After the success of Deadpool (2016), making an R-rated superhero movie within a pre-existing heavyweight franchise no longer seemed like such a chancy move for studios. Adult-rated superhero movies had been done before of course – Watchmen, Dredd, Kick-Ass and Blade to name a few – but never had one within such financially successful series been attempted in modern times. Being apart of the X-Men lineup, Deadpool was the first of its kind to venture outside its comfort zone regarding mass target audiences.
Fast forward one year and now we’ve got Logan (2017). Not only a swansong for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, but also the first film in a long while in which a beloved and mainstream character is no longer restricted to a family age rating. Director James Mangold and screenwriters Michael Green & David James Kelly are free to tell a story containing themes or imagery considered “adult” in nature. Logan isn’t merely pandering to everyone and their dogs, but is much smaller in terms of which demographic it chooses to target.
The idea of an R-rated blockbuster has tickled people’s fancies for quite some time now. The past couple of decades have been littered with franchises trying desperately to cater for mass mainstream audiences, meaning much of the content has been censored and streamlined as a result. Many have yearned for the days in which The Terminator (1984), Predator (1987), Aliens (1986) and Robocop (1987) headlined at the local multiplexes and cinema houses. The fact that one of the most successful comic book characters of modern times was now finally set to get his claws genuinely bloody made many jump for joy.
Yet one of the questions those who’ve squealed with delight over the thought of adult-oriented blockbusters don’t always ask is, what is it exactly about R-rated films that make them so sought after? Why is having a film free to be violent and profanity-ridden superior to one which isn’t?
There are a numerous reasons as to why of course, yet one of the ways in which it can be considered a bonus is because it frees up some films to tell a particular type of story in a manner it may struggle to otherwise tell. Not all movies need to be graphic or full of swearing to allow their stories to breathe of course, however some are arguably more effective when they don’t have to worry about pleasing the younglings and easily unsettled.
To make a case in point, let’s look at the 2010 superhero flick Kick-Ass. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, Kick-Ass centred around a high school kid named Dave Lizewski who one day decides to become a superhero despite having no special abilities and zero training. Although not belonging to a pre-existing, cash-grabbing multi-cinematic universe, the film was one of the first superhero flicks in a while to limit its target audience to adults only. It decided to examine the idea that if superheroes were real, the world they occupied would most likely be exceptionally violent and downright absurd. It wasn’t in any way a realistic portrayal of superheroes. What it was, however, was a satire explicitly pointing out how homicidal, brutal and insane a comic book universe would be if such a realm existed. The story would have been a lot more difficult to tell on a visual level if the studio decided to make it a PG-13. It would have been possible to an extent, however Matthew Vaughn would have had a far tougher time telling it if this had been the case.
Another instance of an adult-oriented text using its lack of censorship to great effect is the TV mini series Torchwood: Children of Earth (2010). Children of Earth managed to explore metaphors and themes surrounding pedophilia, class discrimination and the horrors committed by governments during times of crisis in a chillingly effective manner. If Children of Earth decided to cater for a multi demographic audience, it would have had to heavily censor, obscure and remove vast chunks of its themes and story in order to be deemed acceptable. It would end up becoming an entirely different beast altogether; hinting at potential subject matters and avoiding numerous parts all together. It would remove, blur, encrypt and rewrite most the narrative in order to have it appeal to not only younger audiences, but to those seeking something less disturbing.
R-ratings allow some stories to dive into the murky depths of difficult subject matters in ways multi-demographic films/tv shows would struggle to in particular circumstances. That’s not to say family oriented shows/films can’t dabble in the waters of challenging and controversial topics of course. It’s just removing an age limit can give particular narratives much more freedom to explore routes it may be restricted from otherwise.
Making an R-rated film as opposed to a PG-13 isn’t an advantage because it can simply include sex, gore and profanity for the hell of it; but because it can give filmmakers in certain circumstance both the liberty to explore ideas in ways otherwise potentially limited as well as allowing them to use explicit content in order to evoke or amplify specific themes and narratives. Having graphic content in a story where the world and themes are inherently graphic makes for a much more authentic piece. It can serve to liberate a given feature by letting it reflect the nature of the story playing out on screen. If the world of that particular tale is a world drowning in violence and horror, then removing censorship from its runtime allows it to reflect that far more efficiently.
