DEADPOOL 2: Where Tone Meets Genre in Screenwriting
This week, we are going to be looking at Deadpool 2 by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, and a new addition to the writing team, Ryan Reynolds.
If you missed my podcast on the original Deadpool, you might want to check that out as well, because one of the things that is exciting about Deadpool 2 is the way it manages to maintain a consistent tone, even over the course of a very different film.
If you’ve studied TV writing in our TV Drama Classes, TV Comedy Classes or Web Series Classes, you know that every episode of a TV show should feel the same, and also feel different. that it should deliver the same genre experience to the audience, the same tone, the same feeling, the same experience while taking them through a story that also feels very new, and very fresh, and very different.
But now, we’re seeing the same phenomenon in big action movie franchises, like Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy or The Avengers, where each installment needs deliver on those expectations of the audience.
So, setting aside the questions all over the internet about “which is better, Deadpool 1 or Deadpool 2?” — rather than comparing these films in terms of which is a more successful movie, instead, what I want to do is I want to look at this question, which will be valuable for any writer, whether you’re working in features or TV.
How do you maintain that consistent tone?
How do you create one screenplay after another that has the same feeling that feels entirely fresh and also entirely consistent?”
Learning how to control tone in your screenplay will be valuable for you in many different ways.
If you are writing a TV Drama or a TV Comedy, or a Web Series, understanding how tone is handled in a script, how different elements can be brought together to replicate the same feeling for the audience, will be extraordinarily valuable for you, whether working on your own pilot, or replicating the voice of a showrunner as a staff writer on a series.
If you are writing for feature films this will help you in a couple of different ways.
First, a lot of the writing work out there right now is work-for-hire writing or rewriting, and to be a great work-for-hire writer, or to be a great rewriter or a great polisher of scripts, we need to do more than just create great stories and great characters– that is just a given of the basics of what we need to be able to do.
We also need to be able to write characters that didn’t originate from us, we need to be able to create characters that fit effortlessly into a universe or a world created by other people, We need to be able to emulate the voices of other characters.
So learning to control tone will help you in your career if you are interested in rewriting, if you are interested in being able to take notes from a producer and adapt your work, if you are interested in having control over your gift rather than just letting anything that comes out onto the page be what you end up with.
And it will also be valuable for you even if you’re just working on your own script.
Oftentimes, there is a big gap between what we imagine our screenplay is going to be and what actually comes out on the page.
Many years ago, one of my very talented students was working on his first foray into comedy. He pulled me aside at one point and he said, “Jake, what do I do if I do all this work, and it comes out, and it isn’t funny?”
And I said, “Well Bill, then you will have a really great drama.”
And ultimately that is still the answer I believe in.
As screenwriters, we really should worry a hell of a lot less about tone.
We should really worry a whole lot less about where we are going to end up, and we should really focus on what it is that we are writing, what the script wants to be.
At the same time, as writers, we often freak ourselves out, because we will write something that feels like it isn’t coming out right.
We are writing a wonderful comedy and everything is really funny, and then here is this incredibly dark scene.
Or we are writing something that is incredibly dark, and then, suddenly, here is this goofy thing that dropped in.
Or, we are writing something that is set in a totally natural world, and then, suddenly, we see some expressionistic, or magical, or fantasy element comes in– something that feels like it is from a different genre.
And oftentimes what we want to do when that happens is just shut it down!
“Oh my God what is wrong with me,? Why am I going off on this crazy tangent, or at this crazy angle?”
When really what we need to do is bring ourselves back to where we are, and say, “Okay let’s start by noticing what comes up, and then let’s start to adapt it to turn it into what it needs to be.”
Jerry Perzigian, who teaches our TV Comedy Classes here has a quote that I really love. Jerry says, “first write it true, and then write it funny.”
If you are writing an action movie, I would say the same thing, “first write it true, and then find the action and the spectacle to build around it.”
As writers, our ultimate job is to tell the truth. But in our final drafts, we need that truth to take a form that fits with all the stuff around it.
If we are working on a film like Deadpool 2, where we are working with a character who is supposed to feel, and look, and be, and act a certain way, we need to fulfill the expectations that our audience had set up for them in the first episode, just like we need to fulfill the expectations that we set up for our audience on the first page, or the first act, or the first half of our script.
We have to give them what we promised, and then we have to outdo it.
