Disney Chairman Bob Iger told the press today that the company, which produces Marvel’s Avengers movies and Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, has no plans to follow the industry’s Deadpool lemmings off a cliff by releasing R-rated superhero films. One of the writers of Deadpool, Paul Wernick of Zombieland, told Indiewire in February that he hoped superhero cinema wouldn’t suddenly become clogged with R-rated films. “That shouldn’t necessarily be the lesson that everyone takes from Deadpool,” Wernick said, “that all super hero films should be R-rated. More than anything, the lesson we hope people take away is: you’ve got to take risks. Sometimes that risk will be an R-rating, sometimes it won’t, but to trust the lunatics is the lesson to take away from Deadpool’s success.”
Considering the fact that our cinematic culture has become increasingly hungry to break boundaries and push the envelope, Disney’s superhero films are risky. As the YouTube critic Really That Good pointed out in November, superhero films as they’ve been produced in the last decade belong to their own innovative genre. Before Sam Raimi’s brightly colored, sentimental Spider-Man, we were still telling the stories of superheroes as if they were classic action heroes, all ’roided up and licking blood off their knives. Disney’s The Avengers and Guardians blend the nostalgic, fun sort of action that was prevalent in the mid-’90s with an unapologetic, wide-eyed sense of good and evil that we don’t see on screen anymore, apart from high fantasy films and children’s cinema.
The superhero craze has been about escapism since 2002, when Spider-Man, New York’s superhero, debuted on the big screen to charm an America that had been ravaged by the events of September 11, less than a year before. That film heralded a new era of PG-13 action cinema, one that could be enjoyed equally by children, their parents, and young adult geeks looking to experience the innocent excitement many of us first felt while reading superhero comics.
Disney makes the kind of superhero films that Captain America himself, whose first film debuted just before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, would watch and enjoy. It says something important about our cultural climate that Disney’s superhero universe, in all its wholesome glory, has blown the competition out of the water for years. In order for faux-subversive films like Deadpool to succeed, there has to exist also a comprehensive and well-crafted status quo, and the Avengers films are the superhero point of reference. As long as Disney keeps producing superhero films that complement its transcendent Pixar works through a similar tone, and a similar set of values, we’ll get interesting offshoot films.
Of course DC responded to Deadpool by releasing a Batman v Superman R-rated cut. That kind of panic-response is the reason it can’t stand up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: It has no discernible home base for its brand to consider! Let Fox release all the Reddit-style spandex dick jokes it wants; all Disney needs to create friction is Tony Stark gently ribbing his compatriots. I bet you 10 bucks Thor’s mug-smashing “I’ll have another!” line garnered more laughs than Deadpool’s girlfriend asking for butt sex. Disney makes us laugh without rolling our eyes.