Almost nine years ago, when Iron Man became a hit and enabled Marvel Studios to push forward with its Master Plan, we entered the Shared Universe era of superhero filmmaking ... and even as that era continues to thrive before our eyes, we're starting to see something new and (for the moment) massive happening to the subgenre.
A year ago, Deadpool became a massive box-office hit that fans had spent years wondering if it would even get made, and earlier this month, Logan followed it to box-office glory. Those are, tonally speaking, two very different films with very different things to say about their title heroes, but their success makes something quite clear: The Shared Universe Era has entered an R-rated age, which I'll call the Age of Deadpool, since it sounds satisfyingly comic bookish and Wade Wilson loves having his ego stroked.
If there's anything we can count on movie studios to do, it's chase trends, and right now everyone's chasing shared universes. We're about to get our fifth Transformers film, and a writer's room is convened at this very moment to chart the future of the Transformers movie universe. Universal is resurrecting its monsters for their own new universe. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if a live-action Care Bears universe is in full swing five years from now. So, it follows naturally that the Age of Deadpool will spawn its share of contenders and pretenders gunning from the Merc with a Mouth's R-rated throne.
We've seen successful R-rated superhero flicks before, of course (hi, Blade fans!), and we'll see more, but in the Shared Universe Era we could certainly see more of a pattern form, and to a certain extent we already are. Deadpool 2 is headed toward production and an R-rated X-Force will follow. DC Films has flirted with R-rated directors cuts for their films already, and word is they're considering full-blown R-rated releases for the right properties (Give me Wild Dog!). Over at Marvel, while they haven't approached R ratings with their films yet, they've certainly gone there with their street-level Netflix shows.
My point is, if you're a fan of R-rated superhero media -- whether grim and gritty or comically bloody and foul-mouthed -- you're looking at a new world of possibilities right now, and when I think about such possibilities, one title comes to mind ...
Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E.
If you already know about Nextwave, odds are you are furiously nodding your head in agreement right now. If you don't know about Nextwave, get ready to have your life divided into two eras: Before Nextwave, and the Age of Enlightenment.
Nextwave is a 12-issue Marvel series from writer Warren Ellis and artist Stuart Immonen that, depending on who you ask, either took place in an alternate Marvel Universe or took place in main Marvel continuity but all the participants had their memories wiped. It stars a small group of B-, C-, and D-list heroes -- Monica Rambeau from the Avengers, English monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone, Tabitha "Boom-Boom" Smith from X-Force, Machine Man Aaron Stack and new character The Captain (who can't remember his real name, and whose full superhero name is so filthy that it's censored) -- who find out that the supposedly good organization they were working for (Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort, or H.A.T.E) is actually being funded by the evil Beyond Corporation. So, they go rogue, steal an experimental ship and head out across America to blow up all of Beyond's Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction (U.W.M.D.).
Yeah, that sounds like a very generic superhero plot, and it is, but that's just the framework Ellis and Immonen use to hang all manner of insanity on the book. As they're pursued by H.A.T.E.'s lunatic director, Dirk Anger (get it?), the group battles Fin Fang Foom, Mindless Ones, Elvis M.O.D.O.K.s, Broccoli People, Homicide Crabs, and a crooked cop who becomes a giant Transformer. That is all packed into 12 issues, they are all nuts, and I'm not even describing the craziest parts to you right now.
Like Deadpool, Nextwave is about as subtle as a shotgun blast to the head of a giant robot. It's profane (as profane as you can be in Marvel's pages, but you can easily imagine the censored bits), loud, violent (we're talking cut-a-giant-dragon's-heart-out-from-the-inside violent here), unpredictable (Did I mention the Homicide Crabs?), and hilarious, while also remaining utterly badass.
Badass Exhibit A: Elsa Bloodstone.
If you like Deadpool, and you want another comic book movie that breaks the fourth wall (through the narrator, leaving the characters themselves playing all this madness straight), pours on the comic violence and generally blows things up in awesome ways, Nextwave fits that bill, and it could do it without necessarily breaking anything that already exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I'd also argue that it's high time Marvel Studios did a film like this.
Yes, they have a reputation for churning out lighter superhero fare than the competition, and Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are basically sci-fi comedies, but even those films are slave to a greater continuity in some way or another. Nearly every film they put out takes some form of critical punishment for feeling too much like part of a whole and less like a piece of art that can stand on its own, and currently Iron Fist is getting critically savaged for, among other things, failing to grow beyond the gritty street drama of the other Marvel Netflix shows and embrace its more fantastical potential. Maybe it's time for a film that just throws all of that to the wind and uses the Marvel brand to propel its own irreverent fun to audiences. A Marvel MAX joint for the studio side.
So, we've established that Nextwave has many of the same marketable qualities that Deadpool does, but we're not talking about a Deadpool clone here. In Nextwave, the satirical veins run deeper and broader, commenting not just on the absurdity of life as a superhero, but on the whole superhero format. The Nextwave team turns against H.A.T.E. because they stumble upon the Beyond Corporation's "Marketing Plan" for killing millions of people, a gag that would work particularly well in the modern superhero industrial complex.
Aaron is constantly both denying his status as an emotionless robot and deriding the "fleshy ones" of humanity as something that's beneath him.
Boom-Boom takes the idea of a popular teen with superpowers to an obvious but hilarious extreme.
Monica is constantly relating her various exploits in The Avengers, tying the book to the larger superhero world while still establishing that she's much happier when she's free of all those rules and continuity-based parameters.
The Captain has the generic superhuman powers you'd expect, but he's an underachiever who can't even pick a real superhero name without getting sued by some other hero who already has it.
And Elsa ... well, not to belabor the point, but Elsa just owns.
Anyway, what I'm getting at here is that Nextwave is not just another "Boy, superheroes sure are wacky!" funny book. The comedy's always headed in a half-dozen places at once, while everything remains pleasantly goofy on the surface and the high-concept superhero action goods are still delivered. Everything you could want for this kind of R-rated superhero film is there for the taking. The biggest obstacle is recognizability for the characters, but how many American consumers knew who Drax the Destroyer was five years ago? Find the right cast (Emily Blunt for Elsa!) and you're halfway home.
Now, do I really think this is gonna happen? Probably not. Marvel doesn't seem too keen on straying from its very successful path right now, and besides, Boom-Boom is a mutant who'd need some contractual maneuvering to even join up with the others on the team in live-action. Still, I said at the outset that I was talking about possibilities here, and Nextwave is where my brain goes when I think about possible R-rated, goofy superhero futures. I will go watch all the Punishers and Deadpools and Wolverines you want to throw at me, but the Agents of H.A.T.E. have my heart.
And now, please enjoy this panel of Boom-Boom being awesome.