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The rise of Rated R superheroes
October 4, 2021
Over the last twenty years, the superhero genre has experienced a monolithic rise to become the most dominant force in film. These heroes, once confined to the comic book page, have burst onto the silver screen and have grown to be embraced by mainstream audiences the world over. While most of the superhero films released in that time have been rated PG-13, more recently an increasing number of superhero films are being released that are Rated R and aimed exclusively at adults. I think that the existence of these films and their success in recent years begs an essential question about the superhero genre. A good place to start when interrogating the nature of this genre is to ask who were superheroes created for? And the simple fact of the matter is thar superheroes were created in the 1930s for children, and as a result they are conceptually very silly. Superheroes are people who gain supernatural powers and then use those powers to fight crime, while wearing a colorful costume and going by a cool nickname. No matter how dark or gritty filmmakers and writers attempt to make the films these characters inhabit, the characters themselves will always be silly at their core because they were originally made for kids.
Because children under the age of seventeen are legally required to be accompanied by a parent or guardian before seeing a Rated R film, Rated R movies have drastically lower turnout among viewers under the age of 18 than PG-13 and PG movies. What is so interesting about a superhero film that is released that is R Rated is that what the filmmakers are doing essentially is taking a character that was created for children and specifically placing them in a film that has been denoted as not being for kids. I’ve seen DC Comics particularly begin to focus more on stories aimed at adult viewers. My fear is that they will end up abandoning younger audiences entirely and for the first time in eighty years, a new generation won’t be introduced to these superheroes and grow to love them the way we every generation of kids has over the last eighty years.
The comic book Watchman, often hailed as the greatest comic book every written, is the story that best serves as an example of how a superhero story for adults can work. Narratively, Watchmen paints a vivid picture of what superheroes would be like if they existed in the real world, and exposes the inherent flaws and contradictions of the superhero psyche. Thematically, the comic uses the superheroes in the story to offer one of the most brilliant and complex critiques of power of modern society in all of literature. Another important aspect of the comic is how writer Alan Moore and artist David Gibbons never intended any of the superheroes or the violence they perpetrate to appear as cool or fun. All of the violence is portrayed stoically and unexcitingly, it is not indulgent, but sick and disturbing. Ironically, it is the film adaptation of Watchmen that shows us exactly how not to tell a superhero story for adults. The sequences of violence in the film are highly stylized and indulgent, with slow motion shots glamorizing the superheroes in the story. The way the violence in this film is portrayed contradicts the themes of the source material. The violence here is just like that in PG-13 superhero films, just more hardcore and gory. It’s not being used to say anything new, it’s just there to make the superheroes appear violent and sadistic.
Another major aspect of why Watchmen works is that it doesn’t take characters intended for children and try to make them dark and violent. The characters in those stories were created for adults exclusively, which means that their inclusion in adult stories is justified, unlike many other Rated R superhero stories which feature characters originally designed for kids. For instance, in recent years, DC has begun releasing animated Rated R animated films about their classic characters like the Justice League and Batman. Here’s a question, we need a hyper gritty Rated R Mickey Mouse movie? No, we don’t. But that wouldn’t be altogether different than what DC has done with releasing Rated R animated Batman movies in recent years. At his core, Batman is an inherently silly, childish character. No matter how dark and graphic these movies are they cannot change the fact that the main character is a grown man dressed in a rubber bat costume. After spending decades marketing their characters to parents as being just as child friendly as Mickey Mouse, DC is now turning around and making graphic, gritty Rated R films about the same characters that every 8-year old has on their lunchbox.
This is not to say that Rated R superhero films are conceptually bad. On the contrary, I have enjoyed many of them. Logan is one of the greatest superhero films ever made, and the new Suicide Squad movie is my favorite comic book movie in years, but I enjoy these films because the mature content they contain is utilized in an intelligent manner. Logan is an out-of-continuity story that sheds classic superhero tropes and positions itself as a neo-western character drama and the Suicide Squad fully embraces the absurdity and silliness of its characters and delivers an unapologetically wacky comic book film, instead of injecting violence and gore for the sake of being edgy. Because I think the most important thing to remember when telling superhero stories is that classic comic book characters like Batman and Superman were designed for children, and stories that feature them should be aimed at audiences of all audiences. In the words of Watchmen writer Alan Moore, “[Superheroes] were a thing that was created in the 1930s for children, and they are perfectly fine as children’s entertainment. But if if you try to make them for the adult world, then I think it becomes kind of grotesque.”