Marvel: PG-13 movies, R-rated TV shows?

Will Marvel ever make an R-rated comic book movie? And why is it taking such chances with its TV shows?

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Like a lot of new beginnings, it all started with an open door.

Unlike the majority of new beginnings however, the door in question was attached to an SUV. Even less predictably, said door was used to crush a man’s skull into little more than jelly. When Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk exacted a brutal (and graphic) measure of retribution at the expense of a Russian mob leader in the fourth episode of Netflix’s highly-regarded Daredevil series, it became clear to stunned viewers around the world that Marvel was pointing one Netflix-sized portion of their cinematic and television universe in a new and decidedly darker direction.

Looking back, this moment was especially shocking on a couple of different levels. Although the show itself had already featured some brutal hand-to-hand combat, shot and sequenced in a visceral style unlike anything previously seen within the MCU, nothing prepared viewers for the sight of an enraged Fisk furiously slamming the door on his helpless opponent, seemingly with the intention of separating his very head from his shoulders. In the money-shot that followed, ravaged remains of skull and brain matter leaked sloppily down to the cold, wet Hell’s Kitchen blacktop.

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In an instant, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had become a very different place. Previously characterised by talking trees and raccoons, by light-hearted banter and fisticuffs that didn’t end in aikido-style limb fractures, the shadowed streets and darkened alleys of Marvel’s New York had suddenly evolved into an altogether more violent place.

From a geographical perspective, Hell’s Kitchen may sit almost in the shadow of the neighboring Stark Tower as seen in the two Avengersmovies. But tonally? They’re a universe apart.

This sudden divergence into a darker world was perhaps also surprising given that Marvel has been owned by Disney since 2009. While it’s clear that Marvel Studios is run with a healthy degree of autonomy, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the ultimate bottom line is the one on the Mouse House’s balance sheet.

The much-publicised power struggle between Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige and CEO Ike Perlmutter is one such example of the clash between commerce and creativity that can exist within the company. Ostensibly, Marvel’s gradual reduction of their adult-themed MAX imprint (since their purchase by Disney) is a particular example of Disney lessening the violence to broaden their appeal (although slowing sales of the adult-oriantated line may not have helped). After all, it’s no secret that the logic behind their twin $4 billion purchases of Marvel and Lucasfilm was simply to attract more boys to their portfolio (although this, of course, is based on the old cliche that boys never watch princess films and girls never watch superhero movies. Help yourself to that in the comments, and save us the job).

Daredevil, though, isn’t the sort of show you’d let a youngster watch, no matter how into comics they might be. This in turn makes the company’s decision to cater to a more mature audience all the more gratifying to those older viewers that can sometimes feel spurned in the face of youth-centric reboots (Spider-Man’s One More Day/Brand New Day anyone?). With its car door decapitations and broken limbs aplenty, this is definitely one for the grown-ups. Marvel’s gamble to go with the hard R-rating for the first time since the ’90s era Blademovies has paid off handsomely: the rapturous critical reception that the show has received has opened up a completely new corner of the market for Marvel and their commercial partners to exploit.

And exploit it they have.

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Next up came Jessica Jones, also launching from Netflix back in November. This time Marvel took the mature approach beyond the realms of simple violence, choosing instead to chart a path into even darker psychological waters; the show adopted a frank outlook towards abuse and addiction, towards sex and alcohol as various means of filling the void left by exploitation and towards rape. Those who are familiar with the original Alias comic book series will of course know that all of these issues were explored in the source material; nonetheless, it was still a bold move by Marvel, and light years away from the sanitised tone set by their other television properties such as ABC’s Agents Of SHIELD and Agent Carter.

But where does this all lead? The indication is that, if anything, Marvel is actually looking to double-down on this adult-orientated approach. Recent reports suggest that the studio is looking to increase their R-rated portfolio with a Punisher-led show.

Much like Jessica Jones before him, the MCU version of Frank Castle (a.k.a. The Punisher) promises to be some seriously damaged goods. Several attempts have already been made to adapt The Punisher’s grim existence for the silver screen with debatable results; however, with Jon Bernthal reportedly impressing as the tortured anti-hero (during his upcoming Daredevil appearances) and a nihilistic tone well and truly established in the Netflix corner of the cinematic universe, Marvel will be hoping that this incarnation of the character will finally be the definitive one that fans have been craving.

