Okay, can one week go by without R-rated superhero movies being a thing? I was just in this neighborhood last week and I can’t believe I’m back here again, circling the same cul-de-sac all because it was revealed that a home video version of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” will sport a mature-only R-rating (“for sequences of violence”) when it arrives later this year.
I don’t know anymore. I’ve written about this before in context with “Deadpool,” last week and last year. The prospect of seeing bloody violence does not, on a fundamental and cellular level, excite me in any way. But with the announcement that even a movie co-starring Superman — Superman — filmed material apparently brutal enough to earn it an R-rating, I’m ready to concede that I don’t know what’s going on. I’m not in touch with the kids these days/also probably a lot of my peers. “Deadpool’s” a hit (and remember, I did alter my opinion and write 1500 words defending that specific character’s right to an R-rated romp) and now Fox is considering doubling down on the R-rating for many of it’s way-less-obscene-than-Deadpool mutants and, hell, lets give Superman and Batman an R-rated alternate while we’re at it.
I’m throwing my hands up. I accept that I’m not the target audience for some of this stuff anymore and I’m walking away. G’bye! Oh, except I’m only at 300 words and… okay, I guess I should unpack this some. Why do R-rated superhero movies bother me so much, and does an R-rated home video release of “Batman v Superman” really matter? I can tackle the latter issue first, because I gotta ease into this.
“Batman v Superman” is still PG-13. Kids will still get to see the movie. Teens won’t have to sneak into it. Batman and Superman remain as almost-all-ages on the big screen as they’ve been for decades. And I can’t act like that Batman’s PG-13 has always been a tame one, either, and that “Batman v Superman” is somehow upending a tradition of wholesome caped action. No, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is a psychologically intense affair; it’s not aggressively violent, physically, but it sure did not go easy on my heart rate and it was (much to many fans’ delight) a thoroughly mature joint. And I saw the first Tim Burton “Batman” in theaters when I was five. Yes, Joker electrocuting someone into a damn skeleton terrified me. It’s stupid to act like Batman’s been a G character all along and that he’s suddenly been raged-up. Nope! Dude’s been dark for decades and without his involvement, Warner Bros. would be releasing “[blank] v Superman: Dawn of Justice” this March. Just because I’ve grown to appreciate the weird goofiness (and mad brilliance) of the ’60s “Batman” TV show doesn’t mean I get to enforce that one specific version of the character on everyone through ranting and raving.
The R-rated “BvS” is an opt-in experience for those wishing to see Batman do more bone crunching. The studio isn’t forcing it on viewers as the only option and therefore alienating kids. That’s fine. The 2003 “Daredevil” film did the exact same thing! And if a superhero movie, starring characters that are known for their 75+ years as predominantly all-ages heroes, is gonna be R-rated for anything, it makes the most sense for it to be violence. These characters, no matter how wholesome or heroic or aspirational we like them to be, are still fundamentally crime fighters. They fight. They punch people. The exact same cartoon punch can be way more gruesome in live-action. And, as I’ve pointed out before, the line between PG-13 and R-rated violence can be determined by cutaway shots, amount of blood, sound effects — it can honestly come down to a matter of seconds.
So that’s what I tell myself to calm myself down; this isn’t the definitive version of the movie. The “Daredevil” movie did this before. The difference between PG-13 and R can come down to a single splash of blood. So… why do I roll my eyes at this, even when it’s just an alternate cut?
Okay — I’m not generally a horror guy. I like them in October, because I love Halloween, but I’m much more of a fan of “The Addams Family” than “You’re Next.” They disturb me, which is what they’re supposed to do, but the catch is that I don’t like feeling that way. That’s an opinion, that’s my personal taste, and it’s not a slight against the genre. I also don’t like lettuce but I’m not hating on those that do or calling for it to be removed from all tacos everywhere.
