It takes supreme humility to forego traditional writing credits for the film you wrote. Or it would, at least, if you didn’t instead bill yourself and your co-writer as The Real Heroes Here, which is exactly what Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick did on Deadpool.
For die-hard Deadpool-heads, this assumed title is not inaccurate.
The unconventional comic book character has just splattered all over international movie screens in a solo adaptation 10 years in the making. Created initially by artist Fabian Nicieza and artist/writer Rob Liefeld, Deadpool has long stood out in Marvel’s gallery of rogues because he truly is an antihero. Not only that, but the Spider-Man-meets-S&M-gimp costumed supersomething has a seriously sexual sense of humor and often breaks the fourth wall. Producer and star Ryan Reynolds has been carrying a torch to bring a fully realized Deadpool to the screen the longest, but the second-most senior souls involved are Reese and Wernick. Their commitment is a large part of what made the finished product uncompromisingly, definitively Deadpool. Considering how protective this particular character’s fanbase is of him, some might say what they've done is downright heroic.
It was probably the combination of violence and comedy in 2009’s Zombieland that brought Reese and Wernick to Fox’s attention. The studio was looking to spin off Deadpool into his own movie, and after a largely unloved appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine that same year, the character needed a makeover. Reese and Wernick were officially hired a couple weeks after their gore-filled zombie comedy opened to bigger-than-expected box office. But there was another reason they got the job.
"It was really the character work of a pilot we wrote for HBO that Ryan [Reynolds] read and fell in love with," Wernick says. "It was called Watch. It was a dark, dark drama about a voyeur and it ultimately didn't move forward. But I think what Ryan related to was this damaged lead character. That really spoke to him in terms of wanting to delve deep into Wade Wilson, who is way more damaged."
At the core of this superhero within the megablockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe is a character study of a man who made some bad life choices, and suffered terribly for them. He hides behind the pain with comedy—specifically, a ton of dick jokes—but Wade Wilson is ultimately a broken man. Reynolds must have recognized something of what he envisioned for the hypothetical version of Deadpool he wanted to play within the lead of the writing duo's pilot. After he met up with them, it all three were soon on the same page.
TV is often considered more of a writer's medium than film, where the director reigns, but with comic book movies, that’s not always the case. Reliable, franchise-building writers like Simon Kinberg (X-Men) and David Goyer (Batman) are pivotal figures in the movies they write, holding sway on certain decisions screenwriters don't often get to make. Reese and Wernick weren't quite at that level yet, but by getting in on the ground floor, they worked with Reynolds to shape the movie at its earliest stages.
At some points, however, they had to fight.
"For a while, they were developing an X-Force movie on parallel tracks with the Deadpool movie. And I know that at one point Deadpool was just going to be part of that larger movie," Wernick says. "So I think there was a question of 'Well, do we introduce him in an ensemble or do we introduce him in a standalone?' And our feeling was, and I think the studio ultimately sided with us: You've gotta introduce the character properly."
Beyond the question of whether Deadpool would get his own movie, though, was the thornier issue of whether that movie would be an origin story. In the era of constant reboots, filmgoers have been assaulted with Bruce Wayne's childhood trauma and the passing of Peter Parker's Uncle Ben so many times as to water down the impact of seeing how most any Marvel character becomes that character. Since Deadpool stands out among his peers in so many other ways, it made sense that he might be the one to escape the burden of all that exposition.
"The very first thing we pitched to Ryan was not an origin story, because we thought origin stories were kind of old-fashioned," Reese says. "And one of his mandates was, 'No, we've gotta do the origin story so people understand his pathos."
Once this question was decided, though, the writers were able to play with breaking the worn-out origin story mold. Instead, they went structurally non-linear, jumping back and forth between a fully forged, ass-kicking Merc With a Mouth and the pre-transformation Wade Wilson. Viewers get an immediate taste of the ridiculous, bloodthirsty Deadpool, and then meet the angst-ridden, but still somewhat ridiculous version of the man behind the mask, pre-psychotic break and superpowers. The film flits between both sides of the character until the audience is caught up.
"I think we convinced the studio over time that that was really the best and maybe even the only way to do both a modern story and an origin story in one," Reese adds.
Like most long-running comics, many different writers have put their stamp on the Deadpool character over the years. Reese and Wernick didn't just have to decide which era to pluck the story from, they had to decide whether the personality of the character would adhere more to, say, the Joe Kelly run, or the more recent Gerry Duggan/Brian Posehn collaboration. Much to some fans' initial chagrin, though, prior to Reese and Wernick pitching themselves for the project, neither had even heard of Deadpool. When they were putting together an initial concept, they familiarized themselves with all the different runs and got a sense of what different writers had done with the character. But in the actual writing of the film, they aimed to make their own quintessential Deadpool.
"Rather than lasering in on any one version of Deadpool, we just kinda let them all seep in," Wernick says. "We didn't want to mimic anybody's particular voice. Obviously a lot of people have taken him in a lot of slightly different directions, but there are a lot of commonalities. We wanted to see what kind of voice can we give him? What particulars can we bring to it to give it a slight spin of our own? And we just came up with a voice which is a fair amount of Ryan Reynolds, because we got to know him and understand what he sounds like when he's talking as the character. And then I think part of it is just our own personalities that we injected in there a touch."
Once the writers got a feel for the character, they wrote a draft. And then they wrote another one. They wrote drafts of the screenplay every single calendar year between 2009 and when filming commenced in 2015. One of these permutations of the movie to come was a PG-13 version.
It's simple Hollywood math: If a comic book movie is rated PG-13, more people can see it and it will likely make more money. In the case of Deadpool, however, a PG-13 rating would effectively neuter much of what made the character stand out among his Marvel counterparts. He could still crack wise, but conspicuously without saying anything too lewd. He could still stylishly dispose of henchmen, but weirdly without any blood. Reese and Wernick wanted to honor the fans and do right by the character, and fortunately for them, they had an advocate in Simon Kinberg, the X-Men writer/producer who also had a hand in producing Deadpool.
"Simon, to his great credit, said 'No, I think if we're gonna do it, we gotta do it right. We've gotta make the R version instead of PG-13," Reese says. "And he convinced the studio to do that and they were very brave and frankly just self-sacrificial in the sense that they will make less money on this than they would if it had been PG-13. But it was the bold choice and we believe the right choice."
The finished film presents a fully realized Deadpool, as unpredictable, foul-mouthed, and able to talk directly to the audience as any version ever inked. Even the character's creator, Rob Liefeld, has told the writers that the Deadpool in the film is destined to become the seminal version. With a sequel already in the works, and the origin story behind them, perhaps now the writers can really get into some mayhem.