You might have caught a Super Bowl ad where Ryan Reynolds, dressed up like Spider-Man gone luchador, cracks wise while punting a ninja's head and hurling a sword at a motorcycle. In Deadpool, opening this Friday, he's reprising his supporting role from 2009 stinker X-Men Origins: Wolverine and taking another stab at headlining a superhero blockbuster after 2011's borderline disastrous Green Lantern.
Reynolds is better suited to play Deadpool, Marvel Comics's quippy antihero—the "merc with a mouth," to those in the know—than DC Comics's interstellar authority figure, but the odds still seem stacked against the movie. An undead, mutilated psycho in an R-rated action-comedy that opens on Valentine's Day weekend? That's a far-out choice for franchise building.
Daniel Way, who lives in Morrisville, might know the character better than anyone else. He holds the record for writing the most consecutive Deadpool comics—sixty-five issues, from 2008 to 2012. After consulting with director Tim Miller, offering script, story, and characterization feedback, Way is certain of one thing.
"This is the Deadpool we know from the comics," he says. "This is our boy, Wade Wilson."
Wilson is a special forces operative with terminal cancer who receives an experimental treatment with monkey's paw-like consequences. Along with accelerated healing—he basically can't die—he gets disfigured skin ("like an avocado had sex with an older avocado," as someone says in the trailer) and an unstable mind. He becomes Deadpool and hunts down the scientist who saved his life by ruining it.
"[The film] covers the origin pretty quickly but really well," Way says. "If you want more, I would say to go the comic book store, because it's all there in graphic detail."
When Deadpool first appeared in X-Men-related titles twenty-five years ago, he was fully a product of the day's macho, juvenile comics style: a violent enigma in a costume dripping with superfluous pouches and ammo clips, uttering badass one-liners. But he slowly grew more complex, sprouting an elaborate backstory, multiple personalities, and a penchant for fourth-wall-breaking humor. These characteristics were developed by writers collaborating in the uniquely serial style of superhero comics.
"It took a while for [Deadpool's] mania and psychosis to develop," Way says. "The reason he was so good at what he does was because he was so unbalanced. He can try anything because he can't die."
Though Deadpool was popular in the action-oriented nineties, his book's sales languished in the more story-driven aughts. When it was finally canceled, Axel Alonso—then a Marvel editor, now editor in chief—called Way, with whom he'd discussed Deadpool ideas for years.
"Deadpool had gone off into his own corner of the Marvel universe, interacting with characters you only saw in his book," Way says. "Those are my kinds of opportunities, when characters get brushed aside, because I could do whatever I want."
Way quickly moved Deadpool back into Marvel's shared world, alongside the likes of Iron Man and Nick Fury, before putting his stamp on the character in a popular run.
"I wanted to show rather than tell," Way says. "Often the reader would see the world as he sees it; it would look like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, or a person would transform into a talking pigeon. I wanted to show all that, not just him jumping around and shooting people."
Until several years ago, all Way knew was that a Deadpool script was stalled out at the studio level and that it starred Reynolds, a choice he liked even before getting involved with the production.
"The key is to write it straight and let Ryan Reynolds do his thing on top of it, because if you tried to put it all in the script, it could be clownish," Way says. "But they nailed it, walking that line between comedy and tragedy."
After receiving an email out of the blue from director Tim Miller, Way suddenly found himself giving feedback on a major Hollywood film, and even visiting the Vancouver set during a fight-scene shoot. He was immediately "blown away" by the script and early footage.
"Tim is a huge fan of the character," Way says. "He's smart enough to realize that was also a possible liability, because he might latch on to something that seemed important to fans like him—but we're talking about a very expensive film production. We know that everyone from the comic book shop is going to the movie, but the inverse is not true."
Deadpool is currently more central than ever in Marvel comics—he's even an Avenger. His odd qualities might be particularly suited to a time when movies are driving new readers into comics shops. For those who aren't yet inured to the routine soap-opera absurdities of superhero comics, his sarcastic running commentary on them must be instantly relatable.
"You know you have a Deadpool story that works when it only works with Deadpool in it, and [the film] does," Way says. "When a lot of comic book fans say 'continuity,' they think in terms of the way a costume looks. Continuity is that it's the same character. In the first X-Men movie they're all wearing black leather, but they were all the characters we knew."
With a cameo from the X-Men's Colossus in the trailer, Deadpool is flagged as a quirky annex to the 20th Century Fox X-Men franchise, much as Ant-Man was to the Marvel Studios Avengers franchise. Whether a smart-ass Ryan Reynolds will connect with a broad audience like a nice-guy Paul Rudd did is an open question. But if the movie founders, it won't be because of a lack of faithfulness to the character Way helped shape. The writer is adamant on that.
"Everyone that worked on the film was either a huge Deadpool fan or converted because Tim sold it," Way says. "If he's happy with it, then I have a lot of faith other fans will be, because he is on our side, one hundred percent."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Psycho Thriller"Correction: This article originally misstated the number of Deadpool issues written by Way. He wrote sixty-five issues, not fifty-five.