If you look at Deadpool 2, it is an exciting film because, just like the original Deadpool, it deals with a lot of stuff that you aren’t supposed to deal with in a comedy: suicide, death of a lover, child obesity and anger, child abuse, sexual abuse, murder.
And one of the fabulous things about Deadpool and Deadpool 2 is that even though the films are both chock full of violence, Deadpool the character shows a lot of awareness that those bullets hurt, that the actions he is taking aren’t necessarily right, that the violence that we see in these films isn’t really the society that we want to create for ourselves.
So you have this completely immoral character (or mostly immoral) character in a film that actually has a relatively moral message.
You have a completely irreverent action comedy that is actually dealing with some very, very, real issues.
And although you have a wise-cracking character who never seems to break a sweat, or never seems at loss for a joke, you also have a couple of moments of truly moving character-driven drama between him and his wife.
What’s really beautiful about Deadpool 2 that it is able to wrestle with very real, truthful, dark issues without losing that constant comic fun tone that categorizes who Deadpool is and how the series works.
In the original Deadpool this was already hard to do, but in Episode 2 this was actually harder.
In the original Deadpool what we have is a creation myth. We have the journey of Wade Wilson to becoming Deadpool, and in that story, we have the story of a guy learning what really matters in life.
And even though, as I commented in my first podcast on Deadpool, it doesn’t draw to the traditional moralistic conclusion that you would expect in a superhero movie, Wade Wilson does go on a character-driven journey where he learns that it really isn’t all about materialism, it really isn’t all about looking good– that he can actually believe in love.
A really beautiful love story grows between Deadpool and Vanessa–his stripper prostitute girlfriend–where these two very flawed people actually find real love together.
What that means is that by the beginning of Deadpool 2, we need a completely different kind of journey for the Deadpool character.
The first Deadpool is a journey about discovering that love can be real. But, you can’t just go do that again in Deadpool 2, because the character has already gone on that journey!
At the same time, if you have studied any TV writing– and these big-budget action movies do work like TV in that each installment needs to feel the same but also be different– you know that for the formula of Deadpool, for the engine to work, Deadpool has to go on another morality versus lack of morality kind of journey!
It can’t be the same as the first one because he has already learned what love it, it has to be something new.
So, Deadpool 2 hones in on a different theme.
If the first Deadpool was about appearance versus reality, about a character dealing with the ugliness of his face and learning that he can still be loved for who he is rather than what he looks like, Deadpool 2 is about something different.
Deadpool 2 is about family.
And Deadpool 2 starts, just like the first Deadpool, with a really beautifully shot, fun, funny action sequence.
Deadpool 1 begins with a visually spectacular sequence, but while in Deadpool 1 this was a fun action-fight sequence, in Deadpool 2 it is a suicide sequence.
What we watch is a guy who can’t die, doing his best to blow himself up.
We meet a Deadpool who is starting the film at a place of total despair.
And though he is still wisecracking and fun, we can feel the despair underneath his actions and we can feel the lengths he is going to, to try to end his life.
We then flashback to find out why.
And what we flashback to is a sequence between Deadpool and Vanessa that is a little bit surprising emotionally and tonally, if you are used to the Vanessa from the previous movie and the Deadpool from the previous movie, because, rather than meeting this hard-edged couple what we meet is a loving couple preparing to raise a family.
Though the execution of that sequence, of course, is done with great specificity by these writers in a way that only Vanessa could do it– giving him her IUD in a ring box– and though thematically the question of family is brought up in a very “Deadpool” way– with the question of whether family is an “F” word to him– the execution of that scene, the tone of that scene, when compared to the tone of their scenes in the previous movie, is much more like a Hallmark film than what we would expect in Deadpool!
Which is probably why….Slight spoiler ahead…
…they have to kill her.
So we find out why Deadpool is suicidal.
Deadpool is suicidal because having finally found the love of his life in the previous movie, he now has to deal with her death.
Having finally found that love could be real, he has to have that love taken away from him.
So, here we are, at the very beginning of the film– we’ve felt the ironic contrast between where we ended the last movie and where we are starting this one, from a place of elation to a place of suicide.
We’ve had that mystery answered by the surprise death of the love of Deadpool’s life, so we have already knocked the audience out of their expectation.
