Over the past two decades, the popularity of superhero and/or comic book movies has risen greatly, thanks to the successes of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise, Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Warner Bros’ DC Extended Universe. Starting off in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Fox’s mutant universe is the oldest of the current ongoing blockbuster franchises based on comic book superheroes. The X-Men cinematic world has seen both financial success and critical failure, ranging from X-Men: Days of Future Past to the spinoff X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
However, since the studio’s prequel trilogy wrapped up in 2016 with X-Men: Apocalypse – which seemed to set up a shift in the franchise – the exact direction of the main series remains unclear. X-Men universe producer Simon Kinberg is reportedly working on a script for the 1990s-set followup to Apocalypse and The Fault in Our Stars director Josh Boone is working on a New Mutants movie, which may launch a trilogy. Additionally, a sequel to last year’s Deadpool is in the works, the as-yet-unnamed Deadpool 2 aiming for a 2018 release; with Fox confirming plans of Deadpool 3 that will unite the X-Force. Plus, a solo Gambit movie is still in development.
In terms of what is immediately next for Fox’s X-Men franchise, Hugh Jackman is donning the mutton chops and adamantium claws one more time for the third solo Wolverine movie, James Mangold’s Logan. In addition to supposedly being Jackman’s last outing as the X-Men hero, Logan is expected to be the second R-rated entry in Fox’s mutant universe, following in the footsteps of Deadpool – though it has yet to receive an official R rating from the MPAA. According to Mangold, they were able to make Logan R-rated because Jackman took a paycut on the film, likely to offset the possibility that the movie would earn less at the box office than a PG-13 X-Men movie.
Although Logan has yet to be released, early buzz for the Wolverine film suggests it will be a critical and financial success – reactions to footage of the opening act and early screenings has been immensely positive, while fans have additionally responded well to the film’s trailers. And, with Logan seemingly poised to be another success on top of Deadpool’s record-breaking box office earnings and awards recognition, Fox should continue making R-rated X-Men movies.
Diversify the Superhero Movie Genre
As already indicated, the superhero movie genre in Hollywood has become packed. In 2017 alone, comic book fans have a number of films to look forward to: Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Justice League among others. Movies set within the MCU and DCEU have all earned PG-13 ratings for their theatrical cuts – though the Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition was rated R – and it’s likely they’ll continue this trend in 2017.
With the exception of Logan, it would seem all of the major live-action 2017 comic book movies will be rated PG-13. As such, Logan is cornering the market on R-rated superhero movies this year – just as Deadpool did much of the same in 2016, at least in terms of theatrical releases. If comic book fans want to see a violence-heavy action/adventure film featuring a classic superhero – with the added bonus of seeing beloved characters like Wolverine and Professor X drop a few f-bombs – Logan is it.
While the MCU has nailed down a formula that allows for some deviation in order to diversify its titles, each installment in the comic book franchise is noticeably a Marvel film – which has led to some criticism and fatigue. Meanwhile, the DECU is still establishing itself, but many would agree that the franchise has attempted something different than Marvel – a more real-world and gritty take on its superheroes, which has been divisive among viewers. Even Fox’s X-Men franchise has maintained a steady identity characterized by its large casts, themes of mutants as outsiders, and a hard-to-follow continuity.
But, even as studios differentiate their shared universes as much as possible, they may be hindered by aiming for exclusively PG-13 ratings. Logan, however, looks to be different from all other comic book superhero movies, even those within the X-Men universe. Thanks to its R-rating, Logan seems capable of loosely adapting Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan storyline, tackling universal themes such as family, and allowing Wolverine to truly flex his adamantium claws, creating brutal and bloody – and entertaining – fight sequences. This balance of movie elements is unique to Logan and would have been near impossible without the chance of an R-rating.
Similarly, fans were relieved when it was announced Deadpool would be rated R – through an appropriately violent video featuring Ryan Reynolds suited up as the Merc with a Mouth – since many believed Fox couldn’t do the character justice in a PG-13 movie (citing X-Men Origins: Wolverine as an example). Thanks to the R-rating, director Tim Miller, screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, and the film’s cast were able to provide a uniquely refreshing movie that featured Deadpool’s at-times meta, at-times raunchy humor – and plenty of violence mixed with the comedy.
While there will of course always be an audience for PG-13 comic book movies, the market has become saturated in superhero media. Arguably, Marvel Studios has been able to have its cake and eat it too thanks to its PG-13 movies and more grounded, violent Netflix series – in particular, the second season of Daredevil featured plenty of violence thanks to The Punisher. But, there is need for comic book adaptations to diversify across the board, and tapping into R-rated material may be one way in which Fox can do just that with its X-Men universe.
Financial Success is Possible
Fox’s Deadpool is an atypical comic book movie. The project languished in development for over a decade, saw Ryan Reynolds portray a highly criticized adaptation of the character in a different movie, then finally received a green light after leaked test footage received an immensely positive reaction. Thanks to the character’s cult following and the buzz built around the movie by unique marketing, Deadpool was a financial and critical success. In fact, Deadpool proved with its box office revenue that R-rated movies can see great financial success.
