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Deadpool's box office unexpectedly broke records. Here’s what Hollywood should learn from it.

Minus a huge budget, it got by on attitude and romance.

Deadpool gets by on his attitude, an attitude that propelled him to break box office records.
Deadpool gets by on his attitude, an attitude that propelled him to break box office records.
20th Century Fox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Deadpool, the snarky superhero tale, is a surprise megahit and the first movie ever to make more than $100 million in a single February weekend at the domestic box office.

After tallying $150 million for the entire four-day Presidents Day weekend ($135 million for just the three-day weekend), to say nothing of an additional $132 million from overseas, the film has rejuvenated Ryan Reynolds's flailing career and suggested that reports of superhero fatigue among moviegoers are unfounded.

It's also put a shot in the arm of 20th Century Fox's strategy of offering up spinoff tales about individual X-Men, a strategy that will next be tested in Gambit, starring Channing Tatum. That film doesn't have a definitive release date yet but should be out in 2017.

This is particularly heartening for Fox, because the studio's last superhero release was August 2015's epic bomb Fantastic Four. That movie didn't even come close to recouping the money spent on its production and marketing, while Deadpool very likely did so over its first weekend.

There's an important lesson here, one that Hollywood would do well to take to heart: Superhero movies don't have to cost an arm and a leg to be successful, as long as they have personality.

Lower budgets could mean creative freedom for superhero films

Deadpool's final confrontation.
The big final confrontation in Deadpool looks distractingly cheap.
20th Century Fox

Even those of us who didn't completely love Deadpool (a number that would include me) must admit that what it lacks in gigantic action sequences, it makes up for in attitude. The film is full of one-liners and metatextual winks at the superhero genre, and Reynolds is its smirking ringmaster.

All that attitude disguises one of the film's central flaws: It just looks cheap. The final confrontation, by far Deadpool's worst element, is set in a playground of poorly implemented computer effects.

Not coincidentally, it's also the part of the movie where it's easiest to notice those poor effects, because the film's snide sense of humor mostly departs in favor of more straightforward "save the girlfriend" superhero adventures.

The fact of the matter is that Deadpool cost $58 million to make (though probably much more to market). Most of the movie was filmed in relatively cheap Canada. Director Tim Miller frequently has to be creative with his action, occasionally in ways that cleverly enhance it by keeping some of the biggest moments off screen, where the imagination can fill them in.

In comparison, Fantastic Four was budgeted at $120 million, while the last X-Men film, Days of Future Past, was budgeted at $200 million (and probably cost more).

Deadpool made up for limited action with attitude and romance

Morena Baccarin and Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool.
Morena Baccarin and Ryan Reynolds star as doomed lovers in Deadpool.
20th Century Fox

Thus, knowing that it couldn't compete with the big boys on a pure bankrolling basis, Deadpool chose to go in a completely different direction. Even its opening credits self-referentially mock superhero films, and throughout, Reynolds cracks wise about the tropes and plot points so prevalent in the genre.

And the movie's love story is surprisingly sweet, especially for those first two-thirds (before Morena Baccarin's Vanessa becomes a generic damsel in distress), something that plays into Reynolds's previous success in the romantic comedy genre. Since there was no money, Deadpool had to find other ways to stand out.

Arguably, the biggest obstacle superhero movies face, and the reason most of them don't reach their creative height, is the fact that they're so gigantic that they become very same-y. How many superhero movies are there where a few compelling scenes, or even a compelling opening two acts, devolve into the same old battle at the end, with a bunch of computer-animated effects slamming into each other to approximate the chaos of battle?

The logic behind this approach is simple: When you spend as much to make these movies as studios usually do, you don't want to push too far from the established template, lest you alienate the audience. And to be sure, Deadpool fits the description of a movie that devolves into the same-old, same-old in the end, so it's not as if it broke the mold as much as it truly could have.

But the fact that it succeeded so mightily on a smaller budget bodes well all the same. What does a $20 million superhero movie look like? How about a $5 million one? Oftentimes, putting monetary restrictions on a property enhances originality.

The fear, of course, is that Hollywood will copy the most obvious surface-level things about Deadpool, thus producing more obnoxious films about wisecracking superheroes. But someone, surely, will take note of its smaller budget and realize innovation might lie in that direction.

The superhero genre has needed a breath of fresh air for a while. It might have just found one — not from going bigger, but from going smaller.