Because their expectation is that they are going to get to see in Deadpool 2 the completion of where we started in the original Deadpool, the story of these two people who love each other in the next phase of their story.
And here we are 10 minutes in and she is gone.
And that is the kind of decision that you, as a newer writer, might actually throw out when it first came to you!
And, in fact, that is actually what these experienced writers did! They threw it out!
In an earlier draft, they just had her break up with him rather than actually dying. And it was only in later revisions that they realized: No! It isn’t enough for her to break up!
They had to punish this character, they had to hurt this character to such a great extent in order to move him, at the beginning of a film, to a place where he could actually go through a change.
So we have a nice little ironic hook. We have a suicidal superhero who cannot die. We understand Deadpool’s problem.
But, we also have a structural hook for his journey in relation to the theme.
Having lost the one person he loves, Deadpool is going to learn how important family is. And of course, he is going to learn it in a super dark, super twisted, super funny kind of way.
Having lost his opportunity to have his own child, Deadpool is going to develop a relationship with Firefist–a young man who is probably very different than the kind of child that Deadpool would seek for himself–an obese, angry young kid whose only real desire is to see a superhero that looks like him– and who is going to suffer for putting his faith and love into a guy like Deadpool.
So, having lost his opportunity to have a relationship with his own child, he is going to develop a very different kind of relationship with another child.
Ultimately, all of this stuff is going to bring him to a place where he has to learn what it is to be loved again.
But this time, in a different way. This time, not through the love of a woman but the love of family, the love of a friend, he is going to have to learn what friends are willing to do for each other and how to put his heart in the right place.
So, we have a dramatic hook, we have a hook to the pitch, we have a hook in relation to the theme, we have a journey. But, how the hell is this going to work tonally?
How do you create a film that is going to be that damn funny, that is going to deal with concepts that are so dark that we usually would only see them in a dark, twisted family drama?
How are you going to do a huge budget action movie that is going to appeal to everybody and still wrestle honestly with these incredibly dark themes?
Let’s talk a little bit about tone.
I actually learned my greatest lesson about tone from one of my great mentors, Professor Peter Saccio. Peter is one of the foremost Shakespeare scholars in the world.
Though you might be a little bit shocked to hear me describe Deadpool in the same breath as Shakespeare, what these writers do in Deadpool 2 is actually very similar to what Peter Saccio pointed out that Shakespeare was doing in Henry IV, Part 2.
If you know Henry IV, Part 1, the show gets stolen by a big, fat character named Falstaff.
Falstaff is the big clown. He provides the comic relief in the piece.
If you remember Jack Black in High Fidelity, well, Falstaff was the “Jack Black” of his day. And when the audience came for Henry IV, Part 2, they were really coming for Falstaff.
And so what happens in Henry IV, Part 2 is you show up with an expectation, just like you show up at Deadpool with an expectation:
“Oh, I get it, I’m going to get a very specific tone and I’m going to get the relationship between Deadpool and Vanessa and that is going to be fun.”
You come into Henry IV, Part 2, and you expect that you are going to get to see Falstaff.
And instead, it ends up right at the beginning of the show that Falstaff is dead.
Falstaff’s death is reported by a drunken prostitute in Henry IV Part 2. Her monologue is absolutely hilarious, it is played for comic relief, and you get to the end of that monologue and you know Falstaff is dead, but, you are having a great all-time finding out.
And what Peter Saccio did was a very deep reading of the monologue underneath that monologue– of the words underneath what the drunken prostitute is saying.
See, she is so drunk she can barely string a sentence together, but Saccio’s deep reading actually suggested one of the saddest monologues in history.
In fact, Peter Saccio brought a lecture hall of about 250 students to tears with a deep reading of this very funny monologue, looking for the drama underneath: the story of a guy who has brought nothing but joy to everyone he has met, but who doesn’t know it, and who is on his knees begging God for just a few more moments, so that he could accomplish one thing that actually mattered in his life…
So, he gives this incredibly devastating monologue–the monologue underneath the comic monologue. And he had a theory, and we don’t know if this theory is true or not because we don’t know Shakespeare, but it is certainly one of the great lessons that I took as a screenwriter.
His theory was that Shakespeare had originally written the dramatic monologue. That he had realized after writing it that if he put that dramatic monologue at the beginning of Henry IV Part 2, he wouldn’t be able to tell his history play about Hal turning into Henry IV. Instead, the whole piece would become about Falstaff’s death.
