The R-Rated Superhero Movie: An Evolution for the Genre?

New titles are diversifying their audiences, finding new ways to express themselves and new extremes to explore.
'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'  Twitter

The news that Warner Bros. will be releasing an R-rated version of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on DVD was met with something akin to disbelief and derision in some corners of social media when it broke. 

The surprising news could be seen as a sign that James Gunn's cynicism was well placed regarding the lessons studios would learn from the success of Fox's Deadpool, which has grossed more than $500 million worldwide with a $58 million budget. 

Studio executives, the Guardians of the Galaxy director had warned, will "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."

Perhaps Gunn was right. News of the BvS R-rated cut (the movie's theatrical version will still be rated PG-13) was the second rumor of an R-rated superhero movie following Deadpool's debut. 

Last week, a pamphlet at New York Toy Fair revealed that Fox was anticipating an R-rating for Hugh Jackman's final Wolverine movie. In both cases, the rating is anticipated for reasons of violence, not the "raunch" that Gunn is concerned about.

The trend already has its parodies. Ant-Man director Peyton Reed took to Twitter Wednesday to make his own tongue-in-cheek announcement to fans: "Breaking: ANT-MAN AND THE WASP is going FULL NC-17."

Putting the Wolverine III and Batman v Superman news solely down to Deadpool feels like a mistake, however. Fox executives have suggested that Wolverine has been aimed in this direction for some time. And as much as the idea of an R-rated Superman movie feels unusual, it's worth remembering that BvS director Zack Snyder already has one R-rated superhero epic under his belt with 2009's Watchmen.

Similarly, director's cuts of movies with more extreme content being released on DVD is hardly a new phenomenon. In recent months, movies as diverse as Straight Outta Compton, Paul Feig's Spy and 50 Shades of Grey have received "unrated" home versions.

While Batman v Superman is different in that the so-called Ultimate Version receives its own MPAA rating, it's not even the first superhero movie to get a more hardcore home release. The Wolverine was released in a more violent, (slightly) more foul-mouthed format, titled The Wolverine Unleashed.

Instead of placing the credit — or is it blame? — of Wolverine III and the home release of BvS on the record-breaking Deadpool phenomenon, perhaps it should just be seen as a necessary evolution for the genre as a whole. Superhero movies are beginning to resemble the larger action genre they tentatively belong to by diversifying their audiences, finding new ways to express themselves and new extremes to explore.

It should be noted that it's not as if their comic book brethren haven't done the same in the past — both Marvel and DC have published superhero comic books labeled for "mature readers" for more than a decade at this point, with the critically acclaimed Marvel Netflix series Jessica Jones starting life as Marvel's first "MAX" (adults only) comic book release. 

Of course, if the R-rated Batman v Superman cut features the Man of Steel snarkily commenting on the action directly to the audience before eating some chimichangas, then, sure — it's all down to Deadpool after all. 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (the PG-13 version) hits theaters on March 25.

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