After watching The Suicide Squad, I kept wondering why there weren’t that many R-rated comic book movies. Turns out there are quite a bit. Enough to, say, fill a whole top ten 😃
Why aren’t there more though? The graphic potential of an R-rating may seem exciting to rabid fans like you and me, but it effectively means less seats which means less dollars. Sure, Deadpool opened big but Iron Man 3, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel opened bigger. The corporate IP game is all about reigning supreme at the box office with the widest possible appeal, which the PG-13 rating ensures. Studios, then, are less and less willing to risk the potential for massive profit when it comes to their billion-dollar superhero franchises.
But every once in a while we get Logan or The Suicide Squad. These ten below are ready to queue up right now and satisfy those mature cravings that the PG-13 superhero can’t fulfill. You might notice some glaring omissions (sorry Snyder fans) but HEY, THIS IS MY LIST NOT YOURS.
This is the hard-R comic book terrain so far and it may point to where studios can go next.
10. The Punisher
I liked The Punisher! It’s the “dark and gritty” superhero before Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy established the whole template. Once upon a time, Thomas Jane was on the rise of becoming the next big action star. A memorable turn in Deep Blue Sea brought this into consideration (this right here is his Stallone Cliffhanger moment), and 2004’s The Punisher gave some compelling evidence. Sadly, a sequel fell apart and Jane went on to do very, very different things. What the movie lacks in polish and overall quality, it more than makes up for as a hardcore revenge B-movie. The Punisher was basically Thomas Jane’s Death Wish and that’s why I love it. Because Jane isn’t making his bid for Bruce Wayne; he’s going full Charles Bronson. The film could have been better, but as the first R-rated superhero movie I got to see in theaters, The Punisher set the bar.
There’s a very dark alternate timeline where this movie was never greenlit and the only cinematic legacy of the character existed in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Thankfully, 20th Century Fox came to their senses. Ryan Reynolds had been itching for his superhero franchise and he found it in Wade Wilson – a perfect match of both actor and character like an outrageously twisted love story in and of itself. The role is decidedly less action-oriented, instead packing on the sarcasm and the wise-assery, which is Reynolds’ forte. The whole tone of the movie is molded around the character’s comedic sensibilities INCLUDING the marketing, and that’s what made this such a must-see for audiences. The Deadpool movies have sort of lost steam for me, but I can’t deny the crowd-pleasing spectacle in watching the merc with a mouth get his due justice on screen.
Dredd is the R-rated comic book adaptation that never had its day in court. It didn’t help that Gareth Evans’ The Raid had its wide release that same year, and both movies had the same “fight your way to the top” premise. Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby are the grim-faced buddy cop pairing I never knew I needed, one a tortured and breathtakingly violent career lawman, the other a rookie psychic in for the training day of her life. I would have killed to see these two firefight their way through an entire city block. It’s a crime that a sequel never materialized. Dredd is a hyperviolent action romp to the tune of a survival horror video game. It was one of the first Blu-rays I ever bought and the 4K upgrade made it that much sweeter, ESPECIALLY those slow-mo sequences. Criterion when???
7. Blade II
In my mind, the Wesley Snipes superhero saga was a two-parter. Blade II was directed by none other than Guillermo del Toro. It’s slightly shocking how little of del Toro’s stylistic flourishes are present in this movie, but it’s quite clear how much the filmmaker was swooning over his leading man. I’m hardly accusing del Toro of being timid here. We’re treated to some truly grotesque vampire imagery. Del Toro’s camera is resolute and unflinching to this gory and horrific world full of mutated bloodsuckers. (The reapers are essentially a precursor to del Toro’s FX series, The Strain.) Admittedly, some of the effects are as dated as the burly brawl in The Matrix Reloaded, but that doesn’t mean Snipes doesn’t get to whip an insane amount of ass. There’s a tunnel scene that’s Resident Evil inspired, and a martial arts extravaganza of a finale that dazzles to this day. Cue the club music and hand me my Mountain Dew Code Red.
6. Birds of Prey
Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey has more in common with Pulp Fiction than anything DC had done prior. (Fox Force Five would’ve been a great alternate title imo.) Not to mention that BoP has an incredible ensemble and boasts some wicked stunts that had the action-junkie in me spinning. Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina and deliciously sadistic, and both Jurnee Smollett and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are whirlwind additions to Harley’s entourage. BoP severs any and all connection to the 2016 Suicide Squad, reintroducing the Brooklynite court jester as a shotgun blast full of energy. There’s a version of Harley that could’ve easily aped Heath Ledger’s Joker, which seems like what the 2016 movie was trying to do. Writer Christina Hodson and star Margot Robbie gun it in the opposite direction. Harley is unreliable, she’s formidable, she’s human, brazenly funny, and all over the fucking place. Moreover, she’s finally set free.
