Hollywood’s expectations for Deadpool were that it would pull in $60-80 million at the box office over the holiday weekend—numbers that, given the film’s modest $58 million budget, would have made the thing a qualified success.
But Deadpool didn’t make $60-80 million. It made $150 million.
This is rarefied air for any movie, much less an R-rated one. For its first three days it tallied up $132 million, enough for the seventeenth-best opening weekend ever in North America. The previous best opening weekend for an R-rated movie was The Matrix Reloaded, which held that mark for nearly 13 years with its $91 million haul in 2003.
So why Deadpool is enjoying this remarkable success? After all, it’s not a sequel; it features a comic book character that few people were really familiar with outside the context of this movie; and it has the supposed limitation of being R-rated. There are laws of physics that apply to the Hollywood box office, and Deadpool defied them effortlessly. How is that possible?
On Facebook, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn credited its success to being different. Fox gave moviegoers “something they don’t already have.” Sure, but that’s only part of it. Being different may get asses in seats, but it doesn’t necessarily make those asses like what they see. And according to all available polling data, nearly all those asses loved Deadpool.
I’d say it’s as much about us and where we are as a culture as it is about Deadpool itself. Don’t get me wrong: I found the film to be tremendously entertaining in the same sort of way I was lauding the works of Michael Bay last month. It resonated with me in the same way Bad Boys II does. Deadpool is two hours of that scene where Will Smith and Martin Lawrence terrorize a 15-year-old boy who was dating Lawrence’s character’s daughter interspersed with glamorous and weightless violence.
I believe 2016 is the perfect time for us to accept what Deadpool is offering with open arms. In the US, everything is contentious as hell pretty much all the time. It’s an election year, for one thing, and thanks to our addiction to social media this cycle seems angrier than that time we elected the first black president. We’ve got Jeb Bush tweeting a picture of a gun with the caption “America.” We’ve got Donald Trump saying outlandish and inflammatory things seemingly just for the hell of it. We’ve got “Bernie Bros” declaring all-out war on anyone who isn’t one of them and fringe Hillary Clinton supporters declaring that women Democrats who don’t vote for her in the primaries are traitors to their gender. It’s terribly depressing if you aren’t a hardcore supporter of any of the candidates (and most of us aren’t).
To top it off, basically all the stuff Tyler Durden ranted about in Fight Club is true: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” Sound familiar?
What Deadpool provides is ingenious counterprogramming to real life in the present day. Even with his wildly high kill count, Deadpool (the character) is never remorseful. He’s just wasting bad guys, and none of our real-world baggage over wanton slaughter comes into play. It’s aggressive violence, but it’s casual rather than malicious.
This is a universe in which none of that stuff we worry about every day matters, and is instead just fodder for jokes. The bad guys deserve to be shot in the face by this dude in a red spandex suit who cracks a dumb joke as he pulls the trigger. It’s never serious business; it’s a defiance of the concept of serious business. There’s lots of death, sure, but death in Deadpool is something to laugh at, not cry over.
The glue is the film’s deft subversion of standard movie plot structure. Convention for action movies dictates that the hero vs. villain conflict escalate in favor of the bad guy until it looks hopeless for the good guy, but Deadpool is the opposite. The vibe is that Deadpool will inevitably kill the guy he’s after. He gets shot over and over, but his superpowers always heal him. The villain stabs Deadpool through the skull with a big-ass knife but he carries on even so, because he’s a human terminator. Deadpool, the working-class enforcer who’s pissed at the evil rich asshole who tried to exploit his labor, is always going to win. And the movie proudly refuses to pretend otherwise.
All this is something we clearly need to see right now. We often talk about movies as escapism, and Deadpool is the epitome of that. It’s so far removed from the bullshit of real life in 2016 that it really does allow us to escape for the two hours we’re spending in a theater to watch it. It’s not a reflection on the human condition or commentary on topical issues. It’s just a dumb, funny, brutal movie that hit the right notes at the right time. I’d say that’s worth a couple hundred million dollars.