'Deadpool' and The Evolution of R-Rated Comic Book Movies

'Deadpool' and The Evolution of R-Rated Comic Book Movies

By Robert Dougherty Feb 10, 2016 03:45 PM
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

For months on end, the main selling point of Deadpool was its R-rating, well before it officially got one. These days, superhero movies are pretty much exclusively PG-13, to the point that one R-rated film looks and promises to be more revolutionary by comparison -- especially in a year with six PG-13 comic book movies still to come.

However, just because the MCU, Fox and DC universes have pretty much all been PG-13 for the sake of box office, it doesn't mean Deadpool is the first one to break that trend. In fact, although R-rated superheroes have been relatively rare in the last 26 years, they have existed well even before Ryan Reynolds' failed attempt to be a silent PG-13 Deadpool.

20th Century Fox

In truth, the R-rated hero existed right at the beginning of the superhero era as we know it -- which began with Tim Burton's Batman and not X-Men or the MCU. After Batman began the first comic book craze of modern times, Sam Raimi got on the ground floor over a decade before the first Spider-Man franchise with Darkman -- the Deadpool of the early 90s if he was much more ugly, brooding and humorless.

Like Deadpool, Darkman was horrifically scarred by his enemies and rose back for vengeance in the bloodiest way possible. Like Deadpool, Darkman promised to be even more over the top than mainstream comic book films, even if Batman was the only mainstream game in town back then. Unlike Deadpool, Darkman had no fourth-wall breaking and wise cracking sense of humor about it.

Universal Pictures

Nonetheless, the kind of violence, offbeat tricks and darkness Raimi showed in Deadpool was the first example of what comic book movies could do when they weren't sanitized for PG-13 crowds -- like Raimi's next comic book saga. It even made Liam Neeson a vengeful action hero over two decades before he ran that persona into the ground.

After that, Dick Tracy and Batman Returns continued the genre's momentum, albeit in PG-13 form -- although Batman Returns pushed the limits of that rating. However, when Burton left the first Batman series and Joel Schumacher destroyed it, the superhero genre went into hiberation as a force to be reckoned with.

There were some exceptions, although they weren't from the major comic book titles. The Crow went R-rated in 1994 and would have been bigger had star Brandon Lee not died on set during filming. 1998's Blade was perhaps the most successful R-rated comic book movie since it spawned an entire trilogy for Wesley Snipes, which ended with Reynolds getting his first stab at the genre in Blade Trinity. Yet Spawn was a far less successful adaptation of Todd MacFarlane's wild comics in 1997.

After X-Men started the next wave of comic book films in 2000, there was no Darkman or The Crow to come right away. In fact, it took until 2005 for the genre to get a dose of non PG-13 reality, albeit highly stylized and over the top reality from comic book master Frank Miller.


Sin City pushed all the envelopes of style and violence in 2005, as Miller did when he wrote the comics. It didn't come from a studio like Fox or Warner Brothers, but was helmed by Robert Rodriguez not long after his mainstream success with the much more kid friendly Spy Kids. He used that clout to shoot Miller's dark, noir-style pulp fiction with nothing held back, with the help of Mickey Rourke in one of his many comebacks, Bruce Wills, Clive Owen, a young Jessica Alba and more.

Technically, Sin City isn't a superhero movie and there are no costumes in sight, so perhaps it doesn't count like a Darkman or Deadpool. For that matter, neither does 300 by that definition, although it was based on another Miller comic of graphic content and became an even bigger hit. Perhaps that also rules out the adaptation of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, which touched a nerve by having a masked hero who was technically a terrorist during the height of the War of Terror.

Yet these hard R comic book/graphic novel tales were hits in various ways, even if the mainstream superheroes were starting to take their stranglehold on Hollywood. It all culminated in 2008 and 2009, as the MCU launched and The Dark Knight became one of the biggest hits of all time despite pushing its own PG-13 envelope. As such, the time seemed just right for the most famous, subversive comic book tale of the 1980s to come to the big screen.

