When 2016's Deadpool released to widespread acclaim, many fans began to theorize that the movie's box office fortunes could spark a golden age of R-rated superhero movies. While some dismissed that notion as hopeful speculation, the recent success of Logan has even those who previously doubted the possibility of a bright future for mature superhero movies already dreaming of the next risque film adventure involving everyone's favorite modern mythological figures. As exciting as the prospect of a new wave of R-rated superhero films is, the dreams of fans everywhere are dampened somewhat by the fact that Marvel still controls the film adaptation rights to most of their characters, and they haven't exactly indicated that they're willing to start letting the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe engage in more adult-oriented cinematic adventures.
While their current reluctance greatly impacts our chances of receiving certain mature Marvel films, it does nothing to limit our ability to fondly speculate which Marvel stories would work best as big screen adaptations. While Marvel doesn't have the "mature" reputation that some other comic publishers do, their considerable publication history is filled with stories that make great use of traditionally exploitative material. Not every potential R-rated Marvel movie earns its rating because of sex and violence, though. In some cases, there are just some Marvel stories that would work better with the kind of creative freedom the once dreaded "R" rating allows for.
These are the 15 Marvel Comics Storylines Perfect For An R-Rated Film.
15 Howard the Duck MAX
Marvel’s MAX imprint is typically the place the company turns to whenever they want to publish a more adult-oriented comic. Because of this, you would think that the MAX series would be a prime source for R-rated Marvel movies. However, the vast majority of the stories in the MAX series don’t achieve more than some exploitative thrills that don’t extend beyond the first few pages. In many ways, that same issue applies to the Howard the Duck MAX series.
What separates Howard the Duck from the MAX pack, however, is the simple fact that this format finally allows for writer Steve Gerber to pen a Howard the Duck story that isn’t held back by things like “relative moral decency.” While the humor in Howard the Duck MAX doesn’t typically extend beyond grade-school fare -- what do you expect from a series that features a villain named Dr. Bong? -- the story is at its best when Gerber uses the unrated nature of the MAX imprint to parody some of the more mature comic books out there, such as Preacher and Sandman.
14 Planet Hulk/World War Hulk
To be honest, you can do a PG-13 take on the Planet Hulk/World War Hulk storyline. Actually, Marvel did just that when they released the 2010 animated version of the Planet Hulk series. Compared to some of the other stories on this list, the Planet Hulk/World War Hulk saga (hereby referred to as Planet Hulk for simplicity’s sake) isn’t that overtly shocking or intentionally graphic. Yet, it’s hard to imagine a live-action take on this arc done well under the constraints of a PG-13 rating.
That has more to do with the tone of the series than it does the specific content contained within the original panels. There is violence and sex to be found throughout this epic tale -- both implied and explicit -- but ultimately, Planet Hulk is a story about how Hulk found peace as the ultimate gladiator warrior and then returned to Earth for revenge against Marvel’s mightiest heroes when that peace was taken from him. If properly done, this story should be presented as a revenge film built around the morally questionable decisions of characters typically portrayed as heroes.
13 Supreme Power: Hyperion
This entry is somewhat tricky, as Supreme Power: Hyperion is really just a spin-off/continuation of the Squadron Supreme saga. Supreme Power represents that story’s shift to the MAX imprint, meaning that it also represents the point that the Supreme Power creative team were allowed carte blanche access to whatever content they deemed necessary. While some used the MAX series as a chance to incorporate almost absurd amounts of sex and violence, Supreme Power represents one of the MAX imprint’s most genuinely mature titles.
Whereas Squadron Supreme began as an elaborate parody of DC’s Watchmen and Justice League series, Supreme Power is a comparatively nuanced take on those same stories -- especially Watchmen -- that attempts to replicate the brilliance of its inspirations rather than just parody them. This story examines what happens when superheroes become tools of man, and it does so in a way that cleverly calls into question the nature of war and super weapons without relying on the usual conventions.
12 Spider-Man: Reign
Given that Marvel only recently welcomed Spider-Man into the MCU fold, fans everywhere are still speculating which of Spidey’s classic adventures may receive new adaptations. While you should never say never, you can feel roughly 99% certain that Spider-Man: Reign is not going to become a part of the MCU canon.
There are many reasons this is the case, but let’s start with deadly radioactive sperm. Yes, Reign is the series that infamously killed off Mary Jane by implying that Spider-Man’s sperm is radioactive and therefore deadly. That bizarre tidbit aside, the rest of Reign essentially functions as Spidey’s Dark Knight Returns story. Just like Frank Miller’s classic Batman tale, Reign sees the web-slinger come out of retirement to once again assume his heroic duties. While much of Reign is unquestionably bizarre, the story does get it right with its post 9/11 commentary and examination of Spider-Man’s youthful actions as the catalyst for much of the evil in his world. This is about as R-rated as the wall-crawler gets.