It would just be too heavy! He would reduce his whole audience to tears so early in the play and he would never be able to bring them back.
Saccio’s theory was that Shakespeare had actually rewritten the monologue, changed not the content but the way that content was delivered, and in doing so, played the same lines, the same idea for comedy, rather than for drama.
I would like to suggest that that is exactly what Deadpool does as well.
What Deadpool does is apply a comic tone to all these incredibly powerful, serious ideas. It applies a character’s voice, the unique way that Ryan Reynolds has of delivering Deadpool— which is why it is so appropriate and exciting that he actually became part of the writing team on this piece– the voice of the actor, the voice of the character, the unique “how”, the unique way that the character does it.
And simply by executing a serious concept in a playful way, they turned something that could have been a drama into a comedy.
What is really cool is, that comedy doesn’t keep us from experiencing the story.
In fact… and there is another slight spoiler here…
By the end of the film, Deadpool will finally reunite with Vanessa, Deadpool actually will make the choice to let himself die when he could have saved himself, so that he can be with the woman he loves.
And the scene that happens between them at that moment–
Well here’s some backstory– Deadpool has been visiting her at moments when he blows himself up, at moments where it seems like he is going to die. Deadpool has been visiting her but there has always been an invisible wall between them.
And this time he goes to her, and he finds his way through that wall in an incredibly beautiful and touching moment.
And the last thing you want to be doing is crying at a Deadpool film. But you are feeling those emotions well up in you as you watch this moment because they play this moment– unlike all those other comic moments in the piece– they play this moment for real.
Tonally, what happens is it stands out against all those scenes where we have seen the “candy shell” on the outside of Deadpool– we have seen his quipping and wisecracking.
And we see this moment where he is restored to his real body, and we see this moment of real connection between the two of them, real vulnerability, where he lets his guard down and his style go… and we feel his love at that moment.
And then, just when we think we might be ending up at a Hallmark moment, Deadpool turns it upside down for us again!
And I’m not going to spoil those moments for you. But, it is a wonderful surprise that brings us right back to the kind of tone, the kind of twisted darkness that we desire when we come to a Deadpool film.
While at the same time, it sets us up for the elements we need to get to the third sequel.
I want to leave you with a really important idea.
Oftentimes, as screenwriters, we tend to censor ourselves, and we tend to get censored by those around us.
We come up with an idea that doesn’t fit the tone, or doesn’t fit the theme, or seems like it is going to be hard to do, or seems like, “well no one has ever done it like that before.”
And either a voice in our head or a voice from the outside world says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! That just isn’t going to work!” “No, no, no! You can’t kill off the love interest at the very beginning!” “No, no, no! You can’t deal with suicide in an action comedy!” “No, no, no! you can’t have an action movie that actually looks ethically at what it means to be making these violent films!”
Or, “You can’t have a character like Domino whose superpower is luck! How would you ever dramatize that?”
And of course if you’ve seen the film, you’ve seen the brilliant ways that they dramatized Domino’s ability for luck.
We all have these inner voices in our heads. So if you end up with something that you don’t think could work, but you think is really cool…
If you end up with something that breaks the rules that doesn’t fit with the other stuff in the genre…
If you end up with something that doesn’t fit the tone and you know that it is the truth… don’t allow that censoring voice to get in the way!
Instead of asking yourself, “What’s wrong, why doesn’t it work?” ask yourself, “How can I control the tone?” “How can I make it work?” “How can I make this thing that shouldn’t work turn into the best thing in the film?”
And this will put you in a mindset that opens you to the real creativity– that allows you not only to be a great writer of your own stuff but also to be a great writer of other people’s work. That will allow you to fit into a writing team without losing your own unique voice and your own creativity if you are interested in TV Comedy, TV Drama or Web Series writing.
That will allow you to work on a work for hire project and take a character that someone else has developed or that exists in a franchise property and write it in a way that feels at once truthful and unexpected.
This is how you bring your own voice to the piece without losing what the piece ultimately has to do, and how you listen to your own instincts without losing where you need to go.
It isn’t by controlling what you write and trying to make everything work. It is instead by looking for the truth, and then applying the craft you need to create the tone– the feeling– with which you ultimately want to leave the audience.