Ryan Reynolds is Finally a Movie Star
Why the "Deadpool" and "Free Guy" Star is a Unicorn in Hollywood
The question of whether Ryan Reynolds is a “movie star” has been debated at least since National Lampoon’s Van Wilder in 2002
The Canadian former star of Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place (I’m sorry, Two Guys and a Girl - they dropped the Pizza Place after two seasons) emerged as a possible leading man with some very of-their-time ‘00s comedies like Wilder, Waiting… and Just Friends. 2009 saw him enter the big leagues, sharing the screen with Sandra Bullock in the rom com The Proposal and opposite Wolverine in X-Men Origins:… (checks notes) Wolverine. He also had a three-year marriage to Scarlett Johansson, which is a thing we weirdly don’t talk about anymore.
However, conversation over Reynolds’ cultural cache reached a fever pitch in 2012, after a series of outright bombs you may have heard of (Green Lantern) and some that you haven’t (R.I.P.D.). I often think about this crux period for Reynolds as defined by Bill Simmons in his 2012 Grantland article “The Movie Star.” Simmons argues that Reynolds did not earn his movie stardom, but rather he was foisted upon the public as the “next big thing.”
This was a common refrain in 2012, a time when blockbuster filmmaking was in flux, and movie stars were on their way out. It was the same year that Men in Black 3 was released - marking the end of an era of Will Smith’s box office dominance. The Will Smith films that followed - After Earth, Focus, Concussion, Collateral Beauty and Gemini Man - did not reach the heights of surprise $300 million+ grossers like The Pursuit of Happyness and Hitch (although I have a big soft spot for the Will Smith-Margot Robbie pairing in Focus). 2012 might very well have been the last year where a star’s face and name on the poster were a guarantor of blockbuster success.
In 2012, what constituted stardom was also changing under Reynolds’ feet
Pre-Avengers, superhero films were prevalent but had yet to completely overtake the culture, and studios were still testing the IP waters. Rich Ross was fired as chairman of Walt Disney Studios after experiments such as the mo-cap Mars Needs Moms and the sci-fi John Carter went badly awry. What was considered “bankable” was evolving, as audiences weren’t just interested in sequels but “universes” - interconnected storylines and post-credit teasers. The biggest “stars” of these films were not the actors themselves, but the comic book characters they played - Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man or Chris Hemsworth as Thor. In the best case scenario, as was the case with RDJ, the star persona and the character would have a reliable synergy.
Reynolds tried to salvage his fledgling stardom through non-superhero films - he worked with maybe the last true movie star Denzel Washington in Safe House and went back to the comedy well with the R-rated The Change-Up.
However, the criticism of Simmons and others that Reynolds was a “fake movie star” stuck
Reynolds spent his mandatory time in the wilderness of independent films. I happen to be a fan of this period of his career, when indie filmmakers were able to utilize him as an actor. This stage in Reynolds’ career yielded movies such as the breezy gambling pic Mississippi Grind (a film I’ve spoken of my love for before) and the truly-fucking-weird serial killer black comedy The Voices directed by “Persepolis” author Marjane Satrapi (there are both talking cats and talking disembodied heads involved).
Reynolds played a sleazy roller coaster mechanic in Greg Mottola’s 2009 film Adventureland - a film that has emerged as the gold standard of coming-of-age stories in recent years. He was also a part of the gimmick-y 2010 thriller Buried, in which he played an American in Iraq who is buried alive with a cell phone and a lighter. I have to praise Reynolds here, as most movie stars facing a decline would either fade to black or transition to TV. He chose instead to sharpen his skills by working with oddball auteurs.
Then in 2014, Reynolds reentered the fold of studio filmmaking almost by accident
Deadpool, a film based on the popular fourth-wall-breaking X-Men character, languished in development hell for years after the toxic reception of the character’s portrayal in X-Men Origins (Wolverine). Then in July 2014, test footage from the film was leaked online and the fan community responded with demands for a full feature. Given that Reynolds was no longer a movie star and that the film mandated an R-rating, 20th Century Fox only agreed to greenlight the film at the low (for a superhero film) budget of $58 million.
