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Playback: Rob Liefeld on ‘Deadpool 2’ and the Superhero Movie Landscape

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

We’re changing things up this week with comic book legend Rob Liefeld. Liefeld’s creation, Deadpool, exploded onto the superhero scene in his first standalone film in 2016, and the sequel is packed with even more of the writer-artist’s characters, from Cable to Domino to Shatterstar. It seemed like a good opportunity to chat with someone on that side of the fence about the modern comic book movie landscape. But while the current trend is ongoing and borderline saturated, Liefeld recalls a time when studio chiefs dismissed comic book popularity in film as something reserved for Batman.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

“I was sitting with the president of Paramount, John Goldwyn is his name,” Liefeld remembers. “He had sought me out in the early 2000s. He liked ‘Youngblood.’ He whipped out a chart. I could not believe it. ‘Rob, we’ve done some internal examining of this superhero trend that’s going on right now.’ By that time you had one ‘Spider-Man’ movie and maybe two ‘X-Mens.’ And he said, ‘We believe this is a bell curve and we believe this bell curve is going to end, and we believe, by our estimates, we would be in the middle of making our movie, in the best case scenario, and the bell curve would be over, and we would be left holding the bag.’ That is such a rich memory for me because I remember going, ‘He is 100% wrong.'”

Meanwhile, it took a long time for Deadpool, who made his first comic book appearance in 1991, to find his way to the big screen. The character was used in animated television series and video games along the way, but a faithful movie rendition seemed impossible to achieve. (His infamous handling in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” has haunted Liefeld ever since.) A test reel conveying a true-to-the-page tone for Fox execs couldn’t even grease the rails at first, that is until it mysteriously leaked online and generated positive reaction from fans.

What was the hold-up for more than a decade?

“I’ll jump on the sword. I don’t really work in the movie business, so I’ve always been able to navigate and speak freely. The answer is two words: Tom Rothman,” Liefeld says. “He is now the [chairman] of Sony. I wish him well. He’s a canny operator in the business. But when he gets it in his mind to dismiss something — nothing seemed to push him over the edge. I thought for sure [he would be on board] when he saw how good Deadpool looked and moved [in the test footage], but for whatever reason, we had an opponent to the film.”

Ultimately it was “Guardians of the Galaxy” that pushed the movie to a green light, courtesy of former Fox chief Jim Gianopulos. “I cried like a baby,” Liefeld says of when he first heard the news. “And it wasn’t just for me. It was for Tim [Miller] and Ryan [Reynolds] and Rhett [Reese]. The script you saw in 2016 was written in 2010.”

Lately Liefeld has been working with writer-producer Akiva Goldsman to develop his Extreme Universe for Netflix. Characters include Kaboom, Supreme, Prophet and the Brigade and Bloodstrike collectives. He and Goldsman are also working on an adaptation of Liefeld’s “Avengelyne” for Paramount, where Gianopulos landed following his Fox exit.

“I don’t feel like I’m in any hurry to sell any of my stuff short,” Liefeld says. “I don’t need to cash out on my characters. I’ve protected them for 25 years. I’ll continue to protect them. When I met with Akiva he sold me on his passion. He came at me with a pitch for ‘Avengelyne’ that sold me in the room. It’s just different enough but completely retains the original.”

For more, including discussion of “Avengers: Infinity War” and thoughts on 26 years of Image Comics, which Liefeld co-founded in 1992, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

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Rob Liefeld photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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