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[Note: Spoilers follow for Logan and Deadpool]
20th Century Fox effectively launched the age of modern superhero movies with X-Men in 2000, but by 2014 the franchise had seen it all: ups and downs, prequels, spin-offs, and even a five-year hiatus between core films. The live-action adventures of Marvel's mutants had begun to look tired.
So Fox tried something new: an R-Rated comic book movie, and thanks in part to years of built-up fan interest, the gambit worked. Then Fox did it again.
With an eager star in Ryan Reynolds and a relatively tight budget of $58 million, 2016's #Deadpool became the highest grossing R-Rated film ever — and the highest grossing X-Men movie to date. Confident after that success, Fox didn't hesitate to to give director James Mangold the freedom to craft a proper R-rated sendoff for Hugh Jackman's final outing as Wolverine and #Logan quickly clawed its way to a box-office killing.
Suddenly, Fox looks like it knows what it is doing. Just as #Marvel set the standard for superhero origin stories, Fox has set the standard for the R-rated comic book movie.
Simple, Standalone Plots
Summarize the plot of Deadpool without bothering to describe all the fight scenes. The entire story, with flashbacks in chronological order, boils down to "Deadpool recruits Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead to find Ajax." Logan is similarly streamlined. The plot behind the two and a half hour runtime can be covered with one simple phrase: "An older Wolverine and ailing Professor X try to get X-23 to Eden."
That's very different from most superhero movies, which more often include half a dozen subplots stretched out over a dozen characters or more. In Iron Man 3, a PTSD-stricken Tony Stark, stripped of his armor, has to stop the Mandarin and his terrorist organization, while also dealing with a figure from his past who is working on a suspicious experimental regenerative treatment. That's not even to mention War Machine and Pepper Potts, much less the infamous Mandarin fakeout.
This plot-juggling act is a side effect of shared universe storytelling, with each installment serving as a stepping stone to the next. Fox's R-Rated films do away with this concept, treating each film as a standalone without catering to other movies.
At most, each film sets up its direct sequel. Their plots of Deadpool and Logan go from Point A through Points B and C, straight on to D. The MCU and DCEU (and even the core X-Men films) go from Point A to C, flash back to B, flash forward to D, then use Point E to set up the next film in the franchise. It's an unfortunate staple of Hollywood, and Fox's avoidance of the convoluted formula is refreshing, even reassuring.
Young Sidekicks to Enrich Rather than Pander
Movies often cater to specific audiences, and the target is constantly moving. Hollywood has recently worked to satisfy Chinese moviegoers and officials, with China currently the second-largest box-office market. Films now regularly feature China-centric subplots and Chinese actors, and may even delete scenes to meet censor guidelines. But while pandering to China is a fairly new phenomenon, pandering to families is not.
"Four-quadrant appeal" means a movie offers something to basically everyone, and to that end filmmakers will often add a child (or childish) sidekick to accompany the main hero. Neither Deadpool or Logan fall into the parent-pandering trap with their young characters. You can have as many children in a movie as you want, but parents still won't bring their four year old kid to watch Ryan Reynolds brutally maim bad guys on a freeway.
Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Deadpool's rebellious and even obnoxious youngster, is pretty "normal" in many ways. Her sarcasm and devotion to her phone are recognizable to any kid (or parent).
Logan has a whole army of child mutants, but the obvious star was young Laura, code-named X-23. You can assume that being younger would make her more childlike than Negasonic Teenage Warhead, but boy would you be wrong. Laura earns that R-Rating just as much as Logan himself, hacking and slashing enemies using all four of her limbs. By keeping both characters quiet for most of their movies, they never got annoying or one-note, and treating them like full characters keeps them tuned into the story. See how that works out?
The interconnected web of Marvel Studios stories leads to a reduction in stakes. No matter the "danger" in a film, we don't believe MCU figureheads are going to bite the dust. Regular fakeouts don't help. Agent Coulson, Nick Fury, Pepper Potts, Loki (twice), and War Machine all reached the point of no return... then returned. DC's high-stakes gambits, such as Superman's "death" in Batman v Superman, and a resurrection foreshadowed mere minutes later, fared no better.
Deadpool and Logan are somewhat detached from the continuity of other films, so they could do as they pleased with their characters. Deadpool didn't go out of its way to slaughter any big names, but severe consequences still loomed. Logan, on the other hand, gives Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart a memorable send-off. These familiar characters die in emotional moments, giving the actors, and the movie, a definitive ending.
Character Development Over Gratuitous Action
In the big-budget blockbuster landscape, genuine character development is hard to come by. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman both had a warped take on character development in hopes that the high-octane action scenes would keep audiences coming back for the inevitable sequels. The liberty of a standalone movie allows filmmakers to double down on characters rather than massive setpieces, which also helps them work with budgetary constraints.
Deadpool may not be the best example here, but even that was surprisingly character-focused. You got a strong sense of who Wade Wilson was, before and after his disastrous experimental procedure. Likewise, Colossus is defined by his almost comically-strict morals. Though the villains were underdeveloped, Deadpool was a learning experience.
Logan addresses many of the shortcomings of its predecessor. It doubles down on the lead trio, turned the villain into a legitimate presence, and sprinkled scenes of total silence between the highly-choreographed fight scenes. Without the quiet moments of character interactions to modulate the fast pace, the brutality of X-24 murdering Professor X and Wolverine would be boring. Thanks to those breath-catching pauses, it wasn't.
The Next Steps
Fox has two more R-Rated movies in the pipeline: Deadpool 2 and X-Force, both featuring the Merc with a Mouth. The former will likely continue the tone of Deadpool, with loads violence and some decent character development, though one would hope the villains get a little more depth. At the same time, the core trio of Deadpool, Colossus, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead will be joined by Domino and Cable. Let's see if the new quintet can match up to its predecessor!
X-Force will likely be a little more restricted than Deadpool 2 – likely a more traditional action movie, with the much violence as you would expect from an R-Rated movie featuring a group of killers. Which is to say, what Suicide Squad should have been. If Fox's vision of the R-rated superhero film remains as clear as it is now, that's a target the studio is well-equipped to hit.