You know the rest of the story. Deadpool went on to break box-office records, becoming the highest-grossing R-rated film at the time (and even the highest-grossing film of the entire X-Men franchise). Audiences responded well to Deadpool’s tongue-in-cheek humor - his casual poking fun at genre conventions such as the “superhero landing.” Reynolds (who produced the film, and was essential to getting it made) was back on top - not because he played by the old rules of movie stardom, but because he had adapted to the new landscape. Like Robert Downey Jr., he found a comic book character that fit his star persona like a glove. Deadpool’s irreverence became inseparable from Reynolds himself, impacting everything he did moving forward.
Reynolds’ next film The Hitman’s Bodyguard played up the comedic elements of his partnership with Samuel L. Jackson with key art mirroring the classic poster from 1992’s The Bodyguard (the film was a success that later spawned a sequel). Reynolds also voiced the titular Pokémon character in Detective Pikachu with plenty of his trademark sarcasm. Neither role was a stretch for Reynolds, but these films did establish him as a known quantity for both kids and adults who missed out on Deadpool.
Reynolds’ career mirrors that of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, in that he has stopped trying to be a movie actor and become a brand.
The point of having a “brand” is that it is fixed, repeatable - a comfort for the audience. Sure, it’s true that being a “brand” does not allow for the variety of acting that Reynolds was able to seek out in the independent film world. However, having a “brand” is similar to the lanes that actors carved out for themselves in the studio system. Fred Astaire danced, Cary Grant was always charming and Ryan Reynolds faces every situation with a self-aware smirk.
Unlike Robert Downey Jr. (who has used his Iron Man success in the old-fashioned way - to fund projects like a Perry Mason reboot and the suspiciously-‘90s-feeling drama The Judge) Reynolds has capitalized on his “brand” for the 21st century. Just as Dwayne Johnson has established himself as the tequila-pounding demi-god of his gym the Iron Paradise, Reynolds has spun his superhero persona into an entire industry.
Reynolds’ winking sense of humor has become an effective tool for his marketing company “Maximum Effort.” When Reynolds appears in ads for everything from his Aviation Gin to cell phone company Mint Mobile, he might as well be speaking as Deadpool sans mask. Reynolds’ company has even had a hand in marketing his own films such as Pikachu and the video game comedy Free Guy (Per Reynolds, his company had the idea to include the line “From the studio who brought you Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King - Twice” in the initial Free Guy trailer, poking fun at Disney’s live-action remakes of animated films).
Through Deadpool, Reynolds has unlocked what was missing from his previous attempt at stardom. He is now starring in a $100 million+ film that, despite clearly taking inspiration from GTA and The Lego Movie, is the only original blockbuster set to be released this summer. For Free Guy, Reynolds is working with the more family-friendly director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Real Steel, producer of Stranger Things) - a trusted studio hand. He even brought on Killing Eve breakout Jodie Comer - a brilliant, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her actress whose career will continue to skyrocket (she’s the lead in TWO upcoming Ridley Scott films).
The reason why Reynolds’ career is so fascinating is that movie-star comebacks like his are increasingly rare (Matthew’s “McConaissance” being a recent exception)
Very few actors who are given the title of “movie stars” at a young age and subsequently lose it are able to win back the public’s love (Noah Centineo, I hope you’re taking careful notes). However, any resentment or cynicism over Reynolds’ initial leap to overnight stardom appears to have melted away, as he genuinely has earned back his star status by his own hand.
Compare Reynolds to Colin Farrell, who first arrived in Hollywood from his native Ireland in his early ‘20s. His run from ‘00 through ‘05 as the hot up-and-comer included films from Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Terrence Malick. However, Farrell quickly burned out as a leading man - he famously went straight from the set of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice to rehab after production wrapped. As his career progressed, Farrell drifted more toward character actor parts - starring in Martin McDonagh movies and in Yorgos Lanthimos’ English language debut The Lobster. Similarly, Reynolds could have easily lived out the rest of his career by playing the lead in indie films and supporting roles in studio pics. The fact that he survived his career dip with his top billing intact makes him a unicorn - especially in an era when the number of “bankable” stars has dwindled to a dozen or so.
Five years after Deadpool, Reynolds has further assured his place in the future of Hollywood blockbusters
It was only released last Friday, but Free Guy has already become a rare pandemic-era theatrical success, earning $28 million+ in its opening weekend. Before Sunday B.O. was tallied, there was already talk of a sequel. This is perhaps an even more impressive feat for Reynolds than the runaway hit Deadpool, as Free Guy is not based on preexisting IP or a comic book. The film drew eyeballs thanks to the combination of Reynolds’ name and the concept. Reynolds has started yet another franchise after Deadpool and The Hitman’s Bodyguard - a rare trifecta, marking a potential career peak.
