In the early days of comic books, characters were often seen in black-and-white - in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Characters were either good or bad, and there was no in-between or gray area. The heroes didn't struggle with an internal debate regarding their overall philosophical impact on the world, or even if they should kill a villain. Rather, heroes were always the good guys in the white hat, role models for young children, who helped the old lady cross the street, saved cats from trees, and brushed their teeth before bedtime.
Trying to view decades-old characters through a moral filter created during a time when societal norms were entirely different may seem naive, but when it comes to children (those younger than 14 and especially those under 10), many parents still hold movies to those standards. As society evolved to expand its moral gray area, so did comic book characters - often embracing the unsanitized conflict most readers felt on a day-to-day basis. Comics handled many taboo subjects that a lot of TV shows and movies were just too afraid to address at the time - such as domestic violence, racial tension, interracial marriage, and homosexuality.
With these new and ever-expanding worlds of superheroes came more frank and graphic depictions of sex and violence, which opened the doors for comic book writers and artists to explore more mature storylines. That has carried over into the movies based on those comics, but is this kind of content something that parents necessarily want Hollywood introducing to their children at a theater?
In the early days of comic book movies - that is to say the camp-fest that was Batman: The Movie in 1966 - the sub-genre was trying to find its footing while still appealing to a mass audience. Even the more "adult" Superman in 1978 sanitized many of the topics the Son of Krypton was dealing with regarding love, loss and moral conflict in order to achieve that wallet-opening, audience sweet-spot known as the PG rating.
Beyond the obvious financial appeal of keeping a movie PG, it was almost expected that a movie based on a comic book was going to be kid-friendly - or at the very least, family friendly - because of the way comic characters were (and, in some ways, still are) perceived - as white hat-wearing good guys. Hollywood continued that trend with each of the remaining Superman movies, but it wasn't until Spawn opened in 1997 that the first R-rated comic book movie hit theaters.
Of course, this didn't concern the studio at all because they knew most parents wouldn't be dragging their sub-10 year old children to the theater to watch a violent action-horror, R-rated movie. From there, R-rated comic book movies became the normal place to find cussing, violence, and overt sexuality - all things general moviegoers wouldn't typically associate with the idea of a superhero.
Most comic book fans are well aware of what constitutes a good anti-hero, and would have been disappointed had any of those characters been sanitized for the almighty dollar. Blade, Spawn, The Punisher, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Deadpool, The Watchmen - all these characters have thrived in the creative freedom that embracing the R-rating (or, in the case of TV shows, the TV-MA rating) gave them. However, does that mean all comic book movies should continuously press that line between PG-13 (essentially the new PG) and R?
A little background on me for perspective: I'm the parent of a 14 year old girl and a 9 year old boy. There are things I will allow my daughter to watch, that I won't allow my son to watch. To clear the air, I'm not implying all comic book-based movies should be produced with the goal of allowing a 9 year old to watch it (that would be silly). However, if a superhero movie (or any movie for that matter) is going to include over-the-top violence, overt/subtle sexual situations, and strong language, then maybe those movies shouldn't be directly marketed to kids.
Using Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice as an example (simply because it's the most recent major superhero movie to hit theaters), there is plenty to give parents pause before bringing a child to see two of the most recognizable - and typically child-friendly - superheroes in existence battle it out. Scenes of Clark and a naked Lois making out in a bathtub, Batman beating bad guys senseless (then sending them to prison to be murdered) and wanton destruction are present throughout the film. Yet looking down the aisles at every toy store in the world, you would be hard-pressed not to find something promoting the movie to children ranging from ages 6 and up.
To the unsuspecting (possibly naive) parent, seeing such items reinforces the idea that this is a kid-friendly movie - which it most certainly is not.
Batman V Superman is far from the first comic book movie to do this. Fox's X-Men series, Wolverine series and, to a lesser degree, Sony's Spider-Man series, have been pushing the boundaries between PG-13 and R for years. While most of the merchandise marketing has been aimed at the coveted (and lucrative) children's toy section, the latest X-Men and Wolverine movies have all included the MPAA PG-13 limit of one F-bomb per film - trying to give the film a sense of edginess for comic book fans, while assuring parents it's "just this one time".
Essentially, studios want to have their superhero cake and eat it too (with curse words written in icing). While responsibility for what their children watch ultimately rests on the shoulders of the parents, that doesn't necessarily relieve studios - and, to some extent, the MPAA - of any fault.
Without appearing to favor Marvel over DC (which I don't), or suggesting that one approach is better than another (which I'm not), Marvel has seemingly embraced the idea of making a superhero movie which appeals to a wide, all-ages audience. Each of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, starting with Iron Man, have included both violence and grown-up topics/situations, while not allowing the dialogue or carnage to come close to the R rating (though Iron Man 3 was pretty dark in atmosphere and language). Some of the more dedicated comic fans argue that Disney has watered down the many of the popular characters in the name of making money - to which I reply, "Is that really a problem?"
My 9 year old doesn't need to watch Thor and Jane Foster have sex to know they're in love, or watch Tony Stark drink himself into a dark hole to understand he's feeling vulnerable. These topics have been addressed by Marvel in recent years and they were able to maintain a powerful message, while still allowing the movies to appeal to the moral sensibilities of wider general audience.
To reiterate, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a movie touching on the darker side of Bruce Wayne, the violent nature of Batman, or the internal moral conflict experienced by Superman, while discussing how society views these characters, and others, as god-like and above reproach. Subjects like that aren't at question here today. Those stories need to and should be explored in order for the characters to continue to evolve and remain fresh.
However, if studios want to go down that darker path, then something needs to change with the way those films are marketed to youngsters - unless they think parents want to buy their children a Batman branding iron for Christmas (sex trafficker action figure sold separately). It's either that, or the MPAA rating system is in desperate need of an overhaul.
What are your thoughts - should the marketing for darker, more violent superhero movies change their marketing strategy, should the MPAA be more stringent with their rating system, or should things remain how they are? Let us know in the comments.