The Venom 2 rating debate reveals a bigger problem facing superhero movies
Eddie Brock’s story strikes a balance between adult fun and geeky kid stuff. Should it be rated R or PG-13?
Welcome dear readers, nerds, and nerdlings, to The Gutter, a weekly exploration of the concepts, criticisms, and curiosities that live between the panels of comic books and their adaptations.
I come to you as a fellow nerd of cloth, a diehard comic book fan since I learned to read, and a devotee of comic book adaptations in their many forms. I’ve primarily devoted my studies to the worlds of Marvel and DC, but have frequented other realms (Image, Dark Horse, Boom, etc.) as well.
My aim is to use my knowledge to create a conversation about a medium that has become the source of our most popular forms of entertainment, cut through negative bullshit that drives too many fan conversations, and of course, welcome EVERYONE to explore the ever-widening world of comic adaptations. So follow me down into The Gutter.
For this installment, I’m going to talk a bit about MPAA ratings and source material, because in a post-Deadpool world, an R rating matters as much to some fans as a Rotten Tomatoes score. So why isn’t Venom: Let There Be Carnage rated R?
Despite the film not being officially rated yet, all signs point to PG-13, like the first film. The issue of the rating is a question I’ve seen raised numerous times on Twitter since the release of the first trailer last week. Some folks seem to care about the rating more than others, and others care so much that I fear it’s been far too long since they’ve seen the sun.
But let’s get into it.
Just put it out there, I love blood, guts, and fucks just as much as the next connoisseur of R-rated films. When I’m not taking deep dives into comic book stuff, I’m moonlighting as a horror fan. So trust me, I get it: It’s cool to see the comic characters you grew up enjoying cater to your current adult tastes. Blade and Blade II certainly made a case for that, even if at the time Marvel didn’t exactly capitalize on those movies — and many audiences weren’t even aware Blade was a Marvel comic book character. But since the release and success of Deadpool, we’ve somehow moved away from the notion that comic book adaptations of Marvel and DC properties could be rated-R to the notion that they should be rated R.
It’s cool to see the comic characters you grew up enjoying cater to your current adult tastes.
Fact is, when it comes to Marvel and DC adaptations, we’re not talking about properties like Sin City or Invincible that have their R-rated aspects baked right into the identity of their books. And unless we’re talking about characters exclusive to DC’s Vertigo or Black Label, or Marvel’s MAX line, these characters weren’t created with R-rated adaptations in mind. You can have one “fuck” in the movies, but as far the comics go, these are PG and PG-13 books. Most people get this, yet the cry for an R-rated Venom film has become impossible to ignore. I’m curious as to why.
When Venom, created by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane, made his debut in 1988, he quickly skyrocketed to become one of comics’ most popular characters throughout the ‘90s. As someone who grew up and fell in love with comics during that time, I was there for the full experience of Venom-mania (a craze that could only be matched by Wolverine and Cable).
Muscle-bound dudes with absurdly large utility belts and bad attitudes were a sign of the times.
Muscle-bound dudes with absurdly large utility belts and bad attitudes were a sign of the times. Venom was ‘90s cool, and ‘90s cool meant the suggestion of gratuitous violence and bloodshed that happened off-panel, or in the gutter. Because of that, a lot of us grew up thinking of Venom as this edgy, violent character, an embodiment of ‘90s machismo.
But, if we set aside nostalgia, realize how painfully uncool much of the ‘90s was, and look back at those Venom miniseries that defined the ‘90s, we’d realize that Eddie Brock/Venom is a big ‘ol nerd.
Eddie Brock/Venom is a big ‘ol nerd.
The guy sings Sinatra while walking through the city, he makes corny jokes that make Spider-Man look like Eddie Murphy, and his insatiable desire for brains is nothing compared to his desire for chocolate. Venom is a silly character, at least in terms of the ‘90s comics that the 2018 film and its sequel are using for inspiration. I’d argue that it’s that silliness that made the first film such a success.
Venom isn’t funny like Deadpool or Thor: Ragnarok. Its best comedic moments are way less cool. I’m talking about Tom Hardy climbing into a lobster tank and Venom’s pronunciation of ketchup that make for the cinematic equivalent of The Aristocrats joke.
Venom is not high-concept, but it certainly distinguishes itself among the bevy of comic book adaptations, because of its unselfconscious ability to explore the camp possibilities of the character.
The sequel appears to be leaning into what made the first film work, which means silliness abounds. As someone who has been revisiting the multitude of Venom miniseries, I couldn’t be happier about this prospect.
It’s entirely possible for a sequel to raise the stakes without drastically shifting the tone. But what about Carnage? Isn’t Cletus Kasady a serial killer? Yes, but again, most of his comic book violence is suggested rather than given the spotlight. The serial killer bill can also be prescribed to the Joker, who has managed to do quite well for himself outside of an R-rating.
(Yes, Todd Phillips’ R-rated Joker made over a billion dollars at the box office and became an awards season favorite, but it also invited a fair share of controversy for Warner and media-induced anxiety about safety concerns. Venom isn’t aiming to be Scorsese-lite or inspect the ills of society in an Oscar-nominated package that beckons at mature audiences who cut their teeth on The Dark Knight a decade prior.)
Whatever madness or separation anxiety there is to explore between the symbiotes and their hosts can done with a PG-13 that doesn’t limit a large portion of the audience that helped the first one become such a hit. And PG-13 can be pushed quite far, for those afraid of too many softened edges. We’re living in a post-The Dark Knight world after all.
But would Venom and Venom: Let There Be Carnage be better films with R-ratings? Maybe.
Logan proved to be a better Wolverine film than what had come before because of it. But Logan also marked the endpoint of a franchise many fans had grown up with over the course of seventeen years. Logan came just in time for adult fans who saw X-Men in theaters as children. Joker pulled off a similar trick, taking Heath Ledger’s “pencil trick” and pushing it far beyond the PG-13 line, all without the added weight of a cinematic universe.
But Venom’s franchise (and Sony’s bigger Spidey cinematic universe) is just getting started. There’s no denying the appeal the character has to kids. The same qualities that attracted us to all those characters as kids still apply today.
If we want to see a new generation of comic fans, we have to allow them to find their own sense of cool in the character and look between the panels for the shocking acts of violence that are only implied.
There’s certainly room for Venom’s cinematic outings to evolve and mature, but right now we’re at the beginning, and that beginning in comics was marked by outright goofiness that doesn’t hurt us adult fans to remember.
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