Deadpool | How two minutes of leaked footage changed the Marvel Cinematic Universe forever

Deadpool test footage
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A decade on from its fateful leak, a look at how a two-minute Deadpool test reel has led to Deadpool & Wolverine – a film that is about to change the MCU.

The general public was never even meant to see it, and yet the test footage for Deadpool has made more of a dent on pop culture than some multi-million dollar films with huge marketing departments behind them.

To this day, nobody has publicly admitted to leaking that footage in 2014. Some have pointed the finger at director Tim Miller; franchise star Ryan Reynolds has playfully hinted that he might have uploaded it to the internet that July. There are theories that the studio that commissioned it, 20th Century Fox, may have leaked it deliberately as part of an elaborate publicity campaign.

Whoever leaked the two-minute reel, which showed what the red-suited, sweary anti-hero might look and sound like, it proved to be consequential in ways even the makers of the Deadpool franchise could never have envisioned. Its success not only forced Fox into greenlighting a movie it previously distrusted, but it’s also grown into such a comic book phenomenon that it might be on the cusp of changing the Marvel Cinematic Universe forever.

It’s a turnaround made all the more remarkable considering Deadpool’s status at the start of the 2010s. The Deadpool character – a scarred, smart-mouthed mercenary otherwise known as Wade Wilson – was first dreamed up by comic book writers Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefield in 1990, and soon became a popular edition to the Marvel stable.

The fast-talking anti-hero’s big-screen debut, in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, missed the point of the character to such a degree, however, that it was a wonder whether its producers were deliberately trolling fans of the comics. With his mouth sewn shut, weird bodily markings and oddly-conceived superpowers, the Origins version of Deadpool was so off-base that even Ryan Reynolds, who’d signed up to play him, tried to warn Fox executives that the interpretation would irritate fans.

By that point, Reynolds had already been attached to the Deadpool character for years. A film based on the protagonist had been in the works following the release of Blade: Trinity in 2004, with its writer-director David S Goyer keen to work with Reynolds again (the actor played Hannibal King in that film).

In the wake of Wolverine, Reynolds then began lobbying Deadpool rights holder Fox to make a more accurate film dedicated to the character, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were brought in to work on the script in early 2010. There was always a certain amount of nervousness surrounding a Deadpool movie at Fox, though, particularly given that honouring the comics would mean lots of swearing and violence – the kind of stuff that would push it into R-rated territory. Would anyone bother buying a ticket for such a film, at least beyond the most hardcore comic book fans?

Then DC superhero movie Green Lantern came out in 2011, in which Ryan Reynolds starred as the title character. If Fox was looking for an excuse to kill the Deadpool project outright, Green Lantern’s failure might have seemed as good as any: barely making its huge $200m budget back, it was the kind misfire that every Hollywood star surely dreads.

The bizarre incarnation of Deadpool seen in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). Credit: Fox/Disney.

All the same, there was enough enthusiasm among those working on Deadpool to keep pushing it through the studio system. A major coup – though it may not have seemed like it at the time – was the arrival of Tim Miller as director. Then better known for his work as a visual effects artist, Miller had his own VFX company, Blur Studios, and had won an Oscar for Best Animated Short with Gopher Broke in 2004.

Despite having less feature filmmaking experience than his predecessor, Robert Rodriguez (he got bored and left in 2010), Miller’s background meant that he was well-placed to oversee the production of a two-minute concept reel – something bosses at Fox gave him permission to make at some point in 2011.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Miller was given “a low six-figure budget” to make a piece of footage that would convince Fox that a Deadpool feature would be worth greenlighting. Miller and his team therefore went away and dreamed up a two-minute reel that would establish the anti-hero’s character and the kind of fourth wall-breaking antics he’d get up to.

Needless to say, the resulting test reel didn’t please Fox. One of the big sticking points, seemingly, was Tom Rothman, then Fox’s chairman. He’d already made all kinds of stipulations and caveats about making an R-rated superhero film, including a reduced budget (according to Miller, he originally wanted it to be somewhere in the region of $40m). And when he read Reese and Wernick’s script, Rothman said, “No. We don’t get it,” according to Miller. “I love your passion but I just don’t care for the script.”

Miller later recalled to Entertainment Weekly that he repeatedly emailed Fox with messages that said something to the effect of “Please tell me who I have to f–k to get this going” – all to no avail. The story might have ended here, with endless tweaks made to the script (there was talk of toning the swearing down for a PG-13 rating at one point) and no finished film to show for all the effort. It’s not like this hadn’t happened to superhero projects before; an X-Men spin-off based on Gambit was in the works for years but, to date, has never happened.

