Deadpool has been America’s top film at the box office for three weeks.
This is impressive for several reasons: It's had to compete against better-established names, like the sequel to cult hit Zoolander and a new entry in kid-favorite franchise Kung Fu Panda. Deadpool doesn't have the Disney machine's muscle behind it, like your typical Marvel movie; it's a Twentieth Century Fox release. And, as any website, news outlet or culturally aware person will remind you, Deadpool is rated R in a genre that relies just as much on the elementary school set as it does the 18-to-34 demographic to succeed.
It's that last point that the filmgoing milieu just can't stop talking about. Seriously: It's as if every industry analyst and Hollywood exec is incapable of not bringing up the fact that Deadpool was made for people 17 and up.
How many times has the headline "This film that's in development, doesn't have a release date and might never even come out will definitely be rated R!" appeared in your social media feed since Deadpool's release? Don't try to keep count; it's impossible to do so.
Frustrations with the ballyhoo over Deadpool's record-setting achievement in the face of the dreaded "R" aren't the fault of the film itself. Deadpool, by all accounts, warrants that MPAA distinction fair and square. Our review notes that it's raunchy and violent, but also an adult picture — something few of its superhero relatives, produced by Fox or Marvel or otherwise, can claim to be.
The critical consensus — according to Rotten Tomatoes, which lists the film's reviews as 83 percent "fresh" — is that Deadpool is unconventional, hilarious, absurd and directed at grown-ups, not kids. Overall, reviews have pointed to the superhero's theatrical debut as a wholly entertaining one. Fox has responded in kind; a Deadpool sequel is in the works, which is notable considering the film was only made after test footage leaked online.
What isn't notable, though — or at least, not as big of a deal as it's being made out to be — is that Deadpool has achieved all of this in spite of the fact that kids can't see the superhero without their parents in tow. Those who have offered their take on Deadpool's seemingly Herculean climb to the top of the box office week after week suggest that it's specifically because of its atypical rating that the film has drew in audiences.
Because of that analysis, Hollywood has suggested that upcoming genre pics — Wolverine 3, Death Note, X-Force, to name a few — could also be tailored for restricted audiences. Rumors of a director's cut Blu-ray release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice have even surfaced. "That's what America wants," Hollywood shouts. "Audiences are tired of the kiddie stuff!"
That may be true. But let's not act like kids aren't still showing up to see the movie. Parents haven't stopped taking their kids to the movie in light of its adult rating. It's always been believed that limiting the audience with a more restrictive rating results in a a decrease in ticket sales. That doesn't really seem to be the case with Deadpool; that's obviously reflected in its box office gross, but can also be found at theaters themselves, where kids are seen lining up for the film alongside their parents.
Part of that is because Deadpool isn't quite as adult-oriented as the MPAA suggests. Its promotional material plays up its campy side, reveling in its cartoonish absurdity. Deadpool's promotional campaign and, by many critical accounts, the film itself do the opposite of what's expected. Most superhero films bend over backwards trying to convince you that this is super-serious stuff for grown-up sensibilities. Deadpool, however, is completely comfortable with its own appeal to the immature.
Even so, the movie makes some appropriate use of its R-rated allowances. It's raucously absurd and cartoon-y while also offering emotional depth in the form of mature relationships. Its sexual content has been well-regarded by feminist critics for being honest and non-judgmental. The kind of sex positivity depicted by Deadpool's primary couple — the hero is dating a sex worker who's proud of her work and not shamed for it! — is unique in the superhero genre, let alone Hollywood. (Other recent Marvel properties, like Netflix's Jessica Jones, have been similarly lauded for their unique, frank depictions of sex.) Deadpool maintains a balance between adulthood and the inherent silliness of superheroes where its romantic side is concerned.
That content is what's drawing audiences to Deadpool. It's also what warranted the MPAA's adult distinction. Its the film's originality in these areas that's worthy of praise and should inspire Hollywood creatives. Look at how the film is marketed:
The posters, like the one above, present the film not as some more hardcore version of a superhero blockbuster. Instead, Deadpool comes off as quite unlike its brethren. The movie's got its tongue planted firmly in cheek, but better yet, its marketing makes it out to be something utterly original. That's what director James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy referred to as the movie's crucial difference — its willingness to be just that, different.
"Deadpool was its own thing," Gunn wrote in a Facebook post reacting to the media's interpretation of Deadpool's success, which he characterized as a "misunderstanding."
"THAT'S what people are reacting to. It's original, it's damn good, it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn't afraid to take risks."
Just as Gunn goes on to explain, what's most important is that shoehorning R-rated elements into a story that doesn't warrant or support them, as Deadpool does, does all viewers a disservice. There are plenty of stories, superhero and otherwise, that have themes that younger audiences can't yet handle without confusion or misinterpretation. (Hollywood often thinks these primarily include nudity and frank discussions of sex; blood and gore seem to merit the 17-and-up mark on a much less consistent basis.) These are what quietly earn the MPAA's age restriction without a fuss.
But 17-year-olds aren't actually adults, and many R-rated movies aren't mature, either — Deadpool included, in many ways. Adding in so-called "adult themes" for extra attention and shock value doesn't make these movies sufficiently or appealingly mature. It's just a cheap ploy to get people talking or to mislead them into thinking that these action flicks are growing up.
When superhero movies do want to grow up, that should be welcomed, regardless of rating. But adding in pointless gore and abrasive language in the hopes that people will swarm to the box office is disappointing on every level. Not only that, but it's grossly unnecessary.
As much as we like to think the average moviegoer just wants to watch the same movie over and over again, that's simply not true. We need only to look at Deadpool's impressive receipts for confirmation that originality is just as attractive as big brand names — even if, or perhaps especially because, that originality is defined by a deft presentation of mature, uncommon themes.
Deadpool's financial achievements should be rightfully celebrated, but the ultimately superficial MPAA label isn't one of the reasons why. That's especially true in the age of streaming, where ratings hold even less importance. Instead, let's hope it inspires a cinematic storm of increasingly thoughtful, quirky and unique costumed heroes — not more F-bombs and boner quips.