When writing a story, the basic plot formation acts as a foundation for whatever journey you’re chronicling. There’s about ten, I’d say, formulas to build a story off of. Some are blatantly based upon other works (Clueless and Emma; The Lion King and Hamlet), but even if they’re not, you’ve got a protagonist, a conflict, the buildup, the climax, and then the resolution. Some formulas spend more time in certain parts of the formula than others, tricking us into valuing the “unique” storytelling. But overall we’re creatures of habit. When you’re dealing with formula, if every story can be boiled down to factual statements and sum ups of motivation, it stands to question—why would you ever make a story inaccessible to an audience? In short, why take a story about a man on the search for revenge in love with a girl and turn it into an R-rated shoot-‘em-up? Is there a reason? I’ll save you the suspense. Yes, there’s a reason. As much as some people might hate to admit it, there is a level of integrity when writing sexual innuendo and violence into a screenplay that can’t be visually articulated in the same way if written for a rating one step lower. Sometimes the best way to tell a story is through curse words and violence and sex and moral discrepancies.
This has everything to do with Deadpool. This has everything to do with the reaction the R rating got. From joy to disgust, it meant something to audiences. But what does it mean to the story? Deadpool’s character massacre in Wolverine: Origins had nothing to do with the PG-13 rating, but audiences began to associate the two together. Usually, comic fans interested in the MCU have come to the conclusion (happily or unhappily, depending on their loyalist creed) that the adaptations will probably be watered down from the versions they love. Wolverine certainly has plenty of gorey preceding origin material to hold his movie version in a rose-colored tint. There was a move to get a bit rougher with the stand alone Wolverine films, and that was achieved, but the PG-13 still loomed. But what does this mean for Deadpool? If his massacre in Origins had more to do with careless writing and nothing to do with the rating, then why not drag the film down the ratings scale and gross even more money with it? Logistically, it doesn’t make sense.
At least, it doesn’t make sense if you think logic and monetary savvy are synonyms for one another. The reality is that people like characters that are unique and true to themselves. Audiences savor the individual. That’s why we can have formulas for story-telling that our brains thrive on and find unique features in. Because the formulas are working to tell us about something, not to just tell us something. Stories are fallible and painfully topical. The only thing all good stories have in common is how they react and work with people, whether it be within a narrative or outside of it.
Am I babbling? I probably am. The point is, when you’re telling a story about a no-good mercenary with a mouth so dirty and annoying that you can almost justify his alienation from all other aspects of his established universe, a guy who was never particularly morally inclined even before receiving his super powers, that R rating means the world. And yet, that R rating could have also destroyed the film. Fun fact, R films tend to gross less than most other ratings around. Make of that what you want, but it’s mostly availability and unpredictability. I’m not as driven to make a group outing of R films as I am about PG-13 or lower. Most people see films socially. Because of the shortsightedness of our ratings scale, R films can vary with huge levels of unpredictable vulgarity. With the final product of Deadpool now delivered and able to be analyzed, it’s clear the amount of cutting needed to lower it to PG-13 would be the equivalent of taking a formula story, a famous one, let’s say The Hunger Games and then removing the details of what made it palatable and appealing—the imagery. Imagery that, without it, would be significantly less impactful.
Palatable imagery? Yikes. “That’s a stretch,” you say. Deadpool is filled with sex jokes, cursing, and comedic violence. What is it about that that adds to the plot, the formula, that isn’t extra? What makes a graphic bullet to the head or a comedic amputation scene necessary to the plot? After all, I did say that there’s a basic formula here and that the PG-13 didn’t kill Deadpool. So what’s the deal?
R rated imagery has a purpose in storytelling. Just the fact that there are people who hated the violence and crassness (yes, not everybody loved Deadpool), shows that these are images that have weight. What does the weight imply in Deadpool? A lot, actually.
The act of shooting somebody in the head is not necessarily R-rated by today’s standards. It’s 2016 and it’s a bit harder to rock the boat than it might have been years before. A film like Desperado made now, just 20 years after its initial premiere, could be a solid PG-13 if you cut out maybe four or five lines of dialogue. Our standards are drastically different from what they have been. The scandalous kissing scene in Notorious is tame by today’s standards. But most storytelling modules evolve in this way. Film actually had a bit of a backwards period once the MPAA established their ratings system. But vulgarity and violence are not new. Shakespeare was making dick jokes and covering the stage in blood long before Deadpool was even a twinkle in Rob Liefeld’s eye. (“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.” In context it’s contrived from a prank letter. The greatness is a penis. I’m sorry we had to talk about it this way.)
Did I get off track? Anyway. The act of a shot through the head and immediate death is not R. You can easily imply it without showing it, sometimes it even has more weight that way. Except that the weight in Deadpool doesn’t come from the violence. No no, I swear it’s true, hear me out!
