Deadpool, and the box office of R-rated comic book films

Deadpool's opening weekend proves that people will turn out R-rated comic book movies. But they have been doing since the 1970s...

Deadpool – an X-Men spin-off for Ryan Reynolds’ ‘Merc With The Mouth’ – is in cinemas now, and in spite of its R-rated tag, it’s shattered the box office ceiling for February releases with a stunning $260m global opening weekend. Maybe this is the point where Hollywood realises that if it makes the right R-rated movie – Deadpool, rather than Jonah Hex – people will turn up.

That R stands for Restricted, meaning that under-17s in America will havehad  to be accompanied by an adult if they wanted to see Deadpool in cinemas this weekend. It’s a 15-certificate film to me and other denizens of the British Isles, meaning that no under-15s this side of the pond will be permitted to see it in cinemas.

Given the way these Deadpool age ratings have garnered such hype (and, in just one or two places, a tiny bit of outrage), the uninitiated onlooker would be forgiven for thinking that there had never been an R-rated comic book movie before. However, there have actually been loads. The only reason that some cinemagoers may not be familiar with them is because that they tend not to make as much cash as, say, The Avengers or The Dark Knight.

Here’s our brief history of R-rated comic book movies, then, and how well they all did…

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In 1972, before Richard Donner’s Superman or Tim Burton’s Batman, another comic book character had already made it to the big screen – Fritz The Cat, who starred in an X-rated (18 to UK readers) animated movie based on the comic strip adventures seen in the magazines Help! and Cavalier.

The hedonistic feline voiced by Skip Hinnant raked in over $90 million worldwide and still stands as the most financially successful independent animated feature of all time. This serves as proof that, decades before Deadpool, audiences were already interested in seeing comic strip characters behaving badly on the big screen.

Jump forward to 1982 and John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian movie – based on Robert E Howard’s pulp magazine/comic book character of the same name – was released with an R-rating in the USA. Here in the UK it was cut down to make for an AA (14 and up) rating. It may have polarised the critics, but the movie made just under $70 million worldwide and made a star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In this period there was also 1981’s R-rated Heavy Metal animated movie based on the comics-stuffed magazine of the same name (which took over $20 million worldwide, doubling its budget), and the 1988 Manga-inspired Akira animation which is said to have made $750 million in Japan alone and still earns adoration from fans and critics today. So, successful R-rated comic book adaptations are hardly a new thing.

The 1990s

The R-rated comic book movie continued to find success in the 1990s. While Warner Bros’ Batman franchise gobbled up cash in the family market (all of those films, from Burton to Schumacher, were PG-13 rated), more mature comic book movies were making decent money as well.

In 1994, James O’Barr’s Caliber Comics series The Crow was adapted into a big screen R-rated movie with Brandon Lee in the title role. The movie was much-talked-about, not least due to Lee’s tragic death on set. The film made money, garnering over $50 million from a budget of just $23 million. Not much by modern standards, of course, but not to be sniffed at in context either (admittedly, its sequels didn’t fare as well).

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1994 also saw Jean-Claude Van Damme starring in an R-rated adaptation of the Dark Horse Comics series Timecop. This film made bank, too, with over $100 million in global box office receipts.

1995 then brought us the Sylvester Stallone-starring Judge Dredd movie which, despite not receiving glowing notices (ahem), recouped its budget and then some with a then-decent $113 million global gross.

And, of course, the Wesley Snipes-starring Blade franchise kicked off in 1998. By my calculations, this vampire-hunting Marvel Comics adaptation surpassed every R-rated superhero movie that preceded it. It took $131 million worldwide from a budget of just $40 million, across its cinematic run.

So, anyone looking for evidence that demand for R-rated comic book movies is a new modern day phenomenon, think again. These types of movies were doing just fine back in the 1990s. They may not have made the same levels of cash as Titanic or other ginormous movies of that decade, but R-rated comic book films were carving out their own little corner of Hollywood quite nicely.

Superheroes of the 2000s

The 2000s were a big decade for R-rated superhero movies. Firstly, Blade II stormed box offices for Marvel Enterprises and New Line Cinema in 2002. It beat the first film and took $155 million worldwide. Then, in 2006, Blade: Trinity took $128 million from a $65 million budget, marking the lowest-grossing film of the franchise but still not making a loss.

Perhaps inspired by the success that New Line Cinema had found with Blade and Blade II, Marvel Enterprises/20th Century Fox’s 2003 Daredevil movie nearly ended up with an R-rating. Ultimately, it was a 15 in the UK but a PG-13 in America. An R-rated director’s cut was later released. All in all, the film made $179 million globally from a budget of $78 million, topping all of the Blade movies (Daredevil’s spin-off, Elektra, was a 12A, if you were wondering).

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Marvel had also brought in Lionsgate to distribute a different R-rated movie for them – The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane, which came out in 2004. This film was less of a success than any of the Blade movies, taking just $54.7 million from a $33 million budget.

The 2008 reboot Punisher: War Zone did worse still, making just $10 million worldwide from a budget of $35 million. That one was more violent, and earned an 18-certificate in the UK. Over in the states it was R-rated, though.

