Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Deadpool, Superman, and the letter 'R'

  These are some strange and wonderful times to be a comic book nerd, or just a nerd in general. The powers that be have realized for quite some time now that hokey comic book movies just aren't going to cut it. Spawn has been in talks for a reboot for ages, and the 1995 Judge Dredd flick (starring Rob Schneider as much as Sylvester Stallone. Ugh.) got it's upgrade in 2012, with a Verhoeven-esque throwback in the critically acclaimed Dredd. Yet it's only now that the R rating married to a comic book movie is getting massive attention, thanks to Deadpool. I have a review of that movie on the way, but whether or not it's good, or you liked it, or I liked it- is entirely irrelevant. It was successful. Bottom line. That means people, and more importantly... important people- are paying attention to it. They're going to be taking notes. This... could get messy.

   Already, Batman v Superman has come out with news that it's premiering an R rated version of the movie on home media. This is odd news to me, not because it's Superman and the rating "R", but because it seems like information released at such a time simply to cash into on Deadpool's success. It's not going to be rated R in theaters... so why the buzz right now? All this buzz is doing nothing but leading to legions of half-informed, dudebro, "fans"- championing on social media for every comic book movie to get an R rating. These people are treating Deadpool like it was a trailblazing event. Well, it was and it wasn't. R rated comic book movies have been getting made since the 80's, and fairly regularly too. I need not regale you with a full list of these movies, but they are out there.
It was so celebrated and important to fans that Deadpool be rated R because in the comics, a lot of the character's more popular iterations were very anti-family friendly. People love that fucking awesome shit, and so do I. But...
   I think it's important to keep in mind that R ratings are not necessary for every comic book movie. Comic books and their characters have been around for many decades and as a result, they've all had their bright sunshiny times and their dark and gritty times. I once read a Spider-Man novel where he was tracking down a serial killer/rapist. It was well written, but especially so because it contrasted the usually lighthearted nature of Spider-Man against seriously dark and unsettling themes. Themes that brought a little bit of real world grit into this bright and colorful setting. Peter Parker himself reacted to this stuff as such. He realized that this is not his beat, this is not what he does. That characters like The Punisher and Daredevil exist for a reason. 

  Now, just because that Spider-Man story was really good, doesn't mean I need or want an R rated Spider-Man movie. The darker material requires a thoughtful take and deep, dark, deconstructive, thoughtfulness doesn't always fit neatly into an audience friendly three-act-and-a-climax, blockbuster, plot structure. The recent Netflix shows, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, are perfect examples of how serious and mature themes can flourish if given an alternative format to big screened, summer blockbuster, action vehicles. I... like those big action movies. At it's core superheroes are fantasy and escapism, but that doesn't mean they can't be used to tell thought provoking stories with dark and mature themes- but not every superhero is right for that kind of treatment. 

   When done right, superhero escapism is supposed to entertain and not for a second does that mean it has to insult your intelligence or tell a story that seems like it was penned by a third grader. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a great comic book movie with some very grown up concepts in it. It did not need an R rating to accomplish that. Characters like The Punisher on the other hand are so inextricably linked to dark and violent themes that it's very hard to do the material justice while trying to sanitize it and label it "action" instead of "violence".  

"So don't call it violence, call it action! Kids love action!"  -Denis Leary, Small Soldiers
   Deadpool as a character was always a walking deconstruction of your average superhero. His stories, when told right, could easily benefit from an R rating. I'm not personally convinced he needed an R rating, but the character himself would beg to differ- and that has to count for something. So, yes, there are comic book properties that either need, or could benefit from R ratings, if the makers have any intention of telling the stories properly and/or faithfully. But, an R rating is not an automatic success ticket.

   Lets look at the R rated comic book movies so far that are actually good (to name a few)- Dredd, Blade, The Crow, Kick-Ass. These aren't necessarily "superhero" movies. Dredd is a fascist cop, Blade is a vampire hunter, The Crow is an undead man seeking revenge, and Kick-Ass is... well, Kick-Ass is a whole 'nother basket of fruit. The point remains however that it is not your typical superhero movie. Nobody has superpowers in it. So, lets not champion for comic book movies to arbitrarily get R ratings? The door has been opened for a bit of artistic leeway to represent characters how they should be portrayed. If the source material has a foul-mouthed, over-sexed, gun-wielding maniac as it's protagonist... why should he be any different in the movie? But, the last thing I want to happen is for characters who aren't like that be changed to fit that, which is as bad as neutering Judge Dredd down into a PG-13 package (which they weren't even prepared to do in the 90's). 

Does this look like a PG-13 package to you?
   The problem isn't content, the problem is tone and concept. I don't want Spider-Man shanking thugs or dropping them off buildings. I don't want Superman vaporizing people's skin off to leave their guts falling out. This is the stuff of deconstructions, where questions are asked about superheroes and how they would fit into reality. This is the stuff of Watchmen. Which already got a movie... and was indeed rated R. Up til now the R rated has been eagerly applied to many comic book movies, including 300, V for Vendetta, Sin City and Constantine. Whether or not all of these movies were good or successful is besides the point. The point is, they got R ratings because the material warranted it. Now, because of Deadpool's success we have two demographics standing to learn the absolute wrong lesson from this. The movie studio honchos, and the half-informed movie goers.

  I don't want either of those groups calling the shots when it comes to creative stuff. Your average dudebro would love the idea of an R rated Spider-Man, but I don't need "fuck" and gore, in my lighthearted escapism. If Batman v Superman is going to be a deconstruction of the superhero genre (which I doubt it will be) then so be it, but I don't want a trend of unnecessarily R rated comic book movies. All that means is that R rated violence, sex, and language are going to be carelessly injected into PG-13 stories. It's going to feel tacked on and excessive. When comic book properties warrant R ratings it's usually for a good reason. But, we're on the verge of a trend... and not a good one either.

   Since a big screen adaptation is ultimately the largest and most heavily marketed representation of any comic book character, shouldn't it be their truest portrayal? Distilled from their best and most well received stories? Can't we discern the nature and purpose of these characters before jumping to conclusions about what rating their movie deserves? I don't fear much from BvS's R rating. But, what are movie studios and their men in charge learning from this attention gathering success of an R rated comic book movie? How long before it's a studio mandate? "Superman needs to kill that guy, and there needs to be way more gore!" Bleh. 

Remember kids, it's "action", not "violence"!
   Fans need to make their voice heard again, insisting on the lesson to be learned is 'faithfulness to source material', NOT 'R ratings make better comic book movies'. Because... they don't. Preach it brothers and sisters. Before things go sideways.

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