The undoubted benefit of long-form storytelling will also be a boon in allowing Marvel to develop pathos for the character and differentiate him from your average gun-toting action hero. Long-time fans of the character will be no doubt hoping that the show’s writers will be taking inspiration from Garth Ennis’ legendary Punisher MAXrun; along with the previously mentioned Alias, Ennis’ darker take on the character is generally considered to be the high point of Marvel’s adult-only imprint and the seminal take on the man who wears the skull. Tales of human trafficking through to sharks graphically feasting on corporate criminals all feature throughout Ennis’ run but one thing is for sure: whether dealing with the dark underbelly of western society through haunting accounts of forced prostitution or gleefully satirising the improprieties of Corporate America, these are definitely tales for grown ups.

Should Marvel’s turn towards the dark side continue, what else can we expect to see further into the future?

It’s certainly unlikely that any of Marvel’s existing movie franchises will be adopting this darker approach. The Avengers and company are the company’s real cash cows and Marvel seem more than happy to continue courting the 12A sweet spot to maximise revenues. What about the possibility of Daredevil and the Defenders popping up in another property? Is it even tonally possible for the characters to cross over at this point?

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Although Marvel have thus far done an excellent job of creating an integrated universe where events in one intellectual property send ripples through others – it is still a little difficult trying to marry the light-hearted banter of The Avengers as they demolish a Hydra base with Matt Murdock’s struggle not to choke on his own blood or pass out from pain as he deals with thugs that the mighty Thor would pulverise in an instant.     

With the chances of a Civil Warappearance seeming remote and Cap and the gang becoming increasingly embroiled in struggles on a cosmic scale, it may be that the odds of our street-level heroes getting to share a little screen time with the MCU’s main-stage players are getting longer and longer each day.

Likewise for an Agents Of SHIELD crossover; for a show that seems to have only recently found its own identity as it enters its third season, a genre-mashing, tone-swinging crossover may not be the most prudent approach. However, Marvel do have options for The Defendersgoing forward that allow them to broaden the scope of a darker MCU while still retaining the grittier tone that have made the Netflix shows such a talked-about property.  

First up of course is Luke Cage. The character is next in line for an individual series following Jessica Jones and it’s a stone-cold certainty that we’ll see the streets of New York realised in their grimmest depiction yet. The character of Cage also had a MAX run of his own and the seedy underbelly of the city served less as a backdrop to the action and more as a character in its own right. In Cage’s city, the streets are awash with hoods, pushers and pimps; heroes can be hired but they sure don’t help for free. How much of this storyline (if any) will be used is open to question, but given Marvel’s apparent willingness to tread a darker path thus far, the book certainly captures a nihilistic tone that the series will presumably look to emulate.

And after that? Marvel do still have cards up their sleeves should they wish to develop the darker aspects of their universe for the silver screen too.

The company currently holds the rights to both Blade and Ghost Rider, two characters that certainly suit the darker, more violent tone of the Netflix shows; their supernatural backgrounds also provide slightly more grounded links to the supernatural/magical elements of the MCU than say, the Marvel Zombies turning up in Daredevilfor an all-out battle royale. Although supernatural in form, the character of Ghost Rider is physically bound to the streets through his demonic motorcycle and is long overdue a Marvel makeover after woeful treatment at the hands of Nicholas Cage’s wig (not to mention Columbia Pictures). It’s also worth noting that he briefly served with The Defenders in the comics too.

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Blade would make an equally good (if not better) choice to introduce the Netflix shows into the wider Marvel universe without sacrificing the dark mood that they’ve worked so hard to establish. The original two films in the Blade trilogy were rated as an 18 certificate in the UK and their ultra-violent approach would sit well with the tone of the Netflix shows while still allowing more mystical elements to filter gradually through just in time to segue nicely with Doctor Strange’s appearance at this year’s end.

Wesley Snipes himself has confirmed that he’s been in talks with Marvel, although it’s been quiet on that front for a while. 1998’s Blade is often credited as being the movie that “saved” superhero films, creating an umbilical cord of sorts between 1997’s batsuit-with-nipples-disaster Batman And Robin and 2000’s X-Men which in turn sparked the revival of the genre that we’re enjoying to this day. Whatever Blade’s status may be, there’s no doubt that his kung-fu skills would be right at home cracking skulls with Daredevil on Netflix.

Some fans of course will be hoping that Marvel choose to leave their street-level heroes in their own little corner of the MCU, content with the series’ tone and understandably apprehensive about upsetting the applecart with a shark-jumping appearance from Howard the Duck (scoff all you want, he did briefly join The Defenders back in the wild, wild seventies…). Others however, will be wishing for further integration into the wider world of Marvel and are no doubt eyeing the far-off Infinity War and wondering if our street-level heroes will have some part to play. What is certain though, is that Marvel has a game plan and the rest of us mere mortals will simply have to Netflix and Chill until they become clear.

But Daredevil breaking Thanos’ arm with some of those sick martial arts skills at the climax of Infinity War?

There’s another door you can gladly open on our account Marvel.