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Are R-rated Superhero Movies Really the Future? Let’s Do the Math

by  in Comic News, Movie News Comment

If three’s a trend, then R-rated superhero movies are currently hotter than Kanye West on a Twitter rant. First, there was “Deadpool,” which finally dropped out of first place at the box office but cracked the Top 50 highest grossing domestic films of all-time in the process. Then 20th Century Fox announced they were targeting an R-rating for “Wolverine 3,” followed closely by Warner Bros. reportedly releasing an R-rated “Ultimate Edition” Blu-ray of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” based on an early cut of the film (the movie will be released theatrically as PG-13).

Fans of superhero movies have been torn in two by these announcements, some decrying, “what hath ‘Deadpool’ wrought?” while others rejoice that the bloody, gritty superhero movies they’ve been asking for are finally becoming a reality. But that’s de rigueur for fan reaction: 50 percent of superhero movie fans hate a thing, the other 50 percent love it. The question isn’t necessarily whether it’s right to have a movie where Superman curses up a storm and punches Batman into a fine blood powder. The question is, are R-rated movies truly the future of superhero films?

As always, that question comes down to money.

Look, anyone who follows film trends knows that if a movie starring a piece of bread about a how that bread slowly rots over the course of five hours somehow made $500 million, there would be movies about rolls and baguettes and toast greenlit almost instantly. Whether you believe the “Deadpool” conspiracy or not (and both Fox and Warner Bros. have openly stated that neither of their upcoming R-rated features are based on “Deadpool’s” success), it’s a runaway hit R-rated superhero movie… so there will be attempts at other R-rated superhero movies.

To better understand whether this is a good idea or not, though, I decided to take emotion out of the equation and focus purely on the moolah.

The first thing you need to understand is that “Deadpool” isn’t the first R-rated superhero/comic book movie. All three movies in the “Blade” series were rated R, as was “Kick-Ass,” and even the surprising 2015 hit “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” But for the purposes of this (and for my own sanity), let’s focus on the top tier, or top 50 biggest superhero movies released. Here’s how they break down, in terms of ratings:


Of the Top 50, only three are R-rated (“Deadpool,” “Wanted” and “Watchmen”). It’s worth noting as well that only seven of the Top 50 superhero movies are PG-rated, with three of those animated (“Megamind,” “The Incredibles” and “Big Hero 6”); and four live-action (1990’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” “Superman” and “Superman II”). Though also of note, the PG-13 rating wasn’t introduced until 1984, four years after “Superman II” hit theaters. So take those last two with a grain of salt.

The other 40 entries? All rated PG-13, which has been Hollywood’s default for blockbusters pretty much since the rating’s inception over three decades ago. There’s a lot of hand-wringing and agonized discussion about why this is, but essentially it boils down to PG-13 being a rating that allows, in the definition, parental discretion — unlike the restricted “R” rating; but isn’t seen as a “kid” movie by the teenz, like the PG or G ratings. It’s a way of splitting the difference, which means you get those four quadrants (male, female, under and over 25) of moviegoers studios crave.


That’s why there aren’t a lot of R-rated movies in the top superhero grosses list… They’re just not being made, because you immediately lock out a good chunk of one of those quadrants. That’s not just true for the capes and tights crowd, either. If you forgo superhero movies entirely and focus on the all-time worldwide box office, you need to go all the way to #70 (that would be “The Matrix Reloaded”) to find an R-rated movie. Domestically is a different story, though not by much: “The Passion of the Christ” stands at #28 in the United States, “American Sniper” is #33, followed by “The Matrix Reloaded” (again) at #71, “The Hangover” and its sequel at #74 and #90, respectively, and “Deadpool” which as of Saturday, March 12, 2016 sits at #42 domestically.

That’s still only six movies in the Top 100 movies of all time domestically, though… So why are studios so hot under the collar to produce R-rated superhero films? They have to pan out monetarily, right — because again, it all comes back to money?

Well of course not. Beyond the fact that this is a disgustingly incomprehensible amount of money even on the low end, with 40 of the Top 50 movies PG-13 rated, naturally PG-13 is going to be the top grosser by a large margin. Instead, let’s try to compare apples to f–king apples, and find the average for each:


This is still a bit of a false conclusion, just because the sample size of 40 is so much larger and broader than, say, three for R-rated movies. But clearly at the current time PG-13 movies are a much, much safer bet at the domestic, foreign, and worldwide box office than any other rating.

Just because “Marvel’s The Avengers” was such a monstrous hit, I was curious if removing that would change anything:


The answer? Not really, it’s only about a $10-$15 million difference, and what’s that much between friends? That said, beyond what we already knew (the safe bet is PG-13, and it’s working), there are two additional conclusions we can draw from these figures.

The first is obvious, but foreign grosses are a larger part of the pie than domestic grosses; and only growing. Take a look at Marvel’s release schedule, which focuses far more on the rest of the world than America, and you can see that the studios are already well aware of this. So whatever determination is made in terms of greenlighting movies based on ratings, it should be made on foreign terms, not domestic.

The second is that while PG-13 is far and above the highest grossing, the difference between the averages for R-rated movies, and PG-rated movies are marginal, at best. Again, the sample size is far too small, but when it comes to superhero movies you’d be as well served to make something PG as R.

And in fact, when you look at the foreign grosses for the more recent, more animated movies, they eclipse nearly everything else on the list. Though “Big Hero 6” sits at #22 domestically, it jumps to #14 on the foreign list. Even with long legs, “Deadpool” — currently at $363 million overseas — will have trouble reaching the $435 million foreign gross of “Big Hero 6.”

So though “Deadpool” and R-ratings are the new hotness, what statistically will get you more play — particularly in the foreign market — is something animated, and PG.

“Power Pack” movie, anyone? Or at the very least, a PG-rated, Pen-ultimate cut of “Batman v Superman”?

Editor’s Note: All box office figures via BoxOfficeMojo.com.