DC Comics weren’t just sitting around twiddling their thumbs at this time. In 2005, Warner Bros distributed the Keanu Reeves-starring Constantine movie, based on characters from DC’s Vertigo imprint. It made $230 million from a budget of $100 million. It cost a bit more than Marvel’s R-rated projects, then, but also made significantly more.

And in 2009, another DC property arrived in cinemas with a non-children-friendly rating – Watchmen, which was an 18 in the UK and an R in America. From a $130 million budget, this dark ‘n’ gritty superhero story from director Zack Snyder took $185 million at the worldwide box office. Again, it cost more than any R-rated Marvel project at the time, but also made more money than any of them. Watchmen, though, was to be something of a turning point. Warner Bros already had Jonah Hex in the oven at that point, but it retreated from expensive R-rated comic book movies in the aftermath of Watchmen‘s box office.

After all, you may have spotted that there’s a bit of a glass ceiling started to form, here. Constantine is the only movie that we’ve mentioned so far that topped $230 million at the global box office. By the comparison, the first X-Men movie (a 12 in the UK, PG-13 in the States) took $296 million from a budget of $75 million.

And Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie – a 12A here and a PG-13 in the States – made over $820 million globally from a budget of $139 million. The franchise continued to operate at around that level, with Spider-Man 3 making the most of the three with $890 million.

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By comparison, R-rated comic book movies were a long way short of the pace at this time. They could comfortably make $100 million, but it was rare in the 2000s that they’d get much higher than that. Is it any wonder, then, why we don’t see as many of them these days?

Everything else of the 2000s

Before we move on to the 2010s, it’s worth quickly remembering that superheroes weren’t the only comic book adaptations gracing screens in the 2000s. For example, prior to making Watchmen Zack Snyder made a name for himself by helming 300, a Warner Bros adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s Dark Horse Comics series of the same name.

Not suffering from the same $230 million glass ceiling of the 2000s-era R-rated superhero films, 300 took an immense $456 million worldwide from a $65 million budget. It was a 15 in the UK and an R in the States. Very impressive, that, isn’t it?

The other notable R-rated comic book movie blockbuster of the 2000s was Sin City, which was also inspired by Frank Miller-penned Dark Horse Comics property. The film – directed by Miller himself, along with Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino – made $158 million from $40 million upon its release in 2005. Not as much as 300, then, but still a fair amount.

There was also: V For Vendetta, which took $132 million from $54 million in 2006; A History Of Violence, which made $60 million from $32 million; and Wanted, which raked in $341 million from $75 million. Admittedly, though, the casual viewer may not have known that those ones were based on comic books. The same goes for the likes of From Hell, Surrogates and Road To Perdition.

The 2010s

This is the decade in which Marvel Studios have really found box office dominance. They’ve done it without a single R-rated movie, leaving the darker end of their superhero spectrum to Netflix while stuffing cinemas with more bankable quips, capes and crossovers.

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The 2010s haven’t been completely without R-rated comic book movies, though. In 2010 we got Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic, which made $96 million globally from a modest budget of $30 million. In 2013, its sequel Kick-Ass 2 made $60 million from an even more modest $28 million (with Jeff Wadlow in the director’s chair on that one).

There were also R-rated sequels to 300 and Sin City, both of which arrived in 2014 and starred Eva Green. 300: Rise Of An Empire made an impressive $337 million from a budget of $110 million, while Sin City: A Dame To Kill For made a disappointing $39 million from a budget of $65 million.

We got an awesome Dredd movie in 2012, too, which came with an 18-certificate in the UK and an R-rating in the USA. Sadly, it failed to recoup its budget at the global box office, making $35 million from a budget of $50 million. The film has done solid DVD sales since, but no one is in a hurry to green light a sequel.

After jumping ships to the 12A/PG-13 world with X-Men: First Class ($353 million from a $160 million budget, if you were wondering), Matthew Vaughn returned to the R-rated comic book movie scene in 2015 with Kingsman: The Secret Service, another Mark Millar adaptation. The spy-based action comedy was a huge success, garnering $414 million globally from a budget of $81 million. A sequel is believed to be on the way.

Clearly, then, there’s still a market for R-rated comic book movies. Any idea can ignite interest, and when it’s something as fresh and unique as Kingsman, audience members will still head to the cinema for a kid-unfriendly comic book flick. Marvel Studios may not want to wade into this game, but there are still spoils to be had for those brave enough to green light R-rated comic book films.

So, what next?

The future of the R-rated comic book movie was set to hinge on the success of Deadpool. It may just be now that all bets are off. Deadpool is, for one, Fox’s first foray away from family friendly ratings within their massive X-Men franchise. Studio heads from other companies will, we suspect, be rummaging through their files this week in search of similar material aimed at a similar audience. It surely helps too that the movie was made for a small-by-superhero-standards budget of $58 million, so it doesn’t have to make much to go into profit (for comparison: Ant-Man cost $130 million to make).

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Deadpool now looks set to crash through at least $500m worldwide (although it won’t be getting a lucrative release in China, given that it doesn’t have permission to unleash the movie there), and that would put it ahead of most X-Men films, and the likes of Ant-Man. We can but hope that this offers fresh big screen life for a non-blunted Blade or even a cinematic revival for The Punisher. And heck, let’s dream: what about an R-rated Batman spin-off? Or – please – Dredd 2?

We’ll have to wait and see. But Deadpool‘s massive success may just be greasing some wheels…

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