Despite Logan and Deadpool, Don’t Expect a Flood of R-Rated Superhero Movies

Why PG-13 remains the sweet spot for studios

Headshot of Chris Thilk

Logan hit theaters this weekend, promising moviegoers their last chance to see star Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the character he first brought to the big screen 17 years ago in the first X-Men movie.

He’s played the character in each of the franchise’s installments, even if it was just a brief cameo, providing a point of consistency in a series of movies that’s jumped through time and offered often conflicting takes on continuity. He’s been the one point of consistency, something that speaks to Jackman’s fantastic take on the role and has been largely possible because the character basically doesn’t age, meaning he can look more or less the same in a story taking place in 1945, 1962 or 2015.

This new movie catches up with Logan in 2029. He’s older and feeling it, having lost some of his ability to heal quickly. Mutants are a dying breed, and a young girl with very Wolverine-esque powers comes to him seeking help and protection, which Logan offers only reluctantly and at the prodding of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

Most all of the previous X-Men movies have been rated PG-13. But Logan, like last year’s Deadpool, is violent enough to earn itself an R rating. Those two are, to date, the only exceptions to the PG-13 rule that has dominated movies from both Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment/Warner Bros. In the past, the only comic-based movies that have delved into R-rated territory have been the Blade series starring Wesley Snipes, Lionsgate’s two Punisher films and adaptations of indie books like Barb Wire, Spawn, Kick-Ass and a few others that didn’t need to get the the kids into the theater along with the older crowd.

According to a new survey from online ticket seller Fandango, though, the audience is anxious for more hard-core superhero movies. The company said 71 percent of respondents want more R-rated comic book movies, while 86 percent were specifically anxious to see a more violent Logan in theaters.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: Logan wasn’t consistently marketed as an R-rated, overly violent movie.

Looking at the two trailers that formed the backbone of the campaign, neither are red-band versions and neither are that much more violent than the trailers for any of the previous X-Men movies or those of Suicide Squad or other comic adaptations. Sure, there are plenty of shots of Logan—and Laura, the young girl in his care—slicing up bad guys. But it’s no more violent than the trailer for 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which featured missiles slamming into cars, ninja-on-ninja action and the Eiffel Tower killing hundreds of civilians as it collapses on a bridge.

Instead, the value proposition of an ultra-violent movie that had more in common with the Sergio Leone westerns of the 1960s, or the gritty “loner out for justice” movies of the ’80s, came largely via the press. That’s the story sold by Logan director James Mangold as well as Jackman in the interviews that led up to the release, as well as the core of the narrative that emerged after the embargo on reviews was lifted.

That’s all not to say that 20th Century Fox doesn’t see the potential value of a superhero franchise with a little more creative latitude in terms of what does or doesn’t make it into the final cut of a movie. It clearly does, which is why Deadpool’s team was allowed to make an overtly violent, sexual and foul-mouthed film. And the fact that Logan is R-rated is why the studio used it to kick off the marketing for Deadpool 2 with a pre-movie teaser.

It does mean, though, that Fox wasn’t ready to commit fully to an R-rated ad campaign for Logan. While there was no getting around that rating, for moviegoers the formal marketing push certainly didn’t play that up, relying on the publicity portion of the campaign to do that heavy lifting.

That seems to underscore the weakness of Fandango’s survey results, which is that it took only the opinions of users of the service into account. Those users are, it’s fairly safe to assume, all old enough to be making their own ticket purchases. So, presumably, they’re all over the age of 15, give or take. Those under that age, the ones who have been able to get into Captain America: Civil War, Man of Steel, The Dark Knight and others—and who are looking forward to Spider-Man: Homecoming—are presumably less enamored with a bigger portion of superhero movies being rated at a level where they’d be unable to see them theatrically.

Losing that audience would be devastating for studios in the long term. Captain America: Civil War grossed $179 million in its opening weekend, and while the $85 million that Logan brought in this past weekend is impressive, it’s less than half the draw of the more family-accessible movie. Plus, Logan featured few, if any, cross-promotional partner companies and isn’t being heralded by a wave of Lego sets and other toys hitting Target’s shelves. That translates to a lot of money that isn’t being made in order for a writer, director and star using a popular—and profitable—piece of existing intellectual property to realize their artistic vision.

While Fandango’s hard-core movie ticket buyers, along with the film press that in part has declared Logan among the best superhero movies of all time, may be anxious for more of these ultra-violent and gritty stories, it’s likely studios know the best way to derive the most value from these properties over the long term is to keep things lighter.

The kind of hard-core stories fans want to see will, for the foreseeable future, be relegated to smaller, independent movies, with mainstream studio fare only dipping the occasional toe into these waters at moments for a very strategic reason.

@ChrisThilk chris.thilk@gmail.com Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategy consultant in the Chicago suburbs. You can find him at ChrisThilk.com, where he shares his thoughts on content marketing, media and movie marketing.
{"taxonomy":"","sortby":"","label":"","shouldShow":""}