BY MORE THAN doubling studio expectations for its opening-weekend success, “Deadpool” hasn’t simply opened the Hollywood portal to a potential new array of X-character stories. The Ryan Reynolds passion project will also surely open the film industry’s eyes to the massive market for R-rated comic-book adaptations.
Fortunately for the power suits of Tinseltown, the comics vaults are overflowing with “mature content” books that could readily lend themselves to engrossing cinematic adaptations.
Dark characters. Grim plots. Stories that graphically plumb the moral underbelly of the human condition. From blood-spattered Westerns to sci-fi epics, Comic Riffs today considers the Mature Comics That Most Need to Become an R-Rated Film:
MICHAEL CAVNA: So you and I knew that “Deadpool” would do reasonably well, but these monster box-office numbers that practically rival “The Dark Knight’s” debut certainly speak to a thirst for R-rated comics adaptations that don’t feel like the same old tales of origin reboots and capes-vs.-urban apocalypses. So if you were a Hollywood executive, what’s the first “mature content” comic you’d now try to option and adapt?
DAVID BETANCOURT: The top two that come to my mind are American Vampire and Y: The Last Man. Last Man [which was adapted in 2011 in short form] has been in movie limbo for a while now, and I’m surprised someone hasn’t scooped up American Vampire. Fox has somewhat of a fun dilemma on their hands. “Deadpool” literally made twice what most folks were thinking it would for its opening weekend. So if you can spawn X-Force out of “Deadpool,” given Deadpool’s connection with Cable, do you continue the “R” momentum and make an X-Force movie rated R as well? If X-Force was in development [prior to “Deadpool’s" release], Fox must have been thinking PG-13 — just like the X-Men films. But now, seeing the success of “Deadpool,: maybe Fox executives have more than one R-rated franchise. They have to at least be thinking about it. And because of “Deadpool’s” success, if that character [now] appears in an X-film, does he [himself[ seem diluted if he’s in a PG-13 movie?
MC: Agreed. American Vampire especially leapt immediately to mind. It is already so gorgeously cinematic and costume-rich as rendered — from the old-Western vistas and saloons to the Jazz Age sheen on forward — that it ticks off multiple Hollywood film genres. I can just imagine Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson nailing each period while getting across the grim and graphic menace. And since Stephen King was such an early contributor to AV, he might have a few tips for Scott Snyder on the perils and pitfalls — and pros — of your work being adapted to the screen.
Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man is fertile terrain, but I could also see his SAGA [with Fiona Staples] being adapted soon, even as it’s still unfurling. The world is ready for an R-rated space opera redolent with themes that hit closer to the bone — and to the nerve endings — than the necessarily kid-friendly Star Wars franchise.
And speaking of Vertigo titles like AV, my first R-adapted pick would be Sandman, though perhaps there’s no way to begin to do it justice in a single film — it needs sequels. Gaiman has optioned work to HBO before, but even more than his novels like “American Gods,” his DC/Vertigo epic seems to be the child he has been most protective of over the years. Now that Sandman seems to be moving forward as a Warner Bros. screen project [with Joseph Gordon-Levitt reportedly attached], my fantasy adaptation would see it becoming a franchise spread over a healthy arc of films, like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Can you imagine what Guillermo del Toro could do with that?
DB: What I’m most interested to see is if other directors who might normally stay away form PG-13 superhero flicks might now be interested in the genre, if they know darker works can now be adapted. Guillermo del Toro has been linked to a Justice League Dark before. Could Deadpool’s success mean a project like that more likely gets made now?
MC: Precisely. There is an established generation of directors who I think would be energized by getting to push into R-rated comics fare the way, say, Matthew Vaughn has — less in the direction of “Kick Ass,” especially now that Deadpool swims in the same trope-aware waters of superhero cinema, and more in the vein of “Kingsman.”
Elsewhere, though I know it’s easy to over-lean toward Vertigo’s sublime stable, I could definitely see Transmetroplitan as a riveting one-shot film, adapting [Warren] Ellis’s crackling dialogue for gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem. We’ve seen interpretations of Hunter Thompson on screen before, of course, but “Trans” could brilliantly bleed with the bleak tones and dark humor of a future dystopia in the gifted hands of a Ridley Scott.
DB: Surely at that point, someone has to be circling around The Boys, by Garth Ennis. I think “Kick Ass” is what “Deadpool” could have been, if not for “Deadpool” happening to be one of Marvel’s most popular characters. Fans of Kick Ass went to see it — but maybe not so much the general public. Then again, two “Kick Ass” movies were made, so I guess enough people saw it. Everything that isn’t standard superhero fare is up for grabs. But is that a good thing? Will a new frontier of R-rated comic book material bring about more Hollywood interference?
MC: The question of studio interference is a good one that also speaks to budgets. Because “Deadpool,” at $58-million, cost less than half of “Ant-Man’s” reported budget, the financial risks weren’t as high, which means the studio suits don’t have to be quite as antsy.
That also raises the question: What’s better on the small vs. big screen? Few would argue against Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead” being better-suited to the series format. But Image has such a stocked creative cabinet; we mentioned SAGA, but Image’s has its own rich library of mature books that are deeply cinematic. (Note: Some of which, in the real world, are already in various stages of development.) I can just see Cary Joji Fukunaga adapting [Jason] Aaron’s words from Southern Bastards, or [Jonathan] Hickman’s East of West. And The Manhattan Projects could be amazing in the hands of Michael Mann. And [John] Layman and [Rob] Guillory’s Chew reportedly will be animated — which brings up whether we’ll soon see R-rated animated comic-book adaptations.
DB: Funny you mention animation. Comic Riffs [has] written on many of DC/WB’s animated films that come out frequently. Those animated films, we always go out of our way to note that they are a hard PG-13. It stands out. In the action, in the occasional bad word. But it works. DC/WB is doing a great job with them. I don’t think DC would ever take it to “R” with animation, but wouldn’t it be great to see Image, or DC imprint Vertigo give it a try?
MC: Seriously, that would make for a great test-case in the current market — the black canary in the coal mine of modern audiences.
I haven’t mentioned some works that Hollywood has had its hooks in, like Preacher. But as a producer, I’d sure look at 100 Bullets, and Aaron’s Scalped, which was inspired by the real events of Leonard Peltier. And the first thing I might try to do as a Hollywood honcho, I realize, is to try to sign Los Bros Hernandez. The opus that is Love and Rockets would surely have to be a series, or a multi-picture enterprise, but the richness of the developed-over-decades characters and narratives, would make the comic a prime pick to introduce to a larger, albeit R-rated, audience.
DB: Scalped has been picked up by WGN America, which is disappointing because it is for sure a mature-content title, but how far can WGN America take it? Which brings us to another situation. If it is mature comic-book content and it gets watered down by a network that can’t go all the way [to “R"], does that mess with the product and the experience from fans? Or would any studio or network in that situation be more concerned with a general audience being introduced to the story for the first time, and not worry about hardcore comic-book fans.
MC: I think that’s the precise dark side of any larger Deadpool Effect in Hollywood. Beware the town’s creative teams that would dilute the content with too little regard or love for the original. I have no problem with a PG-13 rating if that’s a natural artistic outcome, of course. But as we’ve seen so often over the years, mostly with adapted novels, a filmmaker or jittery studio can bowdlerize the work, thinking that strategic move plays to the masses. The real effect, though, is that something as wild and alive and dangerously kinetic as McMurphy in the great “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” becomes lobotomized. When that happens to a raw and brilliant work, I just want to grab a pillow — and not simply to sleep through the pablum that is a film that blatantly sold its artistic soul.