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How Ryan Reynolds Found ‘Deadpool,’ and Also Himself

A journey through the hits and many failures that brought the not-quite-movie-star to his cultural moment

20th Century Fox/Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ryan Reynolds’s introduction to superhero movies, and our introduction to Ryan Reynolds in superhero movies, is clichéd, and obnoxious, and close to perfect. It occurs in 2004’s Blade: Trinity, the third and last movie to star Wesley Snipes as a vampire-hunting badass who is not humorless, exactly—you know one of his lines is supposed to be funny when it’s got the word motherfucker in it—but let’s just say he’s not much for crowd-pleasing meta nonsense. Whereas crowd-pleasing meta nonsense is a Ryan Reynolds specialty. And a half hour in, he drops on this trashy and dour flick like a bomb.

Specifically, he throws a burning vampire head-first through an interrogation-room window. And leaps into the room after it. And flashes his name tag that reads Fuck You. And quips, “Evening, ladies,” before he starts shooting everyone. And punches Triple H, playing an evil vampire, in the face. And flaunts a scruffy beard designed to make sure you don’t confuse him with Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath. And lumbers through a long hallway-fight sequence that director David S. Goyer cuts into one-second chunks, because maybe Reynolds isn’t so hot at this action-hero thing yet. And somewhere in there, Parker Posey, of all people, as another evil vampire, does the audience a solid by literally screaming Reynolds’s character’s name: “HANNIBAL KING!”

On Friday, with the arrival of Deadpool 2, Reynolds will have played three different superheroes in six different superhero movies. This installment might make $350 million globally this weekend alone and break the opening-weekend box-office record for an R-rated movie, set by the first Deadpool in 2016. Does all the Fandango presale action suggest the world is clamoring for more “adult” superhero movies? Maybe. More superhero movies in general, as incredible as that sounds? Definitely. More Ryan Reynolds movies in particular? Eh, not really. But at this point, he’s good-natured (and Canadian) enough to be chill about that. He’s just happy to be here, irrespective of how happy you might be to see him.

Confusingly, this current, lucrative iteration of Deadpool is itself a reboot of Reynolds’s previous version of the character, which was mercifully confined to 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That movie was glum as hell and genuinely unsettling, too—especially at the end when Deadpool himself shows up. (Given the new movies’ reliance on profane quips, it’s hilarious that Reynolds Deadpool 1.0 literally has no mouth at all.) After that, of course, he starred in 2011’s notoriously terrible Green Lantern, the rare mega-budget comic-book movie this decade to neither make enough money nor charm enough critics.

Also, OK, sure, he’s done other movies, too. Dumb comedies like Van Wilder: Party Liaison. Black comedies like The Change-Up. Romantic comedies like Definitely, Maybe and the Sandra Bullock jam The Proposal—a viable career path for the generally sweet and affable Reynolds, if romantic comedies were a viable career path for anyone anymore. A little horror. A handful of modest thrillers. But by 2012, his celebrity had long outstripped his box-office viability. “Fact: People believe Ryan Reynolds is a movie star (even though he isn’t),” wrote Bill Simmons for Grantland in 2012, adding that Reynolds was “the most versatile half-decent actor out there, and I swear that wasn’t a backhanded compliment.” And that was before 2013’s would-be summer blockbuster R.I.P.D., a gigantic bomb that made Deadpool’s ascendence three years later even more unlikely. For a long stretch, it looked as though Reynolds’s legacy would amount to two high-profile celebrity marriages (Scarlett Johansson then, Blake Lively now) and an admirable reputation as a Thoughtful Nice Guy. True stardom seemed out of reach, unless Dad Twitter stardom counts. (It does not.)

But Deadpool saved him, and that would seem to warrant a reappraisal of his earlier encounters with superhero movies. Those are the only movies that matter now, and Reynolds has a stranger and broader history in the genre than most current marquee stars. He was slugging it out in these trenches back before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was even a thing. He has known qualified success; he has known considerable failure. The rapturous spoils of Deadpool are his reward. He’s living proof that even in this age of superhero saturation, an actor can improve, can evolve, can grow into his or her tights. Or, conversely, given that Reynolds has cheerfully been playing pretty much the same character this whole time, maybe it proves that the tights themselves matter far more than any actor ever will.

The character Ryan Reynolds has been playing this whole time is the snarky comic-relief wiseass. What has changed, over the course of his filmography, is any given movie’s willingness to tolerate that character. In Blade: Trinity, the joke is that nobody finds Hannibal King’s proto-Deadpool antics amusing in the slightest.

Hannibal: Welcome to the Honeycomb Hideout.
Blade: How do you bankroll this operation?
Hannibal: I date a lot of older men.

No reaction. C’mon, Blade. You’re in a movie where the good guys hang out at a place called “the Honeycomb Hideout.” Maybe relax. Reynolds is also in charge of exposition, including the opening voiceover: “In the movies, Dracula wears a cape and some old English guy always manages to save the day at the last minute with crosses and holy water. But everybody knows the movies are full of shit.” But mostly surrounded by morose absurdity—Jessica Biel plays a super-badass archer with an iPod fixation—Hannibal is eventually reduced to hurling grandiose insults at Parker Posey, the only other person in this movie who seems to be enjoying herself. Within seconds, Reynolds calls her both a “horse-humping bitch” and a “cock-juggling thundercunt.” This sort of ultra-crude japery is the black box it will take Hollywood 12 years to make the whole movie out of.

