The R-rated action movie is in vogue thanks to 20th Century Fox’s defiant X-verse spin-offs Deadpool and Logan, but not every studio is willing to cash in a character’s potential edginess. The latest example: Venom, whose violent tendencies have been curbed just enough to earn a PG-13 rating.
Dubious early reports claimed that Sony Pictures would jumpstart a non-MCU Marvel “Spider-verse” with an R-rated Venom movie, affirming nearly 10 years of geek-forum dreaming. The plan made sense: Venom was a gritty alternative to Spider-Man, an alien antihero who struck terror in the hearts of earthlings with his razor-sharp jaws, and MCU maestro Kevin Feige was on the record saying that his mega-franchise would never go hard-R. In post-Amazing-Spider-Man-2 era, when Sony needed an extended web of films that would stick, the rumor was believable. But Venom, finally hitting theaters Oct. 5 after years and years in development, is — and was always conceived as, according to director Ruben Fleischer — a comic-book movie for all ages.
”I don’t feel like we compromise much,” Fleischer tells Polygon during press rounds for Venom. He admits to being a bit baffled by the expectations that Venom was ever going to earn an R rating in the first place. “I’m not sure why [people thought that], other than maybe just a bloodthirst for Venom.”
The director has his reasons for reeling in the violence, echoing longtime producer Avi Arad who came up in the toy industry, produced the two ‘90s Spider-Man cartoons, took a macro role in the making of each live-action Spider-Man film through Homecoming, and throughout off-and-on development of Spidey spin-offs, has firmly believed that graphic bloodshed has no place in a Venom film (“There’s no reason to put in violence. To define what Venom is as violence. He’s not. He’s the lethal protector, which is a very different thing,” he told ComicBook.com earlier this September). Fleischer says the PG-13 rating Venom ultimately reflects his decision to make a movie for everyone.
”We didn’t want to make a movie that excluded any fans,” he says. “Venom fans actually are of all ages, and so we wanted to be inclusive to all the fans that were excited about the movie.”
Fleischer only ever intended to make his movie PG-13, confirming there’s no R-rated director’s cut waiting in the wings. “But I said throughout that I wanted to push the violence to the hilt,” he insists.
[Ed. note: The rest of this article contains minor spoilers for Venom]
According to Fleischer, several scenes in the finished cut of Venom — a few head-bites; a symbiote’s massacre of a Chinese village, in which several people suffer spikes to the head; and a huge spike that goes through someone’s chest late in the film — were shot in multiple ways, anticipating the complicated demands of the MPAA ratings board. Fleischer’s reference point for making those sequences violent, but not R-worthy violent, was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. “It does such a great job of delivering an intense, action-packed film that didn’t pull any punches,” he said.
Dancing the MPAA dance often requires making subtle changes to action sequences, rather than cutting out gore wholesale. In Venom, it’s mostly about blood: tweaking the viscosity, the color and the shapes splattered when a symbiote’s goopy blade hands rip through a victim’s chest. The difference between bright red blood and dark soaked-through blood, plus other minor alterations, all played a role in securing the inclusive, coveted PG-13 rating.
Fleischer judges his work on the PG-13/R tightrope walk not by the MPAA’s ruling, but the rating overseas. In England, Venom earned a 15, meaning even if a kid is accompanied by an adult, he or she wouldn’t be able to see it unless they’re at least 15 years old.
”I think that’s a testament to just how far we pushed it,” he says.