In its debut weekend alone, Deadpool broke the record for highest box office opening in February, and far surpassed the opening weekend of all previous X-Men franchise movies – including Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, both of which were rated PG-13. In the ensuing weeks, Deadpool broke the record of Zack Snyder’s 300 as the highest grossing R-rated comic book adaptation, then became the top grossing R-rated movie ever.
When all was said and done, Deadpool earned $783 million worldwide, making it the highest grossing X-Men film – and on a budget of $58 million, compared to Days of Future Past’s $200 million and Apocalypse‘s $178 million. To put it in perspective against other comic book movie universes, Deadpool’s final totals are higher than Man of Steel and Suicide Squad (though not Batman V Superman) and the majority of the MCU’s entries, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Doctor Strange.
Certainly, Deadpool isn’t necessarily the best test case for R-rated superhero movies considering its strange path to the theater – rather, it’s more of a best case scenario. But, it does send a positive message that there is a potentially untapped market in rated R superhero films. As studios attempt to diversify their comic book offerings, Deadpool has proved R-rated content may be worth exploring – and, in fact, the film encouraged Fox to give Mangold a chance on the (likely) R-rated Logan.
Rated R Potential
Of course, Fox shouldn’t explore the possibilities of more R-rated X-Men movies just for the sake of amping up the violence or sexuality or raunchy humor in a film – especially if the story doesn’t necessarily warrant it. Attempting to churn out R-rated comic book movies simply for the sake of them being rated R likely won’t end in the same critical and financial success as Deadpool or the positive early buzz around Logan. More likely, it would turn off comic book fans.
That said, comics are a vast and diverse medium full of all kinds of stories – including those that would be rated R if they were faithfully adapted to the big screen. Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan, for one, is an example of a more violent comic book storyline – one utilizing a character that had been established in an all-ages series. Marvel even launched a comic imprint in the early 2000s called MAX that specialized in R-rated content, and which ran titles starring Deadpool and Wolverine.
Over in the DC realm, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke is a seminal story arc, which did see a recent R-rated adaptation, albeit animated (though both the original comic and the 2016 film have received a great deal of criticism for the portrayal of Barbara Gordon). The fact is, there is mature content in the comic book world that has earned plenty of fans due to its well-crafted storylines, which wouldn’t be the same if toned down for a PG-13 film. R-rated comic book movies give filmmakers a chance to adapt beloved material and do it justice – mature themes and violence and all.
Of course, Fox is limited to stories within the X-Men universe and, if Jackman does hang up his claws after Logan – leaving the studio to retire the character indefinitely or recast the hero – it might be some time before they’re comfortable producing an R-rated film featuring Wolverine. That said, Deadpool is already establishing an R-rated franchise (though it’s not official, it seems likely Deadpool 2 and 3 will be rated R), with the third film reportedly uniting the X-Force. Plus, if Jackman doesn’t officially retire as Wolverine, he could join forces with Deadpool for a team-up film that would no doubt entertain plenty of Marvel fans.
X-Force is one mutant-related property in particular that many have been hopeful would be R-rated. Following the release of Deadpool last year, X-Men producer Simon Kinberg teased that he thought an X-Force movie could be R-rated – later reiterating his thoughts on the property’s potential R-rating as something Fox would be open to. For his part, Ryan Reynolds has also voiced support of an R-rated X-Force film, and it seems all but guaranteed with the team set to appear in the third Deadpool movie. So, there’s certainly more potential for R-rated offerings within the X-Men universe, it’s just a matter of finding the stories that necessitate the rating.
In addition to supporting the idea of an R-rated X-Force movie, Kinberg has said that the main X-Men movies will likely never be rated R – which certainly stays in line with the franchise thus far. But, now that the X-Men universe has begun to grow beyond the main franchise to include Wolverine and Deadpool solo series (not to mention the possibility of other characters getting standalone features along the line of Gambit), Fox’s superhero world has room for more R-rated fare.
Of course, R-rated superhero movies won’t always be more successful than the PG-13 films – Deadpool is a special case, after all, and didn’t manage to surpass the box office revenues of MCU heavy hitters like Captain America: Civil War, Iron Man 3, and both Avengers movies. Still, if Logan performs well at the box office, it will further prove that smaller-budgeted R-rated comic book movies can be financially successful. Plus, mature comic stories are an unexplored area in superhero media, at least when it comes to big screen adaptations. If Fox continues to put out R-rated movies within their X-Men universe, they’ll be the only studio with mature entries in their cinematic superhero world.
That said, while Deadpool was successful enough to earn the trust of Fox for two additional installments following the Merc with a Mouth, Logan will be a test of whether more serious R-rated fare can be see similar success. As such, the possibility of further R-rated X-Men films likely rests on the shoulders of Logan. Though early buzz is positive, it remains to be seen whether Mangold and Jackman’s Wolverine movie lives up to expectations. But, if Logan is officially rated R and it earns both critical and financial success, Fox should put even more R-rated X-Men movies into active development.