With rumours of Quentin Tarantino developing an 18-rated Star Trek movie and shooting already taking place on a similarly adult Venom adaptation with Tom Hardy, film studios are taking greater financial risks with a limited audience. Let’s take a chronological look at the superhero movies which led to this new wave of mature films that are defying the conventional Marvel Universe trend.
Before Marvel started pushing lower-rating boundaries with Spiderman – one of the first 12A films – the stylised and violent Blade made its way onto the silver screen. The human-vampire hybrid (Hampire? Vuman? You decide) was created by Marv Wolfman in 1973, and the mere existence of the feature film seems particularly impressive. Released the year after the critically-panned box office trainwreck that was Batman and Robin, the studio’s attempt to introduce another franchise so quickly was a bold decision, and one which clearly paid off. Blade produced a box office total of $200 million and sired two sequels. Although it might not be given enough credit today, Blade was the proverbial seed that sowed confidence in the darker superhero movie. Ironically, Blade’s runaway success boosted the entire superhero genre, paving the way for the more family-friendly X-Men series, as well as the wider MCU.
The Dark Knight (2008)
One decade on and we’re gifted with the Godfather of superhero movies. There’s no 18 certificate, but there isn’t any doubt that The Dark Knight was a major influence on the superhero genre and the concept of a darker sequel. Indeed, even though Warner Bros got the film past the censors with a 12A rating, that didn’t stop widespread criticism. It received the most complaints of any film released in 2008, racking up a grand total of 364 disapproving comments. Iain Duncan Smith MP was “astonished” that the film didn’t receive a 15 rating, and complained that “Unlike past Batman films where the villains were somewhat surreal and comical figures, Heath Ledger’s Joker is a brilliantly acted but very credible psychopathic killer, who extols the use of knives to kill and disfigure his victims, during a reign of urban terrorism, laced with torture”. If the former Tory party leader was asking for a recall of the camp-fest that is Batman Forever, he certainly won’t be getting it any time soon.
No, not the shitty Sylvester Stallone one, the good Karl Urban (Star Trek, The Bourne Supremacy) one. The dystopian City One receives 17,000 crime reports every day, which isn’t too bad considering its 800 million population. The eponymous judge, jury and executioner recruits a new officer (Olivia Thirlby) to help him stop a notorious gang, and the two end up in a violent battle fighting for their lives within a 200-storey building. Think The Raid, but on drugs. Actual drugs, in this case, since the cops are trying to shut down the gang’s sale of slo-mo, a substance which does exactly what it says on the tin. As you might expect, this provides various opportunities for prolonged, gory shoot-up scenes. Despite its striking visual style and strong performances all round, particularly from Lena Headey’s druglord Ma Ma, the film only grossed a modest box office return of $41.5 million from its $45 million budget. Yet its gory aesthetic was clearly an influence on later additions to the mature superhero canon, and Dredd remains a minor cult classic.
And we witness a gory resurgence four years later with Tim Miller’s fourth-wall comic (in both senses of the word) caper. With the 18 rating, all the anxieties about f-bombs, sex scenes and violence are immediately irrelevant, and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick take advantage of these new opportunities to the fullest extent. In fact, the grand total of f-bombs reaches 84, with 21 sexual and 19 scatological references to boot (cudos to moviepilot for counting all of those). Indeed, it’s a miracle that Deadpool was ever created. But thanks to the excited response from leaked test footage, Ryan Reynold’s merc with the mouth was granted his own feature film. Deadpool marked the first major success of the mature, 18-rated superhero film in the 21st century, grossing a whopping $783 million from a $58 budget. Even if you’re not a huge fan of gore, violence, profanities and the like, the film is worth going to see just for its refreshingly satirical opening-credits scene. Then you can walk out again, if you really must.
Although the most recent entry into the mature superhero film canon didn’t get the full 18 rating in the UK, it surely wasn’t for lack of trying. Heads are chopped in half, limbs are torn off, and adamantium claws have generally sprayed a whole hell’s-worth of blood and guts across the screen by the end of its 137-minute running time. But surely the best part about the film’s relentless gore and its bleak tone is Logan’s clear divergence from the X-Men series. Hugh Jackman has spent 17 years in the role of the moody, lovable rogue that is Wolverine, but before Logan, Wolverine was just that. The PG-13 rating restricted any opportunities for a raw, grim comic-book storyline to be followed, and Mark Millar‘s Old Man Logan storyline provided the perfect opportunity.
Director James Mangold asserted the importance of the film’s R-rating in the US, stating that “the movie stops being a vehicle for moving merchandise”. Logan isn’t the next churned-out addition to the MCU, but a stand-alone set-piece. Part of the film’s brilliance lies in its key genre difference, in very similar fashion to The Dark Knight. Nolan’s second Batman entry delves into psychological crime-drama, and the hero doesn’t win, nor are dead characters conveniently resurrected. Logan’s Western atmosphere has the same dark conclusions. The film’s bleak ending, played out to the apt and moving tune of Johnny Cash’s cover The Man Comes Around, is all the more powerful for it.
You’re still here? The piece is over. Go home. You’re expecting a witty outro? You’ll never have to (I’ll get my cape…).