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‘The Batman’s PG-13 rating reveals a critical truth about superhero movies

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You want it darker?

No, I’m not about to launch into Leonard Cohen lyrics, though I certainly could. I’m talking about Batman and the recent semi-controversy surrounding the rating of Matt Reeves’ highly anticipated take of the Dark Knight mythos, The Batman.

Starring Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, Andy Serkis, and Colin Farrell, The Batman looks like the darkest and most psychologically intense Caped Crusader film committed to the big screen so far, but a PG-13 rating has some corners of comic book movie fandom in an uproar.

That’s right. Despite there never being any indication that a movie starring Warner’s most bankable character would receive an R-rated film, some people still managed to come away disappointed. But I’ve got to be honest, folks, this PG-13 rating, does not, in any real way, matter.

Paul Dano’s Zodiac-inspired Riddler in The Batman.Warner Bros.

I usually don’t like to hand the microphone to the small but vocal minority. It’s not like the movie is going to flop because a few hundred edge-lords complain on Twitter. But it seems like we have this conversation about R-rated versus PG-13 comic book movies every year. Remember Venom? Remember Venom: Let There Be Carnage? Remember Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness?

There’s one thing the connects these movies. Fans believed they needed to be rated R, but there’s nothing in their source material to back that up. Most of Venom’s bouts of brain-eating happen off-panel, as do Carnage’s acts of, well, carnage. And Doctor Strange may fight demons but he’s not dropping F-bombs left and right as part of his spellcasting. Even when comics push the limits enough to earn a “parental advisory” stamp, the vast number of Marvel and DC Comics produced over the past 80+ years are geared towards all ages.

Batman: Damned, by Brian Azarello and Lee Bermejo.DC Comics

This isn’t to say that the material can’t be pushed into R-rated territory. On the comics side imprints like Marvel’s MAX and DC’s Vertigo (and now Black Label) have been used to tell subversive superhero stories.

But the key term here is telling stories. That should always be the main priority; not shock value for the sake of a rating — unless you’re Frank Miller. Blade, Deadpool, Logan, Joker, Birds of Prey, and most recently, The Suicide Squad are all strong examples of R-rated comic book movies from Marvel (via 20th Century Fox) and DC. They’re also films that showcase a strong creative hand, not a mandate from studio execs.

If fans truly want directors to have freedom, we have to accept each filmmaker’s visions regardless of rating. Maybe Reeves just wants to do something a little more subtle than All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder. Placing limits on your use of gore, profanity, and nudity can push directors to take more creative avenues.

All-Star Batman and Robin, by Frank Miller and Jim Lee.DC Comics

There’s also the unavoidable monetary perspective. Fox’s R-rated Marvel movies showed there was a demand for that type of film, while DC’s Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad both struggled to find their audience. For The Suicide Squad, this was due to current events, but for Harley Quinn fans the pivot from PG-13 to R cut off large sections of her moviegoing fanbase.

As for Todd Phillips’ billion dollar-grossing Joker — which I think had the greatest effect on the idea that The Batman would be rated R — it’s clear that film wasn’t aiming to be a superhero movie at all. Phillips made a prestige picture masquerading as a superhero movie. Joker owes a larger debt to Martin Scorsese’s 1970s New Hollywood era than it does to the comics.

Joker is probably the reason why some fans think The Batman should be rated R.Warner Bros.

PG-13 can be pushed pretty far. Take Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy with its pencil gags, disfigurements, and spine cracks. Or consider Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale, which featured one of the most unpleasant torture scenes in recent memory. Even Matt Reeves’ Planet of the Apes franchise certainly wasn’t lacking in brutality, and the trailers for his Batman movie haven’t been pulling any punches either.

As a society, we put far too much emphasis on what the MPAA thinks. Most filmmakers are not thinking about a geriatric ratings board when writing or directing, and history has certainly shown how fickle the criteria can be for what separates an R from a PG-13.

What we should emphasize is the story. Take James Mangold’s Logan, a film that’s ultimately a Western about putting up one last good fight. Mangold felt the blood and brutality was the best way to cut to the heart of the character’s last days. Conversely, if Reeves thinks the story The Batman required doesn’t warrant an R-rating, then we should accept his vision for those characters — at least until we see the movie for ourselves.

THANKS FOR READING, AND AS ALWAYS, KEEP YOUR MIND IN THE GUTTER!



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