11 Dead of Night: Werewolf by Night
Marvel’s original Dead of Night series only comprised 11 issues published between 1973 and 1975. If you’re feeling generous, you could call it their take on EC Comics series such as Tales From the Crypt. Honestly, though, the original Dead of Night run is more accurately described as an underachieving rip-off of that particular series. Marvel decided to revive the run within their MAX imprint in the late 2000s via three miniseries: Dead of Night Featuring Man-Thing, Dead of Night Featuring Devil-Slayer, and Dead of Night Featuring Werewolf by Night.
All have their own merits, but it’s Werewolf by Night that stands out by virtue of being a really well-done werewolf story in a world that is often deprived of such things. Werewolf by Night follows the story of a man named Jack Russell who is trying his best to live as both a man and werewolf. His troubled existence is rocked by a potentially fraudulent murder charge. Werewolf by Night is a taut mystery story punctuated by moments of horrific violence. It’s the werewolf story the modern horror film genre needs right now.
10 The Twelve
Back in the ‘40s -- when Marvel was still branded as Timely Comics -- the major publishers in the comic book industry had a tendency to throw as many superheroes as they could at the printing press in the hopes that some would stick. For every Captain America that emerged from the era, there were dozens of characters that only got fifteen minutes of fame, if they even got that. The Twelve is a story about what might happen if a group of those forgotten characters was transported into more modern times.
While there are some fish out of water comedic moments in the story, The Twelve is not a comedy. It’s a murder mystery that examines these characters in the light of the modern day, addressing some of the questionable moral principles heroes of that era might have. While there are a few shock moments in this story that only work in an R-rated movie, this rating request reflects the underlying complexity of The Twelve.
9 Marvel 1602
Marvel 1602's premise is both simple enough to understand on the outset and maddeningly complex. It began, in part, from a desire that Neil Gaiman had to play up the “magical” aspects of the Marvel universe. What better way to do that than to take classic Marvel characters and reimagine them as versions of themselves that might have fit into an era when people were terrified of magic; the year 1602.
At its worst, 1602 it told through a series of winks. Characters like Queen Elizabeth’s court magician Stephen Strange expose the sometimes limited scope of this conceptually unique take on the Marvel universe. At its best, however, 1602 is a brutal realization of what would happen if a Marvel tale unfolded in less advanced times. It deals with complicated -- sometimes risque -- subject matter such as religion and sexuality, but much of 1602’s hypothetical R-rating is derived from how dark and unapologetic the world of this story becomes as events unfold.
8 Destroyer MAX
The Destroyer actually refers to three different characters in the Marvel universe. Originally co-created by Stan Lee in the ‘40s, The Destroyer was popular enough for his time, but really never evolved beyond a wartime comic creation that faded away as the fighting did. He was retconned a couple of times, but isn’t one of Marvel’s most beloved characters. Destroyer MAX is a mature-rated series written by The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman which recasts Destroyer as a Punisher-style hero who never really stopped fighting since the ‘40s. Now, however, Destroyer feels his days are at an end. So, he decided to go on one final run in an effort to kill all the evil in the world that he can get his hands on.
Destroyer MAX is unquestionably brutal, but what really makes this story stand out is the way it plays with the conventions of an aging superhero. Destroyer isn’t like Bruce Wayne in Dark Knight Returns. He never really stopped fighting, and he’s determined to do whatever it takes to finish his fight before he dies.
Nextwave’s concept isn’t entirely unique. Basically, it’s a pseudo-parody of the Marvel universe told from the perspective of a band of second (or third) tier Marvel heroes who form a new crimefighting group. That’s an idea we’ve seen many times, and a few times on this list alone. What makes Nextwave notable -- besides Warren Ellis’ stellar writing -- is its tone. This is a Marvel parody that isn’t trying to comment on the state of the Marvel universe or comics in general. It’s a parody that just wants to remind you how fun comics can be.
Along with that comes a healthy amount of violence. Nextwave is a comic where people will randomly explode after being kicked by a hero for no other reason than “Why not?” Nothing has to make sense in Nextwave, yet there is still an odd sense of comforting appropriateness to even its most outlandishly violent and bitingly satirical moments. If this were a Marvel movie, it would be co-written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and the cast of Monty Python, and it would be fun as hell.
6 Earth X
Earth X has been labeled as Marvel’s version of the classic DC tale, Kingdom Come. The comparisons between the two are obvious. Both are drawn in a relatively similar style -- which makes sense, given that famed artist Alex Ross worked on each of them -- and both deal with aging superheroes trying to make sense of a changing world. Specifically, Earth X sees some of the Earth’s last original heroes and villains vie for power at a time when every human on Earth has been granted superpowers for an unknown reason.