New Line Cinema

A half-decade later in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Reynolds has lost the beard, and also the sleeves. His screen time as Deadpool’s alter ego, Wade Wilson, is reduced to a few scenes meant to convey that he loves his swords and the rest of his fellow mercenaries hate him. “Great,” he deadpans. “Stuck in an elevator with five guys on a high-protein diet.” (In 2016, Reynolds told GQ that due to the writer’s strike, he wrote all his own dialogue for this movie.) Then he kills a bunch of people and disappears from the movie for an hour. You miss him, and his sense of whimsy, immediately.

20th Century Fox

(Yes, that is on the left. LMAO.)

You miss Reynolds even more when he comes back, as Deadpool 1.0, a ludicrous horror-movie atrocity with no mouth, and giant sword hands, and teleportation abilities, and laser eyes. (Though he can only decapitate someone when another bad guy with a computer types in the word decapitate.) Reynolds also told GQ that he knew immediately that this utterly joyless approach was a huge mistake, and felt vindicated when hardcore viewers revolted: “I still get angry, because I remember saying, ‘You know, there are more Deadpool fans out there than you realize, and they’re not gonna be happy with this.’”

Nobody felt vindicated by Green Lantern, which stunk up multiplexes in 2011, the same year as Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. The exposition-dense prologue is endless and ridiculous (we are whisked away to “Sector 2814”). Reynolds’s cocky-fighter-pilot backstory makes it feel like they awkwardly glued Top Gun onto Independence Day. Blake Lively has nothing to do but stand around looking lovely and confused, and Peter Sarsgaard, as the › supervillain, can’t make much more sense of things. Green Lantern’s big heroic moment is when he creates a giant, lime-green Hot Wheels racetrack to prevent Tim Robbins’s helicopter from crashing. Revisiting Green Lantern now, the most heartbreaking element is that Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi shows up in a bit part as the brainy best friend, which only makes you fantasize about how much better this movie would’ve been if it had been half as loose and loopy as Thor: Ragnarok.

The primary issue is that Reynolds, once again, is playing a cocky jerk, but not a witty cocky jerk. He just can’t figure this superhero thing out. As comic-book flops go, Green Lantern wasn’t as egregious as 2015’s disastrous Fantastic Four, but it still left Reynolds roaming the wilderness in search of the best vehicle for his affable talents, ping-ponging from the genuinely disastrous R.I.P.D. to black comedy (here’s the poster for 2014’s The Voices, have fun) to medium-prestige larks (2015’s poker flick Mississippi Grind has its champions). He was a pretty face with no definitive role to go with it.

And then, Deadpool. It is certainly notable that Reynolds’s definitive role involves both a full-body suit (“When I put it on, I can actually taste my own genitals”) and super-gnarly facial scarring. And given that the line “My stuntman’s about to fuck you up” made the blooper reel, it is worth asking what specific and invaluable quality Reynolds is actually bringing to these movies. One answer is his actual voice, a pleasantly yelp-y and jocular instrument that imbues the words “wheezing bag of dick tips” with just the right amount of gravitas. The idea, anyway, is that his delivery is so casual and winsome that you could never possibly get tired of hearing that voice, no matter how many groaners he drops, no matter how relentless the Deadpool 2 promotional tour has been.

Maybe you are tired of the Deadpool Voice anyway, though—one man’s knowing wit is another man’s cheap nihilism. Deadpool’s fusillade of fart jokes was a welcome breath of fresh air in 2016, in part because superhero movies themselves were mutating into something far more bloated and self-serious. (That year also brought us the enjoyable but extremely dense Captain America: Civil War and the far less enjoyable Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.) Of course, Deadpool, too, was dense with tragic-backstory pathos, but the fact that all that tragedy served to mangle the face of one of the handsomest dudes in Hollywood was a nice little note of dissonance and subversion. Reynolds took the act of not taking himself very seriously very, very seriously, just as he always had. We had long grown used to rooting for him even when he’s losing. The difference was that this time he was losing onscreen, on purpose.

Deadpool 2, by the fact of its very self-referential existence, may very well be overkill: Early reviews suggest something energetic but polarizing, tireless and a not little tiresome. But what we know about it already is another thing we’ve always known: Reynolds is very arguably better at promoting movies than he is in acting in them. (My favorite viral Deadpool 2 ad is a David Beckham stunt in which Reynolds is made to apologize for, among other things, Green Lantern and Blade: Trinity.) He is a B- movie star and an A+ generator of #content; Deadpool is perfect for him, and he for it. For a movie star he has always been appealingly bashful, not too thirsty for critical validation, content now to be a charming wiseass who induces eye-rolls onscreen in movies that finally, actually make money offscreen. What’s he doing with all this newfound multiplex cred? I got two words for you: Detective Pikachu. Here’s two more: Clue reboot. Ridiculous. Also, perfect. You can totally see him as Colonel Mustard, or Professor Plum, or Mr. Green. After all, they’re pretty much just slight variations on the same guy.