Then, something unusual happened: on the 27th July 2014, Miller’s Deadpool test footage leaked onto the internet. It was the last day of that year’s San Diego Comic-Con, and Miller was on his way back home when his phone began buzzing with notifications.

“I had just gotten home from the train station from San Diego,” Miller told EW, “and my phone blows up with Google alerts about Deadpool and I see the test had leaked. And I was horrified. I immediately wrote Fox an email and said ‘I swear on my daughter’s life I didn’t leak this test.’”

Whoever leaked the footage – Ryan Reynolds said mischievously that he was “70 percent sure” it wasn’t him – it certainly did the trick. The online response was so overwhelmingly positive that, mere weeks after the leak, Fox relented and finally gave Deadpool the greenlight. (That Tom Rothman, name-checked by Deadpool in the test footage, had left Fox in 2012 probably also helped.)

Nor was Deadpool the kind of film that goes viral on the internet but fails to generate ticket sales. Released in early 2016, it made almost $800m on a $58m budget – an incredibly lean investment for a superhero movie. Praised by fans and critics alike, Deadpool broke all kinds of records – the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, the most profitable X-Men film, and so on.

The test footage’s bridge scene formed the finished film’s opening – and looked remarkably close to the leaked reel from years earlier. Credit: Fox/Disney.

A sequel was inevitable, and Deadpool 2, although not as well-received as its predecessor, was still a big hit. By the time that film came out in 2018, Fox was in the process of being acquired by Disney, which was a significant moment for Marvel movies: with Fox and Marvel Studios under the same banner, it would now be possible for the characters the two companies owned to appear in a movie together. Exactly how a character as irreverent and foul-mouthed as Wade Wilson could work in the more family-friendly MCU was the subject of much debate, both among fans and bosses at Disney.

Disney boss Bob Iger said in 2018 that his company would continue to make Deadpool movies, but that they might be somehow hived off as a separate “Marvel-R brand” to “let the audiences know what’s coming.”

By the time the ink had dried on the Disney-Fox contract in 2019, the Marvel Cinematic Universe looked unstoppable: Avengers: Endgame had earned $2.8bn, making it one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. In the years following the pandemic, however, the broad, PG-13 MCU formula has faltered somewhat, with such films as Eternals, Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania and The Marvels all falling short of expectations in one way or another.

This has led to the once unthinkable scenario we find ourselves in this year, in which second sequel Deadpool & Wolverine is being looked at as the ‘saviour’ of the MCU. A film which might have once been kept somewhat at arms length from the wider Marvel universe, complete with its own sub-brand, has now been drawn enthusiastically into the fold.

As well as the crowd-pleasing prospect of having Wade Wilson team up with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, the movie ties into the Time Variance Authority, recently seen in the Marvel TV series Loki, while the latest trailer contains a brief reference to Ant-Man. In typical Deadpool style, the sequel also features several nods to its newfound MCU status.

“Pegging isn’t for me, friendo, but it is for Disney,” Reynolds says in the film’s first promo, all but winking at the camera. The second trailer name-drops Kevin Fiege in a conversation about cocaine. Then came the line that might have sent a faint shudder down the spines of those in charge of the MCU: “Your little cinematic universe is about to change forever. I’m the Messiah…”

It’s an open reference, seemingly, to Deadpool & Wolverine being Marvel Studios’ sole release for 2024. It also has strange echoes of X-Men: First Class director Matthew Vaughn’s comments in January, when he said that Deadpool & Wolverine was so “incredible” that it’ll “save the whole Marvel Universe.”

The trailer could also be seen as an acknowledgement on Marvel’s part that the MCU has gotten a little safe and predictable in recent years, and that it needs a touch of Deadpool’s anarchy. As such, Marvel Studios’ future direction is likely to be decided on the audience reaction to Deadpool & Wolverine; if it’s a success, we’ll undoubtedly see more films like it, perhaps including X-Force, an R-rated team-up movie whose development was shelved after the Fox acquisition in 2019.

If it’s a failure – which seems unlikely, given audience curiosity alone is likely to buoy it up – then Marvel may quietly row back its decision to make its long-in-the-works Blade reboot an R.

Whatever happens, the pop cultural impact of that two-minute reel has been unexpectedly outsized. So much so that even the company behind it, Blur Studios, is reluctant to talk about it all these years later. When Film Stories contacted the company about a possible interview on the test footage’s success, it politely replied that “we’re not in a position to appear and comment as historians” and that it was “still on an NDA [non-disclosure agreement]”.

That two minutes of footage could have so much impact, and that such a mischievous anti-hero could be about to change the MCU as a whole, is the kind of bizarre, unforeseen reversal that Deadpool himself would no doubt relish.

Deadpool & Wolverine is out in cinemas on the 25th July – almost exactly a decade after the test footage leaked.

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