In my mind, Constantine takes place in the same dark alleys as Blade. That’s the superhero crossover I was pleading for in 2005. Keanu Reeves has never been cooler as the doomed chain-smoking warlock, though he’s less a direct translation from the comics than he is a hard-boiled noir figure with a comic book flourish. Fans might’ve been annoyed; I was enthralled. Exorcisms, Satan bibles, Reeves deadpanning the Almighty, and the holiest of shotguns blasting demons back to Hell; I don’t know why more people didn’t show up for this thing. It’s The Exorcist meets Hellboy with the moody existential despair of Blade Runner. Reeves and Rachel Weisz traversing the strange and occult is a premise that should have gotten more replay, like an extension of The X-Files in film form. As an R-rated superhero movie, Constantine brought the supernatural edge to distinguish itself from the capes and spandex.
4. The Suicide Squad
The Suicide Squad satisfied a bloodlust I didn’t realize I was yearning for from DC. It seems like everybody these days are getting their own spinoffs or limited series. (Granted, one of the characters already has.) It’s refreshing, then, to come across a comic book movie that does not hesitate to kill off its own ensemble. Writer-director James Gunn pulls no punches, starting fresh and delivering the R-rated goods worthy of this rotten wild bunch. What surprised me the most was how much heart this movie had. That no matter how broken, or how profane and reprehensible these characters are, they’re capable of achieving something good. Just ONE good thing though, because everything else they do is kinda fucked up. A lot of civilians die in their crossfire, and the body count is piled on by exceedingly over-the-top kills. The Suicide Squad ultimately isn’t bold enough to be the anti-superhero movie that Warner Bros. was selling. To be fair, Gunn comes close. The final minutes plays like a parody of The Avengers. You get the sense that Task Force X is only saving the city because it’s funny to piss off Amanda Waller, and possibly use the good deed as collateral for their freedom. Saving the world shouldn’t be such twisted fun. James Gunn makes it a goddamn riot.
3. The Crow
In film class you learn about German expressionism via 1930s Dracula, or 1920s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – the use of highly stylized sets to emphasize character or mood. Turns out I already had that education with Alex Proyas’ The Crow without even knowing it. The Crow is unbearably gothic, “dark” without the need for grittiness or realism. Detroit is rendered as a bleak hellscape stuck in a never-ending downpour; buildings and interiors are black as pitch, and a pivotal showdown takes place in a cathedral plucked right out of a Tim Burton movie. The Crow also had a pretty killer soundtrack. The movie, sadly, bears an un-washable stain. Every frame is supercharged with star Brandon Lee’s memory, who died in a tragic on-set accident. For all intents and purposes, The Crow was my R-rated Batman where the hero wasn’t putting bad guys behind bars; he wanted to kill those responsible. (If you’re paying attention, you’ll spot some precursors to The Dark Knight.) If Bruce Wayne was the brooding do-gooder in a PG-13 superhero world, then Eric Draven was the nihilistic avenging angel for the emo and downtrodden and Hot Topic dwellers. Revenge is so much better in eyeliner and wrist cuffs.
Blade to this day has the most kinetic opening I’ve ever experienced, one that puts the entire MCU to shame. The movie featured a black lead, was the first Marvel Comics property to get the big budget cinematic treatment, AND was an R-rated blend of action-fantasy-horror. Now THAT’S a risk. If you never heard of Marvel at the time, then this was a hell of an introduction. Blade doesn’t get the credit it deserves for putting this whole modern superhero thing on the map, really. For my money, Stephen Norrington’s movie is the better movie over Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II because Norrington matched the sheer verve, intensity, and swagger of his leading man. Wesley Snipes is iconic as the day-walking vampire. He owns every stride, every affectation, every badass line. (“Some motherfucker’s always tryna ice skate uphill” is one of the best line reads of all time.) Blade popularized club music as an action aesthetic long before The Matrix made it a trade (along with wearing shades at night) and made the superhero gig an ass-whooping good time. No offense to Mahershala Ali but he’s got some big shoes to fill.
Logan is the R-rated comic book movie to end all R-rated comic book movies. The character of Wolverine transcends from a mutant with claws who said “bub” all the time to an aged-out gun-slinging antihero in the vein of Clint Eastwood. It’s so bittersweet to finally get a violent and bloody X-Men movie, but at the end of Logan’s tragic journey. If superhero movies go on forever in sequels and crossovers, then director James Mangold made a quiet spectacle out of a definitive ending chapter. Five years later, this is STILL Hugh Jackman’s best performance; a washed-up portrait of a man on the brink, an epic poem of a life sustained by violence, and the futility of masculine rage. I could’ve ridden in that truck with Jackman, Dafne Keen, and Patrick Stewart ‘til the end of time. All stories come to an end eventually, and Logan is the lowering of the grave, a brutal swan song, and a powerful eulogy. “There are no more guns in the valley…” I cry every damn time.