With The Hunger Games at the top of the box office, there's a lot of talk about what level of violence is acceptable for children to witness. Yes, The Hunger Games does center on kids killing kids, but it still managed a PG-13 rating. This is partially because the violence is put in the context of a criticism and made repulsive instead of exhilarating, but mostly it's because of all the quick cuts and shaky cam, which lessens the kind of gore for which the Motion Picture Association of America typically dings features. (However, if you have kids using the f-word, well, that's another story altogether!)
Anyhow, into all this renewed hubbub about movie violence and the relevance of MPAA ratings comes news from Collider that Christopher Nolan's sure-to-rule-the summer sequel The Dark Knight Rises has been rated "PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language." But really, this isn't much of a surprise. Despite the fact that Nolan's Batman films have been considered much darker than earlier incarnations, they've always scored a PG-13, just like all the Batman flicks that came before them. In fact, The Dark Knight was my reliable go-to when Hunger Games fans debated how violent and brutal its movie adaptation could possibly be with a PG-13 rating.
Everyone remembers The Dark Knight as a violent, dark movie, but few recall it was PG-13. I do because I vividly remember the hordes of children—not teens and tweens mind you, but little waddling children—who shared the theater with me when I saw it. During one particularly gruesome scene where a building is memorably blown sky high with Rachel Dawes inside, a teeny, tremulous child's voice rose above the film's eerie aftermath silence with, "Is…is she going to be okay?"
It would have been funny if it weren't so damn annoying.
Anyhow, this probably means The Dark Knight Rises will be just as dark and violent as Nolan's predecessors, which to me means one major flaw: violence with no blood. Now, don't misunderstand me, I'm not thirsting for gore. I just loathe when the MPAA approves movie violence without blood because they somehow think it's more acceptable for children. People want to complain about desensitizing children to violence, but the MPAA—whose mantra is essentially "we speak for the parents"--decides that lessening the consequences of violence in PG-13 movies is a responsible move. I have a lot of issues with the MPAA's criteria, but this is the one that infuriates me the most because I fail to see how showing children deadly violence but hiding its consequences is a good thing. There is actually a moment in opening sequence of The Dark Knight where a man gets a shotgun blast to the back, and just falls down! No explosion of his chest cavity, no blood, he just drops to his knees and out of frame. Plenty more gunshot deaths follow, none of which have blood, all equally ridiculous.
Remember kids, guns don't kill people; they just make them fall down.
Of course, The Dark Knight is not a movie made for kids, but some parents choose to take them anyway. And that—no matter how vexing I personally find it—is their right. But this essentially means these parents are ignoring the MPAA's suggestions as PG-13 is defined as material appropriate for people 13 and up. So, really, why do we need the MPAA at all? All they do is apply a mysterious and unbalanced moral code to the movies we all see on behalf of parents who seem to disregard them anyway. And the effect is often movie's being censored or forced to pull punches to its detriment, like The Dark Knight.
Dark Knight fans, before you start flipping out in the comments section, know that I'm not really blaming Nolan for this. It's not his fault alone; it's also the fault of the studios that still kowtow to the outdated and ludicrous standards of the MPAA. Typically, by making violence less graphic—and thereby less realistic—studios can get more fight scenes into movies without risking an R-rating that would grossly limit their box office abilities.
I've been following MPAA rating controversies for years, and each time another filmmaker or distributor attempts to stand up to the secretive censorship board I hope it will be the beginning of the end for this outdated institution, which is why I was so crestfallen when The Weinstein Company crumbled to the MPAA over Bully last week. While the MPAA still has this power to cripple movie box offices by wielding prudish yet hypocritical ratings like a deadly weapon, studios and filmmakers are forced to play by their preposterous rules, and it’s the movies that suffer. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts the Weinsteins will never be able to bring the MPAA down on their own; they have to get more studios behind them. Sadly, that's unlikely to happen because as a plethora of sequels and adaptations and remakes and reboots have shown, major studios are not looking to be risky trailblazers as much as they're looking for a reliable and bankable source of income. So why rock the boat?
What this means for The Dark Knight Rises is that it too will suffer from the same inherent lunacy of having lots of nail-biting action that is ultimately undercut by a lack of blood and follow through. Think back to Dark Knight. There's a scene at the 31-minute mark where the Joker confronts Gambol and tells him a creepy origin story for his scars while threatening to slice open the side of his face to create a similarly sinister sneer. But what we are shown instead is a bizarre cutaway reaction shot, an outlandish musical sting in lieu of a sensible sound effect, then a return to a wide shot as the Joker drops his victim out of frame. It's visually jarring and confusing. Did he slice Gambol's face open? Is the guy dead? What the hell just happened? It's a scene that is a sort of scar on the film, and it feels like Nolan's hands were tied in the edit. With the MPAA in charge, it's likely The Dark Knight Rises could be just as tripped up and marred. Sure, it will still be an action-packed ride, a hugely popular blockbuster, and fans will cling to it. But with the MPAA still holding the power of the PG-13 label, Nolan—as well as all the other master filmmakers of today—will have to play by the group's insipid rule book, making his movies a little less his own.