Wolverine is a character whose past, present and future is soaked in bloodshed. He’s had a traumatic past and is living in a world falling to pieces at the seams. To restrict Logan from showing the brutality existing around the protagonist would force it back into the realm of fantasy. This is fine of course – as the film’s source material stems from that of a comic book – yet by raising the age certificate, we can finally get a glimpse of what this character would look like in a story more fitting to the world we all know he really belongs to. The X-Men series has dealt with relatively adult themes from its source material in the PG-13 films before (the metaphors surrounding civil rights and LGBTQIA+ discrimination to name but two), however when it comes to the body horror and anguish contained within some of its storylines, it’s a little harder to portray properly without an age restriction.
So how much does Logan take advantage of this new found freedom of sans censorship? Well an awful lot as a matter of fact. There’s an obscene amount of violence and profanity crammed into its two hour and 21 minute runtime, making this one of the most unrestrained and brutal comic book movies to be released in recent years.
Yet the abundant use of gore contributes to the story being told in a highly effective manner. As mentioned above, the character of Logan/Wolverine is one fuelled by pain and suffering, and this story represents that meticulously. Logan is set it a broken and agonising land fetid with a stench of despair. Nothing about it is pleasant or kind. The fallout of Logan’s world, the way in which child mutants are treated as insentient weapons undeserving of humanity, and the concept of Charles Xavier’s exceptionally powerful mind deteriorating into a WMD are exceedingly grim subject matters to tackle. The characters occupying the heart of this narrative are dealing with horrors and threats more awful than the nightmares of many.
The frequent use of violence depicted in its runtime adds to the barbarity and ruthlessness of this world. No one is safe, nothing is kind, everything is void of mercy. The heavy use of swearing also contributes to this characteristic. Having Charles regularly spit swear words strengthens the notion of a brilliant man’s civility slipping as his mind regresses. The heavy use of f-bombs from characters in general also helps to communicate the fury and distress brought about by the surrounding environment. Charles and Logan are suffering, they are decent men in an indecent land; deteriorating and agonising over severe misfortune.
Excessive use of graphic imagery also makes the characters at the centre of the story seem more real and human. Because amongst all the gore and dread playing out on screen, the three core protagonists trying to flee the pain and cruelty of that world are the ones who matter most. The scene in which Logan, Charles and Laura are sat round a table having dinner with the family they helped is one example within a great number of beautifully performed and phenomenally powerful sequences. The fact there’s so much awfulness going on around them makes moments like these seem all the more genuine and heartbreaking. It hammers home the fact that Logan is a tale about three souls searching for hope in a hopeless world.
Furthermore, not only does the extreme violence help to enhance this sense of prospect in a futile realm, but it also raises the stakes in a way past Wolverine films have struggled to. The brutality of all happening means no one is safe. Everyone around Logan run the risk of losing their lives at any second, and most likely in a vile manner. Seeing as Wolverine has been portrayed as an immortal who runs no risk of dying in past films means there’s been no stakes. Yet the dangers set up by the violence here makes for a far greater level of tension.
Plus such risks don’t just end with Logan’s friends, because the cold cruelty of this film means even the lead protagonist himself isn’t safe either. The grittiness and savagery extends to his own mortality. The fight sequences are rough, rugged and visibly painful. It’s not just the surrounding world and Charles who’s falling apart, the immortal Wolverine is crumbling at the seams too. He’s growing mortal thanks to adamantium poisoning, no longer able to heal deep chest wounds and struggles to successfully push his claws through puss-filled hands. The film’s overwhelming sense and depiction of hurt showcases the deterioration of Logan’s health in astonishing detail.
Abundant use of bloodshed, ferocity and cursing aren’t used just for the hell of it, but are done so because the story absolutely needs it. To take all of that out and turn it into a film made for everyone would have been a poor move. At a push, with a PG-13, you’d have probably been able to make a mediocre movie which plays out in a barren wasteland and focuses on a protagonist who’s immortality was fading. If they did decide to execute the film this way however, it would have been nowhere near as effective, authentic or heartbreaking.
In conclusion Logan’s R-rating status is justified. Fox haven’t just produced a violent X-Men movie because it’s “cool”, but because the story they’re telling functions far more dramatically without censorship obscuring its visual landscape and ferocious subject matter.
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