Reynolds is also officially in the fold of Kevin Feige’s Marvel Studios, as Deadpool 3 will take place in the MCU. Being under the MCU banner will require some reinvention for Deadpool (it remains to be seen if the film will be R-rated, or how hard that R will be). That guarantees that the franchise will be drawn out for at least a few more installments (And with his new box office clout, Reynolds will largely be free of the bad studio notes that produced films like X-Men: …Origins? Logan).
Besides his flagship superhero character and future Free Guy and Hitman’s Bodyguard installments, Reynolds is keeping busy with a Dwayne Johnson-Gal Gadot action vehicle (Netflix’s Red Notice), another Shawn Levy all-ages film (Netflix’s The Adam Project) and a musical based on “A Christmas Carol” with Will Ferrell (Apple’s Spirited). These all seem like safe choices, as Reynolds is aligning himself with other established stars. Moreover, all of these films are for streaming services, making it less easy to gauge their success from the outside (Reynolds won’t have to worry about headlines about box office underperformance).
Reynolds has shown no interest in going back to serious, independent films anytime soon. He’s now in the business of making thrill rides, of perfecting the action movie wisecrack.
It’s clear after Free Guy that fans won’t just sit down just to watch Deadpool sequels - they’ll flock to any film that offers the “Ryan Reynolds Experience.” It appears Reynolds has finally accomplished what so many modern actors long for - he has become a “franchise” all by himself.
Other Stray Thoughts
Clint Eastwood is 91 years old. He’s not only starring in Cry Macho, but directing as well. And he punches a guy’s lights out in the trailer. Again, Clint Eastwood is 91 years old. I’ll be there opening weekend.
Another legend, Martin Scorsese, is currently filming Killers of the Flower Moon in Oklahoma with Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro. At 78, Scorsese knows that he has a limited number of films left. It is significant that he is choosing to make a Western like Flower Moon which details the crimes committed against the Osage Nation (a reversal of the John Wayne Westerns that Scorsese loved as a child, where the Indigenous people were often the villains).
I recommend this article which features comments from Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear on how the Scorsese project was set up with participation from the local Osage community. Between Flower Moon and FX’s new show Reservation Dogs (from Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi), I’m hopeful that we’re entering an era of increased representation for Indigenous communities.
Simmons, Bill, “The Movie Star.” Grantland, http://grantland.com/features/the-movie-star/
Fleming Jr., Mike, “No. 2 ‘Deadpool’ Box Office Profits – 2016 Most Valuable Movie Blockbuster Tournament.” Deadline, https://deadline.com/2017/04/deadpool-box-office-profit-2016-1202057182/
“I will always spoof you! Samuel L Jackson and Ryan Reynolds recreate Whitney Houston's 1992 movie poster.” Daily Mail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-4412960/Ryan-Reynolds-Samuel-L-Jackson-spoof-Bodyguard.html
Kroll, Justin, “Jodie Comer Is Ridley Scott’s Choice To Play Josephine Opposite Joaquin Phoenix In Napoleon Bonaparte Pic ‘Kitbag’ For Apple Studios.” Deadline, https://deadline.com/2021/03/jodie-comer-josephine-joaquin-phoenix-apple-ridley-scotts-napoleon-kitbag-1234704485/
Feifer, Jason,“How Ryan Reynolds' Marketing Agency Keeps Making Viral Hits.” Entrepreneur, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/366109
D’Alessandro, Anthony, “How Ryan Reynolds & Shawn Levy’s ‘Free Guy’ Triumphed At The Weekend Pandemic B.O. With A Great $28M+.” Deadline, https://deadline.com/2021/08/ryan-reynolds-free-guy-weekend-box-office-1234814231/
Shafer, Ellise, “Ryan Reynolds Says Disney Wants a ‘Free Guy’ Sequel.” Variety, https://variety.com/2021/film/news/free-guy-sequel-ryan-reynolds-1235041829/
Whitfield, Susie, “How Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is changing life in a small community on the Kansas border.” Kansas City Magazine, https://www.kansascitymag.com/killers-of-the-flower-moon/