The unprecedented mainstream success of R-rated superhero film Deadpool (2016) has lead to much debate recently about the future of the mainstream superhero film, particularly around the issue of the adult nature of the film. Whilst I did not like the film as much as many others have I appreciated that the filmmakers really cared about the character and did their utmost at bringing a faithful adaptation of the comic to the cinemas. A lot of the success of the film is due to Ryan Reynolds, whose pitch-perfect performance as Deadpool has now defined that role in the way that Robert Downey Jr. has defined Iron Man or Hugh Jackman has defined Wolverine. Another reason for its success is that Fox didn’t hamper the character or the film by putting it within a strict PG-13 rating; by allowing for R-rated content, Fox gave Deadpool the creative freedom the film needed to faithfully bring the iconic Marvel hero to life.
James Gunn, director of Marvel hit Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) has written perceptively that Hollywood will learn the wrong lesson about Deadpool – that the film was a success not because of the character but because of how edgy and extreme it was. I mostly agree with Gunn here. With the news that the home video release of the forthcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) has received an R-rating, I can’t help but worry that Gunn is right. A rating for such a film seems absurdly unnecessary. When has the audience EVER clamoured for an adult, edgy Superman film? Never. Batman may be another matter, not necessarily because of his character but because of the villains he faces. Either way, it seems absurd.
I think the debate around this issue needs to re-examine the issue. I don’t think the issue is about adult content within these films; after all, there have been several truly excellent R-rated superhero films already – Watchmen (2009), Dredd (2012), Kick–Ass (2010), The Crow (1994), 300 (2007), Sin City (2005), Wanted (2008) – but about the storytelling opportunities within Hollywood for superhero films. Quite often, by the time the average superhero film has made it’s way to the big screen, there have been essential changes to both the character and storyline. Despite it’s success, this can be seen in a film like Wanted, or in the mediocre Ghost Rider films, or even the most recent (and abysmal) Fantastic Four (2015). Yes, these characters might be ridiculous in concept, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take them seriously and adapt these characters faithfully.
Deadpool was a sure-fire success because of how faithfully it portrayed its characters; the same can be said of many of the successful Marvel Cinematic Universe films. If other studios and filmmakers are willing to do the same with other characters, and not force them into ANY rating at all but allow for a natural storytelling flow faithful to the original comics, unhampered by rating restrictions, then that would be a positive legacy for Deadpool. We could get a truly great Superman film rather than the sordid and miserable Man of Steel (2013); and characters like The Punisher and Ghost Rider might finally get their due on screen with the creative freedom that such projects necessitate.