Writer’s note: For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be using the American film rating system throughout this piece.
Ah yes, the discussion is back on the table. With the surprise mega success of Deadpool and now Logan making us cry happy / sad tears and making us feel things usually reserved for funerals and the first time we had a hot fudge sundae from Macca’s, my fellow film pundits are asking the question: are more R rated superhero films the answer?
Short answer? No. HELL no. Nope. No…….no.
Hollywood loves itself a trend, no matter how short sighted it may be. Remember when Saw first appeared on the scene? This tiny little film blazed its way onto the screen, made quite a bit of money in the DVD market, spawned itself a bunch of lackluster / unnecessary sequels and launched the careers of Melbourne boys James Wan and Leigh Whannell. The $1.2 million flick turned $103.9 million profit was something the industry hadn’t quite seen since The Blair Witch Project. It was different. It was mean, vicious and didn’t care what you thought. It didn’t caress your cinematic sensibilities. It told the story it wanted to tell, damn the consequences. But, Hollywood, given its talent for completely missing the point in spectacular fashion, responded differently:
Hostel, Hostel II, Captivity, The Devil’s Rejects, Turistas. Some good, some amazingly bad, the films that followed were either inspired by or a knee jerk reaction to Saw and Hollywood completely misreading the terrain.
Remember The Dark Knight? Of course you do, what a stupid question. Christopher Nolan’s 2008 follow up to Batman Begins went down a completely different route when tackling the superhero genre. What if the sequel was a straight up crime drama instead of a comic book caper? The result? Probably one of the best superhero/crime films of this generation and definitely one of the greatest (if not the greatest) portrayals of the Joker, maybe perhaps in our lifetime. But, Hollywood being Hollywood said to itself “Ah, so dark and gritty superhero movies?” Thankfully, the misinterpretation was softened by none other than Iron Man which also debuted in 2008 (goddamn, I’m old) and was essentially the parallel to The Dark Knight, both movies being two sides of the same coin in the superhero genre. It wasn’t until 2013 when the fruits of Hollywood’s (or Warner Bros) misinterpretation came to bear in the form of Man of Steel and most recently Batman v. Superman. You could argue that there’s a further misinterpretation from WB’s point of view when it comes to shifting the tonality from Batman v. Superman to Justice League but that’s an opinion piece you didn’t ask for for another time.
So, the idea of misinterpretations, trends and shortsightedness aside, where does that leave the general film going audience and their needs? If I may be that douche canoe on the internet who speaks on behalf of a huge swath of people, I believe the answer is pretty simple: great storytelling and great characters. Say it with me now. Great storytelling and great characters.
Sure, there’s more to it but I like to oversimplify things.
Whether audiences are consciously aware of it or not, they’re drawn in by great stories. Yes, we get sweeteners like cross over characters, fan service and visual effects that are beyond mind blowing, but if the story and characters are top notch all of that other stuff is the dressing on what is already a great film salad (I’m sorry for the food metaphor).
Part of the reason why Logan works so well is because we’re saying goodbye to a character that a lot of us have basically grown up with for the past 17 years. Mangold and Jackman have managed to use that history and near two decades long character building in service to the story. In some ways they’re at an advantage that a lot of other films aren’t. We already know this character, we’re sympathetic to him before we’ve even sat down in our seats and the first frame rolls. In fact, I posit that all they really needed to do was give Jackman’s Logan a fitting send off and they would have been set. Instead what they gave us, on top of a fitting goodbye, is a great story. Beyond that, Mangold and co. have added amazing character moments, sometimes badass, often times human that give the entire film extra weight. A majority of these moments work regardless of its R rating. Don’t get me wrong, as a long time Wolvie fan it was absurdly fun to watch him sink his claws into a dude’s head or go completely berserker on a group of soldiers. But without a solid story and time spent character building it just ends up being violence for violence sake.
Adding to this is confidence. Jackman and Mangold were able to tell the story they did in the way they wanted to because they had confidence in it. They also had very little to lose (aside from money). Remember, this is Jackman’s last outing as Logan. No more sequels, spin-offs or cameos. The dude is done. Why not go for broke? We’ve seen this before with both Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool. Two fairly high risk projects that both said “eff it” to the consequences and told the story they wanted to tell regardless of what happened next. Thankfully, what happened next was proverbial dumpster trucks of cash (so much cash) and sequels both on the horizon. But would that have happened if their stories weren’t up to scratch or their characters weren’t completely fleshed or there was a complete lack of confidence in the project? Doubt it.
Don’t mistaken this entire mess of words as me saying “no, there shouldn’t be R rated superheroes anymore”. Not what I’m saying. Not even close. An R rating is simply a tool, a way to unlock elements that you wouldn’t normally have access to in a PG-13 environment. Both Logan and Deadpool are characters that are almost specifically built for R ratings. The same applies to characters like Daredevil, Frank Castle and Lobos. These are characters born in grit and darkness. But that doesn’t now mean we have to see Superman knock someone’s head off, or Tony Stark dropping a bunch of f-bombs while eviscerating his enemies in wholly graphic ways. It means that the people charged with taking us on these journeys have to develop stories that sink the hooks in to their audience, that they develop characters and moments that we’re going to remember long after we’ve walked out of the cinema, and that they have the supreme confidence in doing both of those things.
Then they can start thinking about using naughty, four letter words.