How did Ryan Reynolds transform from comedic actor to action star?

By Drew Mackie
Updated February 10, 2016 06:00 PM
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Credit: Getty; Twentieth Century Fox

Deadpool hits theaters Friday, Feb. 12, Ryan Reynolds stars in it, and fans are hotly anticipating the funny, raunchy superhero movie. All these things easily couldn’t have happened – and that’s worth talking about.

Here’s the thing about Deadpool, as a comic book character: He’s not exactly what most people would imagine when they think about the main character in a superhero movie. At best, Deadpool, a.k.a. Wade Wilson, is an anti-hero; he’s a wise-cracking Bugs Bunny of a guy, even when he’s running around killing people. He’s a little unhinged, he’s a little sexually fluid, and perhaps strangest of all, he’s aware he’s a comic book character.

But despite all that, he’s getting his own movie, Ryan Reynolds is playing him, and by all accounts he may well knock the role out of the park. In celebration of the film’s release, we’re looking at the actor’s career and the unlikely string of roles that turned him into a superhero action star.

1. Hillside (1991-1993)

Any discussion of Reynolds’ journey through Hollywood has to begin in his native Canada. There, he starred on the Degrassi High-esque high school drama Hillside, which aired in the U.S. under the title Fifteen. Reynolds actually was 15 when the series first aired, and while it’s a trip to see that face buried beneath that floppy ’90s hair, this is indisputably where he started his path toward the A-list. Watch the clip. You’ve never seen teen drama laid out so politely. Canada, you’re the best.

2. Two Guys and a Girl (1998-2001)

In the latter half of the ’90s, every network was trying to capitalize on the success of Friends with other shows about hip, attractive young people living together. Reynolds played one of the titular guys on this effort – which was at one point called Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place and which costarred Traylor Howard and Richard Ruccolo – and it actually worked. The show lasted for four seasons and nearly 100 episodes, which was enough to land Reynolds his next major role

VIDEO: Ryan Reynolds Jokes About Taking Kids to His ‘R’ Rated Deadpool Movie

3. National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002)

Reynolds’ first starring role in a major(ish) film paid off big time. Made for only $5 million, Van Wilder ended up pulling $38.3 million at the box office, making it one of the first successful National Lampoon movies in years. It also made Reynolds a bankable comedy star, and that’s one of the major reasons he’s starring in Deadpool now.

4. Blade: Trinity (2004)

Reynolds’ introduction to comic book movies happened sooner than you might have guessed. The third and final chapter of the Wesley Snipes trilogy of Marvel-inspired movies had Reynolds playing vampire hunter Hannibal King – and showing off some serious abs that made a lot of people start thinking of him as more than just a comic actor.

5. The Amityville Horror (2005)

For his second starring role, Reynolds didn’t insist on some tidy, mainstream film. He went full genre – in this case horror – and took over the role James Brolin played in the 1979 original. Given Van Wilder‘s humble beginnings, this might actually be Reynolds’ first big role in a major-budget studio film, and it’s all the more notable that he was fine getting dirty, weird and dark with it. That’s a great way to tell Hollywood, “Why, yes, I would be happy to star in your weird superhero movie.”

6. Adventureland (2009)

It’s a sleepy indie comedy about an amusement park. Reynolds doesn’t even play the main character; Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart were given top billing. So what’s the take-away en route to Deadpool? For one, Reynolds knows a good script when he sees one – if you haven’t seen this one yet, do it – but also he’s an adaptable actor who doesn’t have to play likable characters and doesn’t have to be the lead.

7. The Proposal (2009)

This Sandra Bullock romcom cost $40 million but made $300 million and therefore allowed Reynolds a certain degree of freedom in choosing his next few roles. You can’t underestimate Bullock’s box office draw – this one is her fourth-highest-grossing ever – but it might not have made nearly as much if it weren’t for Reynolds and the genuine chemistry he seems to find with Bullock onscreen. Even being the second-billed star, the success of The Proposal could have allowed Reynolds to go in any direction he wanted. He chose to stay nerdy.

8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

And here we go: This was a movie that Reynolds’ whole career had led up to, and it’s easily one of the reasons he’s starring in Deadpool. In short, the character of Deadpool appears in this film, but the producers so drastically changed him from his comic book origins that they ruined him. While this has no bearing on Reynolds’ performance – he’s exactly as motormouthed as he should be, until they take away his ability to talk – you’d think Hollywood would want to avoid any association with this film that critics so widely panned. But they didn’t. In fact, Reynolds was so right to play the character that the whole of the X-Men movie universe was willing to give Deadpool (and Reynolds) a re-do on the character, continuity be damned.

9. Green Lantern (2011)

Again, it’s an important step toward Reynolds playing a superhero onscreen successfully, but it was both a critical and financial failure to the point that you’d think Reynolds wouldn’t have been given the OK to don a superhero mask ever again. But, nope: Reynolds was forgiven this foray into the DC side of the superhero spectrum. At the very least it provided him screen time opposite future wife Blake Lively. That counts for something.

10. Safe House (2012)

Unlike Green Lantern or even R.I.P.D., this action film has Reynolds playing a character not inspired by any comic book. It’s lean, it’s gritty and it made more than twice its budget, bringing in $208 million. It said Reynolds was still a profitable movie star, but if only his comedy prowess could be yoked together with his tendency to turn around a buck or two with an action film

And that’s how we get to Deadpool – and by “we” I mean Ryan Reynolds specifically, without us. But in a weird way, Deadpool is a culmination of a lot of the things Reynolds has been making himself known for over the years: gritty action, verbal comedy, and finally superhero capering all in spite of a few failed attempts at landing a superhero movie in the past. If it had been any actor with less natural appeal than Reynolds, it might not have happened but Reynolds just might be a special case, and this just might be the superhero flick he gets right.