The breakout movie-related story of the past couple of weeks has been the astounding box-office success of Deadpool, the most popular R-rated superhero film ever made. It isn’t, in fact, the first film of that description. Watchmen, to name one, was also R-rated and featured superheroes. Other comic book adaptations have also been R-rated, such as Blade, Sin City and 300, but none of them can touch Deadpool in terms of box-office. Deadpool’s success transcends even its genre: it gave 20th Century Fox its biggest opening weekend ever, outdoing Revenge of the Sith, and is on track to become one of their most profitable properties of all-time. Not bad for a film that the studio fought against making. While we aren’t privy to the precise reasons for their resistance, it must have had something to do with the hard-R rating, and the nature of that rating.
In the US, the MPAA sets film ratings, and have for over 50 years. This odd, distant, anonymous cabal applies its own somewhat strange and contradictory standards inconsistently, and I agree with the central thesis of Kirby Dick’s 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, that the entire system amounts to undemocratic censorship. But we can make some general observations about the nature of the ratings decisions, namely that they allow a great deal of leeway for violence but seem obsessed with avoiding any hint of sexuality. (There are also sexist double standards with regards to nudity. Female nudity can still get into a PG-13 film, but the merest hint of a penis sends the MPAA straight into NC-17 country.) They’re also very sensitive to language, especially if sex is being discussed. These odd standards lead to, for example, PG-13-rated Michael Bay films in which entire cities can be levelled and thousands of people killed in an environment of non-stop blood and gun violence, but a film like Clerks gets a hard-R simply because of the nature of the characters’ conversations.
Superhero movies, especially when they’re made in the spirit of Silver Age high-gloss spectacle-oriented comics, easily get a PG-13 or even PG rating, despite their violence and sometimes mature themes. (I can’t imagine a 13-year-old understanding the plot of Thor: The Dark World, but then again, that film confused 40-year-olds.) Particularly Marvel movies have aimed for that rating, presumably because they consider their audience to be primarily teens and pre-teens, and this becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The notion of making a superhero film with an R rating would no doubt ever occur to someone who considers superhero stories to be children’s entertainment. And here we have the crux of the issue.
Deadpool gets its R-rating, it appears, primarily for language and sexual content (which is mostly innuendo). It isn’t any more or less violent than any other big superhero film, but the MPAA, of course, always gets cold feet around anything to do with sex. Moreover, this is a film clearly made for adults. It has an adult sense of humour, of comic timing, and its characters and themes are congruent with an adult life experience, not simple genre thrills. It is a great example of a comic book movie for intelligent grownups, an audience increasingly alienated from the multiplex. What Marvel and Fox will hopefully learn from the success of Deadpool is that adults do want to see movies, and moreover, we want to see superhero movies. Hopefully they’ll learn what we all learned a long time ago — comics have grown up. It’s long past time that Hollywood caught up with the rest of popular culture.