Do We REALLY Need R-Rated Superhero Movies?

Back in February, when Deadpool was released, many superhero fans began a very public campaign for more R-rated superhero movies. With the DVD and Blu-Ray of Deadpool now released, that debate seems to have reignited, spurred on by an article over at . So now is a good time to ask a few questions about the desire for R-rated superhero films…


Don't forget Blade!
Don’t forget Blade!

First of all, let’s make one thing clear: there’s nothing new about R-rated superhero films. Blade – which arguably kicked off Marvel’s movies by proving a Marvel superhero could work on the big screen – was R-rated. Other notable R-rated superhero films include The Punisher (2004), Kick-Ass (2010), and of course Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009). But compared to the astounding number of superhero films released since 2008, when the MCU got started, R-rated superhero films are definitely unusual.

But actually, that’s pretty normal for most genres (although the horror genre tends to veer towards the adult side of the scale). When you make a film with an R-rating, you cut out a lot of the potential audience. In the same way, when you make a film with a PG rating, many potential viewers assume the film’s for kids. So Hollywood deliberately target most films for a PG-13 rating, which maximizes potential viewers. Testing this theory, checked out the average gross of superhero movies with different ratings.

The devil’s in the details, of course. Foreign grosses are actually more valuable than domestic grosses, particularly for PG-13 films. The Chinese market alone is expected to have exceeded the Domestic US market by 2020, and China has a notoriously censorious attitude towards films. For all its tremendous success, Deadpool didn’t even release in China, cutting out a lot of potential viewers.

So the nature of the film market itself is skewed against R-rated superhero films. PG-13 is simply where the big bucks – and the Foreign market – are at.


Wolverine begs for an R-rated film.

Wolverine begs for an R-rated film.

There’s actually something highly ironic about this public campaign for R-rated superhero films. In 1954, the nascent comic book industry created the Comics Code Authority to police comics. It was a neat way of ending a moral panic at the time over whether or not comics were promoting juvenile delinquency. To give you an idea how fierce public concerns were before the CCA, some cities had even been organizing public burnings of comics!

The CCA’s impact was pretty strong. In his book Reinventing Comics, comics historian Scott McCloud described it with this analogy:

“The list of requirements a film needs to receive a G rating was doubled, and there were no other acceptable ratings!”

Now, this is really important. It means that the vast majority of superhero origins were CCA-approved, and definitely not R-rated! From Hawkman to the Fantastic Four, from Spider-Man to Iron Man, from Doctor Strange to Batgirl, all of these characters were designed to meet with the approval of the CCA. It was only in the 1970s that the CCA began to weaken, largely because it refused to approve a Marvel story showing the consequences of drugs – one that had been commissioned by the US government!

So Spider-Man broke the CCA!

So Spider-Man broke the CCA!

The 1980s were the turning point for comic books, with the CCA largely defanged. Books like Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises went far beyond anything the CCA would previously have approved, and an emboldened comic book industry moved into the ’90s with a lot more blood and gore. New creators like Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane pushed the boundaries, with female characters becoming outrageously sexualized and violence becoming the mainstay. Having been censored for so long, the comic book industry rejoiced in its newfound freedom.

Nowadays, though, comics have come to a more balanced place. The CCA has long since been abandoned, and writers and artists simply pitch the sex and violence at a level that seems appropriate for the story they want to tell.


A (not so) violent introduction!

A (not so) violent introduction!

At its most basic, the demand for R-rated superhero films is a demand that superheroes stop being treated like a children’s genre. In truth, it never has been just for children; for example, check out the demographics for Iron Man 3 cinema viewers on . The most popular audience are 18-29 year old white males, followed by males aged 30-44.

Those ages are key. According to those demographics, the largest audience grew up with comics after the CCA had lost its influence, and a large proportion of them would have been familiar with the hyper-sexualized and hyper-violent books of the early ’90s. No wonder they don’t feel the PG-13 superheroes are scratching their itch.

Black Widow in a '90s Swimsuit Edition!

Black Widow in a ’90s Swimsuit Edition!

Over on , Kristy Puchiko argues that she wants blood, sex, and bad language, and some of her points are fairly convincing. But the heart of her argument is this:

“Most of us grew up with the stigma that comics were for nerds, and that superheroes were for children. But over the decades, we’ve seen superhero movies become an industry in themselves, and nerd culture go mainstream. The stigma is gone, allowing comics, superhero stories and us to grow in new ways.”

The argument is one that would ring true for any comic book reader who grew up from the 1980s. Although comic books were still treated as childish, and assumed to be read by nerds, they’d grown up and embraced sex and violence in ways that would have shocked the CCA of 1954. As a result, the current range of superhero movies simply aren’t what the comic book readers of the ’80s and ’90s grew up with.


X-Force are likely on the cards.

X-Force are likely on the cards.

Deadpool may seem to have proved that an R-rated superhero movie can work, but in truth the film’s success wasn’t due to the rating. As James Gunn, of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, :

“Deadpool was its own thing. THAT’S what people are reacting to. It’s original, it’s damn good, it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn’t afraid to take risks.For the theatrical experience to survive, spectacle films need to expand their definition of what they can be. They need to be unique and true voices of the filmmakers behind them. They can’t just be copying what came before them.
So, over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They’ll be green lighting films “like Deadpool” – but, by that, they won’t mean “good and original” but “a raunchy superhero film” or “it breaks the fourth wall.” They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do.
But hopefully in the midst of all this there will be a studio or two that will take the right lesson from this – like Fox did with Guardians by green-lighting Deadpool – and say – “Boy, maybe we can give them something they don’t already have.””

Yeah, I can't believe it either.

Yeah, I can’t believe it either.

He’s right. The success of Deadpool hasn’t proved that R-rated superhero films are great; it’s proved that a good film can be successful whatever its rating (and in spite of being banned in China). The R-rating for Deadpool wasn’t incidental; Fox didn’t make a PG-13 film, and then decide to add some sex and bad language. Rather, it was a natural fit for a character created by Rob Liefeld in the heart of the ‘sex-and-gore’ era of superhero comics. Likewise, an R-rated Wolverine III seems natural; the guy’s main weapons are claws, after all, and he’s always sat uncomfortably within the PG-13 X-Men films (never was that clearer than in the X-Men: Apocalypse cameo). Simon Kinberg’s expectation that also seems natural (X-Force were launched by Rob Liefeld, and one miniseries in the 2000s was entitled X-Force: Sex and Violence).

On the other hand, though, Marvel Studios is choosing to step back from all this. There are no plans to make R-rated Marvel movies, although that level of violence is fine for Marvel Netflix. What’s more, DC Comics seem to be , and Geoff Johns’s promotion suggests that move will be . It may be that the R-rated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition becomes the exception for DC Film, rather than the norm. If that’s the case, it’s possible that a willingness to do R-rated superhero movies will become a distinctive of Fox Studios.

Will Olivia Munn return in X-Force?

Will Olivia Munn return in X-Force?

That said, a film is more than just a rating. I’d prefer that the studios focus in on simply making the best films they can, honoring the characters and concepts, and viewing the ratings as incidental. If a character demands an R-rating, then let them have an R-rating; if they work best at PG-13 level, then so be it.

We don’t need more R-rated superhero films. We just need the studios to play it smart, to make the best film they can do, and to aim at whatever rating seems appropriate.

What do YOU think? Do you want more R-rated superhero films? Let me know in the comments!