Warner Brothers Pictures

Watchmen was the biggest attempt to make a non PG-13 superhero movie that truly subverted the genre, pushed it to dark and terrible places and punctured the myths of costumed heroes and their 'heroism.' Deadpool is trying to do that now, yet its satire is much more cartoonish and comedic than deadly serious and ugly. With the fame and framework of Moore's beloved Watchmen tale and with Zack Snyder directing it after his success with 300, this could have been the movie that blew the genre wide open in Hollywood.

Instead, the window of opportunity was slammed shut once the movie's box office tanked after one weekend, word of mouth became particularly divisive, and the movie was slammed for either being too faithful to Moore or not faithful enough at the end.

Snyder would still eventually head to the ground floor of the DC universe, where he is pushing the PG-13 limits of violence even with Superman. But Watchmen really started Snyder's divisive reputation among comic book faithful, and seemed to scare Warner Bros and other major studios from going against the PG-13 grain with major superhero tales and characters. Again, it would be left to smaller studios and characters to take these risks, to various levels of success.

After an R-rated Punisher movie didn't work, Punisher: War Zone still went even further in late 2008 -- and took the 'risk' of letting a woman direct it in Lexi Alexander. Yet nowadays, it is held up as an excuse for why other women don't get to helm superhero films, no matter what their ratings are. The pattern repeated to an extent a few years later, when Judge Dredd got an R-rated reboot in Dredd years after a Sylvester Stallone version disappointed, yet putting this comic character back in his hard core element barely paid off any better.

Universal Pictures

The most successful non PG-13 comic book movie in recent years was actually a precursor to Deadpool, in a way. Kick-Ass is another satire of the genre and its various cliches, only by showing what would happen if teens dressed up as heroes and fought crime in the real world. It also has what amounts to a pre-teen female Deadpool in Hit Girl, whose purpose is to thoroughly shock audiences with her language and violence as well. Of course, having little Chloe Moretz do it instead of a grown Reynolds adds another layer to the shock value.

The movie launched Matthew Vaughn towards giving the X-Men new cinematic life with X-Men: First Class, and towards making Kingsman: The Secret Service into another hard core hit from a graphic novel just last year. It also spawned a Vaughn-less sequel in Kick-Ass 2 that was less successful -- just like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For a year later -- and came out just as the MCU and Warner Bros made superhero fatigue a real concern.

By then, the rules of superhero cinematic universes were clear, as they could not risk the box office friendly PG-13 demographics. Marvel and DC all played ball to that effect, as Wolverine could only say one f-word every few films, Batman could go really dark but not at the level Miller had him at in 1980s comics -- although Snyder may try in the PG-13 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice -- and James Gunn went from spoofing the genre with the R-rated indie film Super to the PG-13 Guardians of the Galaxy.

20th Century Fox

Within those limitations, of course Deadpool seems like a breath of fresh and foul air, as the first current Marvel or DC movie hero to be anything other than PG-13. Still, it isn't like they can put him in an X-Men dominated PG-13 universe, unless they really wanted to get daring. But they'll probably have to settle for letting a few X-Men guest star in his sequels, like Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are in the original.

It is still unlikely that the rest of Fox's non-Deadpool comic book universe will get raunchier, and that any part of the DCU and MCU will push the limits either, especially with the Justice League starting up and the Avengers changing the guard soon.

As such, while Deadpool is making a statement that the genre needs more R-rated, subversive and unlimited characters in it, it might still take a long time to take any serious effect, if any -- leaving Deadpool as one of a kind for the foreseeable future.

20th Century Fox

Tags: Deadpool (2016), Darkman (1990), Sin City (2005), Watchmen (2009), Kick-Ass (2010), Ryan Reynolds, Frank Miller
About the Author
Robert Dougherty is a longtime online freelance writer, who wrote reviews, articles & editorials on movies/TV for several years on the now defunct Yahoo Voices.
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