Earth X is a refreshingly unromantic look at the Marvel universe. With that style comes several moments of extreme violence and unflattering characterizations which would not be appropriate for your average Marvel movie. From Tony Stark’s transition into a Howard Hughes-esque hermit to a band of monstrous humans whose newfound abilities seemingly left them horribly deformed, Earth X is a series of disturbing occurrences that come together to form a decidedly dark take on the end of the world of Marvel as we know it.
5 One Month to Live
One Month to Live, sometimes referred to as 1 month 2 live, is the story of a banker named Dennis Skyes. Skyes is an average man who is struggling to find joy in his life. In the pursuit of happiness, he instead encounters a large amount of toxic waste. As is the case in Marvel comics, this toxic waste grants him incredible superpowers. As is not often the case in Marvel comics, it also infects him with an incurable form of cancer that leaves Skyes with one month to live. Skyes is determined to turn himself into a legend -- and perhaps save the world -- during that month.
Unlike comics like Nextwave, there isn’t much in the way of outright forbidden content in One Month to Live. It’s a respectable story so far as that goes. However, it’s also a dark and deeply depressing tale. There is a message of hope here, but it’s told from the perspective of a dying man who uses his final days to make poignant and mature observations about the nature of existence.
4 Fury MAX: My War Gone By
Garth Ennis used Marvel’s MAX imprint as an excuse to explore the Nick Fury character in a way that the content restraints of the average Marvel comic wouldn’t necessarily allow for. His original attempt at a more mature version of Nick Fury -- Fury MAX -- was entertaining, but ultimately somewhat hollow. My War Gone By, however, is a fascinating take on the character that we would pay any amount of money to see translated to the big screen with Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Fury.
My War Gone By portrays Fury as a drinking, swearing, hypersexual, violent soldier who isn’t happy unless he’s giving into his base instincts. It exists somewhere outside the Marvel continuum and places Fury in several real-world military events that occurred after World War II. Here, Fury is portrayed as a man that wishes he could participate in another righteous war, but has no problem filling time by helping the CIA carry out some morally questionable operations. He just wants the chance to be the ultimate military gladiator.
Marvels is an epic the likes of which the publisher has never really come close to replicating. Whereas most Marvel sagas throw every Marvel hero against some great evil, Marvels is presented largely from the perspective of a human photographer named Phil Sheldon. Over a 35-year period, Sheldon observes the rise of several popular Marvel heroes and comes to both admire and resent them as the normal people around him also struggle to come to terms with how they should perceive these supposed saviors.
Marvels is another mature story that isn’t necessarily explicit when compared to other adult-orientated Marvel stories. There are a couple of moments in the original story which would perhaps stretch a typical PG-13 rating, but nailing the tone of Marvels would require a Rated-R approach. Marvels is a superhero story viewed from the eyes of an average person. As it turns out, the average person undergoes certain horrors and emotional reactions that heroes don’t always get to see when their eyes are on defeating some great evil.
2 Punisher MAX
The Punisher series has never exactly been Marvel’s most family-friendly comic, but Punisher MAX makes the standard Frank Castle issue look like an accidental reprint of a Care Bears comic. With this series, Garth Ennis took Marvel’s most unforgiving vigilante and turned him into one of the most brutal instruments of revenge you will ever see -- in any form of entertainment.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that this run of the Punisher has served as the spiritual basis for the two Punisher films we did receive. However, neither of those movies followed the exact story arc presented here, or came even remotely close to replicating the almost absurd levels of nudity, violence, and profanity which defined this series. The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that Punisher MAX is not a simple piece of exploitative entertainment meant to appeal to those with teenage sensibilities. It’s a thorough and clever examination of the Punisher character that is exactly as brutal as it needs to be.
1 Marvel Zombies
When you hear the title Marvel Zombies without any knowledge of the story itself, you most likely picture all of Marvel’s heroes banding together to repel a zombie horde. While that would almost certainly be an amusing tale in its own right, Marvel Zombies follows a different take on a zombie invasion that impacts the Marvel universe. Here, nearly every hero and villain on Earth is turned into a zombie. As you might imagine, this superpowered breed of zombies has no problem eating every human on Earth. Marvel Zombies is largely a tale about what comes next when these hyper-zombies run the Earth but have no reliable food source.
If you want violence, you’ll find plenty splattered throughout the pages of the entire Marvel Zombies arc. What else would you expect from a series written by Robert Kirkman? Once you stop being amazed by how wonderfully gory Marvel Zombies is, you’ll start to be able to appreciate how this story so gleefully turns the Marvel universe on its ear by removing the most popular “outs” of these “What If?” stories in favor of an intelligently honest look at how such an absurd situation may play out. This is a dark and highly entertaining story that would play out beautifully on the big screen.
What Marvel storylines would you want to see in live-action? Let us know in the comments.