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February 21, 2016

DOOLITTLE | From X-Men to R-Men: Do Superheroes Need to Be Bad?

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If you happened to see a movie over the break, it probably wasn’t Zoolander 2 or Kung Fu Panda 3. Why? Because those movies weren’t rated R, of course. Those movies aren’t edgy or cool. Audiences need gritty, dirty, violent, sexy movies that break the fourth wall — movies like Deadpool — to really get the dopamine flowing. Let’s have more of those, shall we?

COURTESY OF 20th CENTURY FOX

COURTESY OF 20th CENTURY FOX

That is, for worse or for worse, the message that Hollywood has received in the wake of Deadpool’s stunning, record-breaking debut, the highest opening weekend of all time for an R-rated film and for a February release. Right on the heels of this news, Fox reported that they would seek an R rating for their upcoming third — and final — Wolverine movie, the first of its kind in the series. If this last movie is indeed based on the “Old Man Logan” comic book arc, as the persistent rumors claim, the rating announcement seems apropos, but its impeccable timing with Deadpool raises concern. Their conclusion: Deadpool did so well because of its rating. But that’s simply not true. Nobody above the age of 17 chooses what film to see based solely on its rating. Just as man doth not live by bread alone, a movie doth not sell tickets by an R alone.

I worry that Hollywood has gleaned the wrong moral of the story. We don’t need a string of dark superhero movies chockful of eviscerations and innuendo. Heck, I enjoyed Deadpool. I wasn’t in love with it by any means, but it was a loving, authentic treatment of the Merc with a Mouth. The gore, sex and explicit language weren’t refreshing so much as the sincerity with which first-time director Tim Miller and star Ryan Reynolds approached the source material. This isn’t the neutered Deadpool of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but the real McCoy. Reynolds has entirely dedicated himself to a movie that he believes in, personally, and it shows.

While the majority of superhero movies seem like meaningless cash-grabs, Deadpool never really feels the same as the umpteenth Iron Man or Captain America movie. Fox was so wary of making Deadpool, an R-rated motormouth that banters with the audience, that it very nearly almost never happened. It wasn’t until somebody — maybe Reynolds, maybe Miller, who knows? — leaked test footage onto the internet that the studio began to pay attention. The video circulated the web, the response was legendary, and the rest is recent history.

Now, this is all not to say the R rating has no place in superhero cinema. My very favorite superhero movie, 2009’s Watchmen, was rated R, in part due to an extended sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that 14-year old me watched in a dark movie theatre next to my 73-year old grandfather. Good times. Like in Deadpool, the R was inherently vital to Watchmen; without it, the film could never have hoped to achieve the tone it was going for. If Kung Fu Panda 3 had been rated R after all, I doubt it would have had its desired tone, either.

Guardians of the Galaxy director and graphic novel guru James Gunn has become the de facto clarion voice for superhero movies, often taking to Facebook to criticize or to praise recent releases in the genre. Gunn worries that Hollywood will lose sight of what made Deadpool such a fun movie in the first place; not that it’s “raunchy” or “breaks the fourth wall,” but that it’s “good and original.” He summed it all up like so: “For the theatrical experience to survive, spectacle films need to expand their definition of what they can be. They need to be true and unique voices of the filmmakers behind them. They can’t just be copying what came before them.”

I must wholeheartedly echo Gunn’s sentiments. Originality is the greatest blessing a movie can possess, evoking a sense of surprise and wonder and novelty in the audience. The cardinal sin of filmmaking is, in my opinion, predictability, and while even Deadpool cannot fully rise above all the tropes and cliches of the superhero genre, it makes a most valiant effort. In order to continue making good superhero movies a la Deadpool, Guardians or Watchmen, studios must learn to pick stories — and storytellers — with integrity and vision, regardless of the rating.

Sean Doolittle is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at sdoolittle@cornellsun.com Pulp FictSean runs alternate Mondays this semester.

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