By now, pretty much everybody is aware of the big news that came out this week concerning one of the year's most anticipated comic book films: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will be getting an R-rated "Ultimate Cut" when its released on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD later this year. It seemed that -- much like the reception to its predecessor Man of Steel -- reactions were surprisingly mixed. On the one hand, you had a sect of fans that seemed to celebrate the fact that we'll finally see an R-rated adventure featuring the Dark Knight. On the other hand, though, people were concerned and puzzled:
Are we really sure that Superman -- beacon of hope and standard-bearer for DC Comics -- belongs in anything that's rated R? Even if this is just for a home media release?
Rated R: An Overreaction?
Let's be honest: even though a film may be rated R by the MPAA for release in the United States, that doesn't always mean that it's that inappropriate. Directors, producers, and actors have been talking for years about projects that have earned the rating restricting a film for audiences 17 and up, since the board that actually assigns these ratings largely operate off of their own assumptions of what constitutes "appropriate" material for different ages.
It seems like there can also be wildly different standards for one film that earns an R, while another film either bypasses it or earns an entirely different rating for very minor elements. Two examples immediately come to mind when thinking about this.
When it was released in April of 1999, The Matrix took audiences by storm for being such an unusual, big-budgeted action spectacle. By combining concepts from philosophers like Beaudrillard with the classic, action-packed Hong Kong films of the Wachowskis' youth, audiences hadn't ever really seen anything as strangely hybridized as the film that first introduced us to Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus. It would even go on to upset Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace at the Academy Awards by beating it out in every technical category that both films received nominations in.
You must be at least 17 to look at this picture.
Still, though, by the standards of many moviegoers, it was relatively tame when compared to other films slapped with an R by the MPAA. Sure, the shootout scene near the climax is pretty gratuitous, but overall it's a little odd that it got hit with a rating classification like an R. So, what was it? According to producer Joel Silver in an interview with TIME Magazine before the release of the first 2003 sequel, it wasn't gunfire, the language, or the sexual allusions. It was the kicks.
"If you have kung fu fights with kicks to the head," he said, "it automatically makes it R."
Similarly baffling is a story surrounding George Romero's 2005 film Land of the Dead, the first in his iconic zombie series to be submitted to the MPAA for a wide release. When he and distributor Universal Pictures first submitted the film, Romero described a distinct lack of shock for its classification as NC-17, but felt he would need to alter the film in order to earn an R rating. Though he expected to have to make substantial changes to earn this classification, he actually describes in the DVD bonus features that it was surprisingly painless.
All he had to do was trim a handful of scenes featuring excessive gore by a few seconds, shoot some new foreground elements on blue screen to obscure one to two gorier set pieces, and in other instances digitally retouch blood so that it appeared black instead of red.
That's it. After those changes were made, the MPAA slapped it with an R, and it was released as planned.
Beyond these examples are other more notable ones, though. Did Meg Ryan's orgasmic imitation in When Harry Met Sally really warrant an R-rating for the entire film? What about a string of f-words spoken by Colin Firth as he was frustratingly swearing during The King's Speech? In Roger Ebert's review of the latter, he ended by saying, "The R rating refers to Logue's use of vulgarity. It is utterly inexplicable. This is an excellent film for teenagers."
The bottom line is that an MPAA-approved R-rating may not always be indicative of truly objectionable imagery or quality. Any doubt, you should watch the excellent 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
On the Other Hand...
Yes, Batman. Superman bleeds.
...its very difficult -- if not impossible -- to not see the news about Batman v Superman as some kind of strangely reactionary permission from audiences in the eyes of the studio due to the critical and commercial success of Deadpool. A lot of commentators truly believed that Wade Wilson's first solo cinematic adventure was something of a crapshoot because it was willfully aiming for a hard R-rating in order to satisfy the most ardent fans of Marvel's Merc With a Mouth. Since Deadpool has gone on to become the highest domestic grossing film in the entire X-Men film franchise, though, we're starting to hear about Hugh Jackman's final turn as Wolverine aiming for the R, and now, we've learned of this new home release for Batman v Superman already earning it before it's even bowed in theaters.
On its face, this looks like the exact turn of events that Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn tried to warn us about after Deadpool's success was solidified. He wrote,
So, over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you'll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They'll be green lighting films "like Deadpool" - but, by that, they won't mean "good and original" but "a raunchy superhero film" or "it breaks the fourth wall." They'll treat you like you're stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn't do.
Now, no one is accusing Batman v Superman of looking much like Deadpool, but it doesn't take much imagination to conclude that Warner Bros. may feel that R-rated comics films have finally passed the litmus test, and that they'll be rewarded for turning their first major entry in the DC Extended Universe into an R-rated spectacle when you take it home.
Deadpool? Yeah, I get that. Wolverine? Sure, I'll grant that makes sense. The Punisher? Also makes sense. A film with Superman, though? No. Not even for a second.
Superman can have the occasional R-rated element in his mythology, and I have no doubt that if a director took the pages of The Death of Superman and recreated it shot-for-shot, it'd probably have no choice but to be rated R. Tonally, though, he's a character that should brighten whatever he's put into, not be darkened by what's around him. That's like trying to turn off the sun in the middle of the day. It can't, and likely shouldn't be done.
Maybe this is one of those overreactions that the MPAA has had in the past. Maybe the R-rating is for something relatively small and insignificant, and won't actually change the overall film all that much. It does feature the sometimes adults-only ass-kicker that is Batman, after all, and if Jared Leto's Joker shows up then that could lead to material that may warrant an R rating. The timing is just a little too suspect, though.
Like anything, let's wait and see what this is all about later this year when the "Ultimate Cut" comes home. Still, it's just hard to get a sour taste out of your mouth sometimes, especially when it's so totally unexpected.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, as well as a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and Batman-On-Film.com, as well as host of the Comics on Consoles podcast. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.