Should we fear the end of the R-rated comic book superhero movie?

Warner Bros and Marvel have both distanced themselves from any more R-rated comic book hero movies, not helped by Watchmen’s takings. But is this a bad thing?

Zack Snyder's Watchmen

Warner Bros’ admission that it won’t be making any more R-rated comic book movies, as reported at the website IESB, was hardly the world’s biggest surprise. While Watchmen should have got through the $100m barrier at the US box office by the time this piece goes live (it’s, at the time of writing, at $99m after 19 days of release, with $60m brought in from international ticket sales), and while it’s bringing in a tidy sum overseas, there’s a convincing argument that had it been toned down for a PG-13 rating, its take would have been higher, in spite of it inevitably being very much to the detriment of the film (and that’s an understatement and a half).

The problem is that Warner Bros needed it to make a lot more money than that. Right now, Watchmen is going to struggle to overtake Paul Blart: Mall Cop at the 2009 box office, and may have a job on its hands to catch the Liam Neeson thriller Taken. It’s a good $30m behind the latter, and even with a harder cut re-release on the big screen, it’s simply going to struggle to get there.

The film cost around $150m to produce, and thus the theory is that with its current worldwide take of $160m, it’s in profit. Only the reality is that it’s still a long, long way away. Take out the cinema chains’ cut, the marketing costs, the distribution expenses and such like, and Watchmen‘s balance sheet is going to need the DVD release to turn green.

That, however, was likely to have been part of the plan from the start. Home DVD and Blu-ray sales still make up far more revenue than a cinematic release (not for nothing is the theatrical release often referred to as a trailer for the DVD), and Watchmen will live on for many years bringing cash into the Warner Bros vault. But its box office numbers have still scared studios away from the R rated comic book superhero movie.

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Marvel Studios had already beaten Warner Bros to the punch on this one. It has already said, no doubt while it was rolling in the cash brought in by Iron Man, that it wasn’t looking for R-rated comic book movies. And when you look at the numbers, you can understand why. The Dark Knight brought in a million over $1bn globally. Spider-man 3 made $890m. Iron Man a cool $582m.

To be fair to Warner Bros and Marvel here, the track record of the genre isn’t great in the R-rated department either. Blade II‘s $155m worldwide take – $82m of which was in the US – is one of the few commercial bright spots, whereas last year’s Punisher: War Zone drove another nail into the coffin, managing a worldwide take of just over $10m (leaving The Punisher franchise once again dormant. They’ll get Zac Efron in for the next reboot at this rate).

Non-superhero-specific comic book adaptations are still going to be fair game. The $450m worldwide take of 300 will see to that, and the upcoming Jonah Hex – based on the DC comic – is likely to earn an R rating, too. But these are surely the exceptions.


The most successful R-rated movie of all time, if you discount the phenomenon of The Passion Of The Christ (with its $370m US gross), was The Matrix Reloaded, with $738m worldwide, $281m of which came from the US. The rest of the top ten list though is packed out with few films that touch the comic book sphere, or a good number that are over ten years old. The first Beverly Hills Cop, The Exorcist, Saving Private Ryan, Wedding Crashers, Gladiator, Terminator 2 and Pretty Woman are all in there.

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And let’s do some quick sums, too. Take the entirety of the top 10 R-rated movies list at the US box office (including Passion Of The Christ), and the total American gross for them is $2.327bn. Repeat the exercise in the PG-13 category, and the total is $4.127bn. For G and PG-rated movies, it’s $3.696bn. The numbers don’t lie, and this is why we’re in a world where a tepid Incredible Hulk reboot will be outgrossing the far more ambitious Watchmen movie. It comes in part to the length of the film, but more tellingly, to the rating bestowed upon it.


It’s not tricky, therefore, to see why Warner Bros and Marvel are looking to go the way they are. Comic book movies, particularly superhero ones, are big business now, and the people who fund them want them to play to the broadest audience possible. So should we be worried about this?

Probably not, actually. Because there’s a mitigating factor or two here that makes all this a far easier pill to swallow than it first appears.

Perhaps the main one is the relative weakness of the ratings boards in the first place. We love The Dark Knight, but even we sat there and wondered how it got such a relaxed certificate. And the truth is that the MPAA and BBFC are businesses in their own right, too. It’s actually in their interests to make sure these films are seen as broadly as possible, and while that doesn’t mean letting any old movie through, a suggested cut or two here and there is the price a studio will pay for getting their film through. In the case of The Dark Knight, surely the interrogation sequence alone should have been enough to get a stiffer rating?

The long and short of that is that there’s room in the PG-13 bracket, until the next media campaign begins to toughen things up, for dark and brooding superhero movies. And that’s something the studios, we expect, will be looking to take even more advantage of.

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The second saviour of all of this is DVD. Directors of comic book and superhero movies have long since realised that the home entertainment market is the place for a harder cut of a movie. It’s almost the trade off: release the PG-13 edition of the film in cinemas, and we’ll let you have the bits you wanted to keep in on the DVD itself.

The downside, of course, is that it’s disappointing that we’ll not see a film so overtly aimed at adult comic book enthusiasts on the level of Watchmen for some time now, although we suspect that the door’s not shut entirely there. The DVD monies for the film, we’d predict, will be plentiful, and that may unlock one or two possibilities in the future. It may also mean that a bit more scope opens up in the mid-range budget field, although in the current climate, we wouldn’t expect progress there for a while.

Ultimately though, this is, if anything, a sign of the movie industry’s dependence on the comic book world for its genuine big hitters, and big new franchises, though. It’s a by-product of us seeing so many comic franchises realised on the big screen, and right now, it’s hard to think of too many films where the price of a PG-13 rating has been too tough to pay.

Whether that remains the case, of course, remains to be seen…

The IESB story is here.