Joker, Birds Of Prey And Why DC Should Go All In On R-Rated Superhero Movies

Joaquin Phoenix in his Oscar-winning role in Joker

What a weekend superhero movies recently had with Joker winning two Academy Awards and Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey earning the top spot at the box office. Other than their obvious connections to DC Comics, both of these films have one distinct thing in common: they are both R-rated.

For years, the R-rating was considered an automatic financial death sentence for a comic book movie (and still an often feared concept to the studio system). However, films like the cultural juggernaut (no pun intended) Deadpool or the Wolverine-focused Oscar-nominee Logan made it OK to say, “You know what, maybe superheroes are not just for kids.”

Indeed, while kids have toys, cartoons, and the MCU to keep them busy, grown-ups have the privilege of indulging in the complex storylines and mature authenticity of adult-oriented films ripped from comic book pages. Warner Bros. has proven successful in that realm more than once by turning their darkest DC properties into gold and they certainly should not stop now. Here are a few reasons why...

Ryan Reynolds as the foul-mouthed, overly violent mercenary Deadpool

Sometimes Graphic Imagery Means Graphic Accuracy

Comic books have vastly evolved in maturity since their infancy, with many independent publishers appealing almost exclusively to adult audiences and DC and Marvel creating specialized comic book lines focusing on darker material. Quite frankly, superhero stories often get better when they go darker.

Where do you think Batman would be if not for Frank Miller’s much grittier take on the Caped Crusader in his 1986 graphic novel masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns? We would not have the more serious takes on Bruce Wayne as seen in performances by Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, or even Kevin Conroy’s animated iteration, but would still be associating him with that campy 1960s TV show - with all due respect to the late, great Adam West.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone as far as it will go with into the darkness, sticking to nearly bloodless combat, romantic storylines, and even poking fun at its own softer use of language. This has mostly worked out in appealing to their target audience, despite having to sacrifice some key elements from the comics that would clearly outrage parents.

However, if Warner Bros. wants to appeal to their target audience, the DC die-hards, it would be in their best interest to grab the darkness by the horns and proudly ride it straight into R-rated territory. It certainly worked for Fox with Logan and both Deadpool films, which Disney has assured will remain faithful to the character’s R-rated nature now that it owns him. If the MCU can handle the Merc with a Mouth, the DCEU (or whatever it may be now) should be able to handle a blood-soaked Batsuit.

Jack Quaid as bloodied Hughie Campbell in The Boys

Superhero TV Shows Are Already Darker Than Most Movies

For a comic book fan to see the mature storytelling featuring costumed crime fighters that they crave, they will have more chances to find it with a cable plan or streaming service subscription than with a movie ticket. Television is now the prime spot for faithful comic book adaptations with all the sex, gore, and pervasive language… with the main exception of the lighter, but beloved, Arrow-verse.

Take, for example, comic book icon Garth Ennis, whose work has inspired the DC Vertigo title Preacher, the AMC series about a man of the clergy with a criminal past on a mission to literally find God, and Amazon Prime’s The Boys, which centers on morally corrupt superheroes with corporate endorsements targeted by ragtag crew of human vigilantes. These brutally violent and thematically risque series are just two examples of some of the most popular and critically acclaimed comic book adaptations on TV, which may not have been the case had they been softened for younger audiences.

Remember when Marvel Studios came out with Daredevil on Netflix and it became one of its most acclaimed hits it ever produced? That is because the series, and its spin-offs, did not hold back from showing the vengeful, violent nature of its protagonist and the ruthless, deadly reputation of its antagonist, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). It made sure that Hell’s Kitchen was depicted as an unforgiving cesspool of despicable cretins, just as the comics intended.

The same people who made heroes out of a talking raccoon and a walking tree crossed the R-rated threshold on a streaming service to great success (before those series were cancelled, that is). By continuing to cross that threshold for its theatrical releases and giving moviegoers more films that are accurate to the dark themes and graphic nature of their source material, this will set an example as to how comic book adaptations can, more often than not, translate to powerful and, of course, award-winning stories.

More Potential To Explore Unadapted Comic Book Properties With R-Rating

Warner Bros. has given more than enough attention to Batman, Superman, and other well-known DC heroes (and even more villains, lately). But, what about characters like Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, noirish detective The Question, or alien bounty hunter Lobo (whom Danny Trejo has expressed interest in playing)? Where are their movies?

The Sandman, which actually is getting a Netflix series, never became a movie due to reported creative differences over it development, most likely because the Neil Gaiman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was attached to direct and star at one time, wanted to go darker than New Line Cinema was willing to go with it. The same thing happened to Guillermo del Toro’s Justice League Dark movie (now it is in the hands of J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot). It almost makes one wonder how many times a dark DC Comics property was softened by studio interference to underwhelming results. I can think of one, or maybe two.

My essential point is that there is a vast number of dark, complex characters and gritty, mature stories in DC’s history that have never been given the live action treatment (or, maybe, deserve a second chance on the big screen). The MPAA would more than likely give it the R-rating if the original vision of the property was to be fully realized in a film, but that should not discourage Warner Bros., among other studios, from taking a chance on these films. It should encourage them.

Audiences are looking for something fresh and new to put their money into, and if that means putting another Superman movie on the shelf or giving the long awaited Flash solo film more time to focus on a movie about openly gay vigilante Midnighter or The Spectre, the lustfully violent manifestation of God’s vengeful will, I think fans can forgive that hiatus. If Warner Bros. keeps with its intentions to release more content for adults, they should look deeper into the DC collection before hitting the green light.

If Joker and Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey are any indication, the R-rating is more of a blessing to superhero movies than the curse it may have been considered to be once before, and DC's best chance to rule the comic book movie scene again is to own their reputation as the home of the edgier stories your mother doesn't want you to know about.

For more updates on superhero stories for viewers young and old, be sure to check back here at CinemaBlend.

Jason Wiese
SEO Team Writer

Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.