At this moment, the Marvel Cinematic Universe includes two phases, 12 films – spanning from 2008’s Iron Man to 2015’s Ant-Man – and four television series, which can further be broken down to the two TV shows on ABC, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, and the two on Netflix: Daredevil and Jessica Jones. In terms of its film slate, Marvel Studios has movies planned through 2019 (and dates scheduled through 2020), with Captain America: Civil War officially kicking off Phase 3. Meanwhile, ABC also has a handful of new shows in development that would join the MCU.
One of the more exciting corners of the MCU is Marvel and Netflix’s burgeoning New York City-based Defenders universe. The streaming service recently debuted the second season of Daredevil, the first season of the Luke Cage standalone series is set to premiere later this year, the star of the Iron Fist series was recently cast, and a second season of Jessica Jones is headed our way. With its focus on street-level crime and a more serious tone, the Defenders universe is a distinctively more adult corner of the MCU.
Season 2 of Daredevil hasn’t quite lived up to the critically acclaimed precedent set by season 1, but the show added two key characters to its roster: Frank Castle a.k.a. the Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Elektra Natchios (Élodie Yung) – the latter of whom had ties to the mystical organization, the Hand. Although TV doesn’t follow the exact same ratings system as movies, the additions of the Punisher and Elektra, along with the larger focus on the Hand, definitely helped Daredevil season 2 earn it’s TV-MA rating. In fact, Daredevil season 2 demonstrated that the MCU doesn’t need R-rated movies at all.
The discussion of R-rated comic book superhero movies has been around in some form or another for decades, but the success of 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool film brought the conversation to the forefront. Deadpool stars Ryan Reynolds as the Merc with a (bad) Mouth, who spends much of the film eviscerating evildoers on screen and trading foul-mouthed quips with his co-stars. Both the violence and the off-beat humor are a trademark of the character, and Reynolds in particular was a champion of securing an R rating for Deadpool.
That R rating – and all the opportunities for exciting bloody action beats and raunchy humor it granted – proved to be an important step in providing viewers with the best Deadpool film possible. In the weeks following Deadpool’s release, Fox reaped the rewards both in terms of critical praise and box office returns as the movie became the highest grossing R-rated comic book movie of all time.
However, as Hollywood began paying attention to this breakout R-rated comic book superhero hit, some, like Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, worried that the movie industry would take the wrong lessons from Deadpool – specifically that studios should clamor to include R-rated superhero movies into their release slates. In the time after Deadpool’s record-breaking opening weekend, reports indicated Fox would be aiming for an R rating for Wolverine 3. Additionally, news broke that Zack Snyder would be releasing an R-rated cut of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice on the film’s Blu-ray.
Certainly, there are superheroes who deserve R-rated movies because it would allow for better adaptations of their storylines or powers, but you won’t be seeing any of those R-rated superhero movies in the MCU. Disney CEO Bob Iger told reporters that they “don’t have any plans to make R-rated Marvel movies,” leaving little room for debate about the ratings of Marvel’s upcoming film slate.
While Iger’s statement might be disappointing to some, it could very well be argued that Marvel Studios doesn’t need to force an R-rated film into its slate while Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and their fellow Defenders series provide R-rated (or TV-MA, as it’s rated on television) counter-programming within the MCU. That’s not to say Marvel’s Netflix shows incorporate the same R-rated elements as Deadpool and act as the MCU’s version of the Merc with a Mouth; Daredevil and the other Netflix series have a much more sober tone than Deadpool’s off-beat humor (and viewers probably won’t ever see Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) get pegged by his girlfriend). However, the violence surrounding the various characters within the Defenders universe has become as important to their stories as it was to Deadpool’s.
In Daredevil season 2, violence is used to separate Matt Murdock from Frank Castle and establish their differing ideologies when it comes to their chosen methods of how to protect Hell’s Kitchen from the local criminal organizations. While Matt believes he doesn’t have the right to decide who deserves to live and die, whereas Frank has settled into his belief of being judge, jury, and an exceptionally bloody executioner before the season even begins.
Frank’s bloody methods are shown time and time again throughout season 2, especially in the first batch of episodes, but the show perfectly depicts the differences between Daredevil and the Punisher in their respective hallway scenes. While Daredevil leaves a pile of injured men behind him during his one-take stairwell fight scene, The Punisher rather eviscerates a hallway full of prison inmates later in the season. The scene is a literal bloodbath, ending with Frank sporting a bloodstain homage to the Punisher’s typical skull-painted costume. Is the violence particularly graphic? Yes, but that’s part of The Punisher’s character.
Violence isn’t only instrumental to Daredevil, it also seems to be an intrinsic element in the other Marvel Netflix series. Jessica Jones season 1 may not have included as much on screen violence as Daredevil season 2, but much of the season deals with the repercussions of violent acts committed by characters, violence they’ve suffered, or a combination of both.
Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) herself is forced to deal with the guilt of killing an innocent woman, while also coming to terms with the effects on her mental health that have arisen following her enslavement by Kilgrave (David Tennant). Sure, when we meet Jessica in the first episodes of the season, she largely deals with her past by drinking bottles of whiskey and making quips to Luke Cage (Mike Colter). But the emotional effects of violence on a person’s psyche is one of the main themes of the season, and is explored through Jessica and Kilgrave as well as Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) and Will Simpson (Wil Traval).
Furthermore, though all we’ve seen from Luke Cage in terms of actual footage is the short teaser released along with Daredevil season 2, set photos of the titular character seemed to indicate that the show will tackle the politically charged topic of racial violence in its inaugural season. Of course, we don’t know exactly what role violence will play in Luke Cage season 1 – though his indestructible skin certainly hints at the potential to tie into larger cultural discussions about violence – but the fact remains that Marvel’s Netflix series are developed with the freedom of a TV-MA rating in mind and employ violence to explore certain character and story arcs.
Certainly, the MCU has become so massive over the past six years that it has begun to resemble the complicated connecting/disconnected storytelling of its comic book source material. But just as the disconnected corners of the MCU benefit each individual piece of media by allowing it to flourish on its own, the different tones of the Marvel movies, the ABC series, and the Netflix shows help to add diverse means of storytelling to the MCU.
As such, the Marvel Netflix series use R-rated violence to explore their characters in a number of different ways across Daredevil and Jessica Jones and likely on Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders as well. But, just like Deadpool, these series weren’t successful because of their use of R-rated violence. Rather, they told compelling stories that needed to be rated R or TV-MA in order to do their characters and story arcs justice.
So, with Marvel’s Netflix shows using the freedom of their TV-MA ratings to explore their characters, there’s little reason for the film side of the MCU to venture into R-rated territory – especially when it would be an abrupt about-face from the family-friendly tone of their entire movie slate, and doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Certainly, there are fans hoping for an R-rated Marvel Studios feature down the line, and with the MCU continually expanding there’s nothing to say that won’t ever happen (aside from Disney CEO Bob Iger). But, the MCU already has more than enough mature content in its Netflix series. Plus, if Daredevil season 2 is any indication, the shows may embrace their TV-MA ratings even more as they go along.
Daredevil seasons 1 & 2 and Jessica Jones season 1 are now available on Netflix. Luke Cage season 1 will arrive on September 30th, 2016. Release dates for Jessica Jones season 2, Iron Fist, and The Defenders on Netflix have not yet been announced.
Captain America: Civil War opens in U.S. theaters on May 6, 2016. Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; Inhumans– July 12, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on May 1, July 10 and November 6, 2020.