My discomfort with horror became even more clear when I saw the trailer for “The Purge: Election Year,” which played before “Deadpool.” I get that this makes me lose a lot of Cool Pointsâ„¢ and will probably make me seem like a fuddy-duddy that uses phrases like “fuddy-duddy” — but that trailer upset me. A lot. The movie is ultra-violent, politically charged and set during an election year (like 2016). I do watch way too much news, I know, but the trailer felt like playing with matches in a gasoline store. It felt both too dystopian and, more disturbingly, too real. I get that that’s the point. It just bums me right the hell out.
So, how do R-rated superheroes fit in with that? I think to me, and this is deeply specific to my own experience and I don’t expect it to be a universal one, superheroes are escape. They’re escape and hope. I grew up a very unpopular kid that was teased like whoah (hello, comedian’s origin story!), and reading X-Men comics made me feel accepted and, well, happy. Those ’90s comics were as melodramatic as “Melrose Place” at times, but they were still comforting. Because of that I just feel… uneasy at the prospect of superheroes, the characters that brought me comfort as a kid, becoming hopelessly dark/extreme escapist fantasies designed to relieve our most aggressive tendencies.
The connection I see between R-rated — and really, I should just say adult because I got a few gripes about non-R-rated Marvel things, too — and a movie like “The Purge: Election Year” is that it all just feels too real to me. Again, I watch way too much news, but every single day brings more mass shootings, terrorist attacks, violence, racism, anger and partisan fear mongering. I sometimes can’t help but see the gradual mature-audiences-only-ization of superheroes as running parallel to this, as a reflection of the really messed up times we live in. I don’t see escape in the trailers for “Batman v Superman,” and I don’t hear “hope” when I hear Batman ask Superman if he bleeds. I see an extreme ideological clash between two people that should be working together amplified up to, you guessed it, an R-rating.
This isn’t limited to “BvS.” This is why I’m not entirely looking forward to “Captain America: Civil War,” either. America is, at this point, possibly the most polarized it’s been since the actual Civil War; forgive me if I want the fantasy where our inspirational heroes can actually, you know, get along. And yes, while I love both the “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” Netflix series, they do sometimes go too far for me when it comes to the blood and popping-heads-in-car-doors departments.
So much of this feels political, too. The arguments I see unfold on Twitter over things like Superman snapping Zod’s neck in “Man of Steel” feel as partisan and aggressively passionate as all the current election coverage. It feels like there’s an ongoing conflict between fans that want superheroes to be some level of nebulously defined “fun” again, and those that want to see superheroes pushed well past the limits of monthly comics when it comes to bad words and face-punching, as if one is more objectively right than the other. I’m guilty of this, and am probably coming across guilty of this right now even though I’m trying to present my thoughts as opinion-powered. Whether one side is fundamentally right or wrong isn’t the point; the point is that it’s a conflict that won’t stop and I’ve gotten tired of it (remember how I threw my hands up a thousand words ago?).
I’ll concede that plenty of characters work with darkness because they were birthed in the inky black shadows of the comic book page. Daredevil, Punisher, Deadpool, Batman, Wolverine — they’re more mature-leaning characters either through their origins or through later seminal works. But I also believe that, despite his innate darkness, Batman exists above all those other characters; so does Superman. A crazy gory hide-the-kids Daredevil doesn’t mean the same thing as an R-rated Batman or Superman to me, because Daredevil hasn’t been positioned in pop culture as one of the most well-known all-ages characters in the same way that Batman and Superman have. Five-year-olds do not know who Daredevil is. They know who Batman and Superman are, just because they’re five-year-olds that live in our world. That’s who those characters are now; they’re Mickey and Pikachu and Mario and Scooby and Elmo. And that’s not a bad thing — it’s impressive!
I get nervous at the idea of Batman and Superman, two characters that are longstanding ambassadors into the world of superheroes, becoming so extreme that they become not suitable for kids. That’s jumping to a far-flung conclusion since “Batman v Superman” isn’t even out yet, I know, but the marketing, footage and that home-video release at least give me pause. And if this trend of violence continues (Marvel’s dark Netflix shows, R-rated Fox X-movies), I do wonder what it says about the state of our cultural mindset and how it will affect future generations — the ones that, if the R-rated trend picks up steam, are excluded from superhero movies because they just aren’t old enough yet.
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