Deadpool has never felt like a high-stakes sort of superhero, but in his latest mission the future of the universe may be at stake. Specifically, the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the 2010s blockbuster powerhouse which has been in steep decline since Covid.
Disney’s one-time crown jewel franchise now appears to be pinning its hopes on Ryan Reynolds’ lippy ninja, whose latest escapade, titled Deadpool & Wolverine, was trailed before the Super Bowl last night in a middlingly prestigious pre-game spot.
At first things look depressingly like multiversal business as usual, as Reynolds’ Wade Wilson is snatched from his own birthday party by the Time Variance Authority, or TVA, from the Disney+ show Loki. But then Matthew Macfadyen offers Wade a transfer from 20th Century Fox’s largely defunct X-Men timeline to the main MCU, Reynolds smirkingly describes himself as “Marvel Jesus”, and the broader agenda snaps into focus.
Along with the “pegging” joke earlier, the flurry of gunplay, swearing and CG puffs of blood that follows seems designed to persuade ordinary US viewers – i.e. the Super Bowl’s core audience – that the Marvel brand is woke no more, and this merging of timelines will at least temporarily restore the series to its original values, or lack thereof.
Recent Marvel releases, which zig-zagged their characters from cinemas to streaming and back, have also required a lot of recent homework to decode. But here, all that seems to be required is noughties nostalgia: remember Hugh Jackman as Wolverine? He’s back – obviously, given the title – as is Jennifer Garner’s Elektra, last seen in 2005.
Though Deadpool films are typically tongue-in-cheek affairs, the trailer’s veiled acknowledgement that Marvel can be rescued by returning old hands feels like an unironic policy shift. Perhaps whatever future the franchise has will look more like its past than the likes of The Marvels and Eternals would have had us believe.
Even so, pinning these sort of hopes on this specific character feels like a risky strategy. Again, per that pegging joke, Deadpool is likely to be rated 15 in the UK and R in the US, which reins in its money-making potential a bit. True, Deadpool 2 took almost $800m worldwide in 2018, but six years ago was another epoch in movie terms, when anything with comic-book branding was likely to thrive.
Over in Sony’s Spider-Man sub-universe – like the X-Men, a weird adjunct to Marvel proper – Venom, another 15-rated superhero film released that year, took even more than Deadpool 2. But in 2021, the reception for its sequel, Let There Be Carnage, hinted that easy windfalls for more “mature” superhero adaptations were on the way out, which was resoundingly proven by Morbius bombing the following year. Madame Web, the next instalment in that series, and a more commercially viable 12A, opens this Wednesday – though, perhaps ominously, without an expensive Super Bowl trailer at its back.
Thanks to the writers’ and actors’ strikes of 2023, Marvel’s own 2024 release schedule is otherwise blank, which means Deadpool & Wolverine is the film on which the studio’s hopes of a turnaround will be pinned. Almost 16 years into Hollywood’s franchise era, and on a weekend with one of the most dismal US box office takes in memory, it feels like a bellwether for the system at large: if even this doesn’t hit big, then painful change is probably in store. And even Marvel Jesus can only make those loaves and fishes last so long.