Last year, Fox shocked the world when they proved an R-rated superhero movie could be a blockbuster hit. Now, emboldened by Deadpool's success, they've done it again with Logan, widely viewed by superhero fans as one of the best superhero movies of all time. Studios are still wary of R-rated films; Hugh Jackman was reportedly forced to take a pay-cut in order to persuade Fox when it came to Logan. Yet fans remain excited about the possibility. In fact, in some fan groups, it's not uncommon to see some insisting the whole reason Logan works is precisely because of its R-rating!
But do these fans have a point? Or is the truth a little different?
The Argument for R-Rated Superhero Films
Deadpool and Logan have proved that R-rated superhero films can work wonders at the box office, and a recent survey by Fandango found that 71% of more moviegoers want more R-rated superhero flicks. The idea of embracing the R-rating — of truly seeing superheroes lash out with all their power — is a very tempting one. Many fans are drawn to the creative freedom offered by R-rated films, which are perfectly suited to some of the more brutal characters; let's face it, Wolverine's adamantium claws are practically made for an R-rating!
The idea is one that comic book fans are very familiar with, especially fans who grew up in the 1990s. With the Comic Book Code Authority defanged, comics embraced blood-'n'-guts violence and extreme sexiness in a way we'd never seen before. The period included tremendous arcs such as the "Death of Superman", the "Age of Apocalypse" or "Knightfall", and some books (like Wolverine) embraced a sense of casual violence that many fans found thrilling. So there's actually a real sense of nostalgia driving the move for R-rated superhero films, coupled with an awareness that many much-loved arcs simply can't be rendered accurately in a PG-13 setting. As an example, fans are eager to see the "Maximum Carnage" arc adapted into the #MCU, but that's pretty much guaranteed never to happen — it's hardly a PG-13 story, given that the main villain is a brutal homicidal maniac.
Studios seem to have taken note of this enthusiasm. According to The Wrap, an insider at Warner Bros. - whose #DCEU is hardly known for its upbeat tone right now - told them that the studio is "one hundred per cent" interested in the idea of R-rated superhero films.
For all this is the case, though, these fan-calls for more R-rated superhero films may well be missing some pretty important points...
Is There Even a 'Superhero Genre'?
Logan stands apart from other superhero films for one simple reason: director James Mangold doesn't exactly seem convinced that there's such a thing as a superhero genre in the first place! Logan eschews many of the traditional superhero tropes; continuity is fluid (the film has nods to both X-Men timelines), the stakes are set low (no end-of-the-world scenario here), and many key death scenes are anti-climatic. Tonally, it's a dark and dour film; stylistically, it's a Western.
Mangold has a point, and ironically it's one that #Marvel Studios has been demonstrating for years. Just take a look at the range you see in the #MCU; Ant-Man is an heist movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller, and Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera. Although Marvel strives for a pretty consistent tone and style across their range of films, the truth is that each movie imports superheroes into different genres of film. Logan simply takes that to a whole new extreme, and in doing so, proves the validity of the approach.
This is actually critically important, because it blows the whole 'superhero genre' wide open. It suggests you can bring superheroes to any genre of film; from heavy science-fiction to raunchy comedy, from Westerns to whodunnits, there's room for superheroes in absolutely any genre.
Do What Needs to Be Done
The success of #Deadpool back in 2016 led to the same calls for R-rated superhero films, and director #JamesGunn (most notable for the phenomenal Guardians of the Galaxy) responded to such calls over on Facebook. In his view, Deadpool wasn't successful because of its R-rating; it was successful for a very different reason.
"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."
The same is true of Logan. Although it has nods and Easter Eggs galore, the film stands on its own two feet, both in content and in tone. Fox gave Mangold the freedom to make the film he wanted to make, with a minimum of interference. In contrast, Fox's key competitors, Marvel and DC, are focused in on overarching continuity, and the studios often wind up locked in conflict with the directors. As possibly the most extreme example, conflict with the Marvel Creative Committee over Avengers: Age of Ultron pretty much "broke" Joss Whedon.
The problem is that, all too often, the superhero movies are tentpole films, and the studios watch over them like a hawk. They're wary of taking too many risks, or of giving their directors too much leeway, in case everything goes wrong. Worse still, they're often focused on building an overarching continuity; each film is setup for the next movie, adding still more restrictions for the director. Mangold himself described the experience in colorful terms:
"When you find yourself in the captain's chair on one of these movies, you feel a little like Houdini—you're in a restraint system, and you're trying to figure out how to get out."
Let me be blunt: the lesson of Logan and Deadpool is not that we need more R-rated superhero movies. It's that we need the studios to take their hands off the steering wheel, to trust their directors to do their own thing, and to be willing to take risks. Some characters and concepts are perfectly suited to an R-rating; given Logan stars two killers with razor-sharp adamantium claws, that's something of a no-brainer. Others won't; Guardians of the Galaxy works perfectly as a PG-13, and adding blood and guts would actually distract from the style and tone of the film James Gunn made so well.
Over at Fox, facing calls for more R-rated #XMen films, Simon Kinberg has outlined precisely this kind of logic:
"I think that each movie, we figure out what the story is, then we figure out the requirements of the story, and if the requirements of the story are R-rated, it’s R-rated. We don’t go into movies saying, this one’s gonna be R-rated, this one’s gonna be PG-13, we don’t make those decisions before we make the decisions of story. My instinct is that the Deadpool universe, which is Deadpool 2 and potentially X-Force, they require being R-rated, because that’s just Deadpool’s voice in the comic, and it’s Deadpool’s voice in the movie so far. I think audiences would be disappointed if they got a PG-13 Deadpool movie. So my easy bet would be Deadpool 2 is R-rated and most movies within that sort of shared but separate universe would be likewise."
In other words, we can safely bet on an R-rated Deadpool 2, and it's likely we'll also see an R-rated X-Force; but that's because the films and characters require it, not because Fox is setting out to make R-rated films.
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Deadpool and Logan should serve as a wake-up call for superhero fans, and simply calling for more R-rated superhero films is missing the point. These two movies suggest that we need to start thinking outside the box; we need to take a step back, and realize that there is no 'superhero genre', while at the same time allowing our directors the room to breathe. Fan reaction to Deadpool and Logan doesn't indicate we need more R-rated superhero films; it just suggests we need more variety. Ironically, for all Fox gets a lot of criticism for poor continuity, this is a lesson they seem to have learned; it's going to be interesting to see how Marvel and DC respond to this...