movies deep; the only real set-up for wider world was Nick Fury’s “Avengers Initiative” namedrop and Tony Stark’s cameo in The Incredible Hulk. This sort of storytelling was new, unproven ground.
In fact, the whole Origins enterprise was pretty much the X-Men trying to do Marvel before Marvel. It was taking a traditional movie series, one built on major event pictures every three-or-so years with shades of a bigger arc (but, as evidenced by The Last Stand, one always open to change), and trying to turn it into a time-hopping series where disconnected standalone movies created a bigger world. Wolverine was done first because, well, Wolverine sells, but the plans were to continue this with Magneto, Professor X and more. This idea was eventually reworked into First Class, which led to a more typical, period-set run, although looking at the future of the X-Men, Fox do have their episodic mega-franchise coming together – alongside the main series that First Class spawned, there’s spinoffs like Logan, Gambit, New Mutants and, of course, Deadpool 2 on the horizon. As was the case with getting Deadpool right, it just took a bit longer than expected.
None of this is to say that Origins is a misunderstood masterpiece or even that it’s worth rewatching; just that one of its most reviled elements wasn’t a blatant misunderstanding, but a studio struggling with a new concept and a tricky, alternative character. Next time you look back over Deadpool’s journey to Best Picture and think of how nobody got it until Tim Miller, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick came on board, remember that the X-Men Origins: Wolverine version could, just maybe, have been great.