There are two types of violence in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. One is tasteful, impactful, and the other is one step away from an eleven year old burning ants with a magnifying glass as far as gleeful sadism goes. How do you differentiate these types of violence within the narrative? Description in books, visualization and cinematography through film. In other words, two slaves being forced to fight one another to the death are not shot with a backdrop of bouncy music. There’s no light commentary in the film that is felt through the audience when faced with the horror of the violence depicted towards the slaves in Django. So, when you leave that film, you remember those instances of intense, impactful violence than the gratuitous shoot outs. And you want to know the craziest thing about that system of intense violence? You actually see less of the violence, visually, with the slaves than you do in any other comedic instance in the film, which always tended to be grandiose and extremely explicit.
Apply that to Deadpool. What does violence mean in the span of the plot? Violence in Deadpool is comedic, which means you see a lot of it. Yeah, you could easily take away the visual and make it PG-13, but you actually lose comedic value by showing less of it. The impact of the quips without the sight of the assaults/murders actually removes Deadpool’s humor from the context. In short, without that slow motion one bullet, three heads, shot? Deadpool looks more cool than he does unstable. (For more instances of R-rated humor violence, I urge you to watch Kingsman: The Secret Service, Kickass, and Seven Psychopaths).
Okay okay, so the violence was a comedic tool. Say you agree with me there. What about the jokes? The cursing? Don’t fret, I’m getting there.
Cursing is largely a big, fat game of semantics, but to completely discount it as only semantics is to remove vernacular from the huge world of effect it places within our society. People who curse have a different way of thinking than people who do. Cursing is not a bubble condition, it takes an active decision to use curse words. Why? Because they simply mean more. Individuals who curse are more honest, and there’s even some evidence implying that cursing is positively associated with intelligence. Wow! What good news for all our foul-mouthed friends out there! But, putting those things aside, it’s better if we think about cursing in how others perceive it, because that’s going to center on how and why it’s used in film. With Deadpool, there is one singular aspect about the cursing that is detrimental to the weight of his character. Cursing, openly, means that he doesn’t care about how other people feel about him.
“But,” you say, because you’re an argumentative, straw-man visualization for my continuing explanation and analysis, “Deadpool does care! That’s why he won’t go see Vanessa! Because he cares about what she’ll think about him!”
Deadpool cares about whether or not she’ll still love him because his previously only good quality, to him, was his face. Different game there. Interesting game there, because it works well to put into perspective how much physicality means to him as a character. By being allowed to be so unfiltered, we can better see that Deadpool’s priorities, as a character, are absolutely out of whack. If he was just a PG-13 pretty boy who was slightly annoying and then disfigured, we, as an audience, wouldn’t have as much fun doubting the possibility of Vanessa’s reciprocation. That little detail—Deadpool’s vulgarity—is integral in the relationships with other people.
Another great example is that both of these aspects, the violence and the vernacular of Deadpool as a character, are established extremely quickly. The opening scene of the film’s flashbacks involving the pizza and the two men and the very mean, but so very satisfying intervention of a stalker is probably reaching a peak PG-13 rating at its simplest level. And that’s Deadpool’s lightest moment as an avenging character. This is what is used to describe him as being soft. That’s him on a slow day. So imagine the motivation of thinking a man took away his hopes of love and normalcy and now death. Can you imagine anything less than what we got?
“But there’s still no reason for it to be so R!”
I can’t have this discussion with people who believe in an exclusion in all possible versions of a story, which is what is being implied by excluding R rated films. There are people in the world who talk like Wade Wilson. The presence on film is cathartic, open, and well-visualized. It would have been possible to make Deadpool PG-13, but it wouldn’t have had the kick or life to it. You might as well have sewn his mouth shut and cut his head off (oh wait…). There’s a method to the madness, and it was well received because these methods are what made Deadpool’s character so pinnacle to begin with. These are stylistic decisions behind the scenes that were made because they added something to the character that established things faster, better, and more truthfully than a glossed over version for the sake of full audience body intake.
Now, let’s discuss the implications of the R on comic films as a whole. Already, there’s talks of a R rated Wolverine. Let me go back to that statement I made before, R films don’t gross as much as lower rated films. Why? Because they tend to be needlessly gratuitous. If you don’t have media literacy (ironically, I think most people who work in media are lacking in that area), then this entire Deadpool explosion boils down to one thing. “Adults want R-rated comic films.”
Adults want what kids want what human beings want. They want to intake stories that articulate the formula in a way that is unique. They want the ratings guide to be a warning system for appropriateness and not a guide of ratings for the studios to exploit based off of intake assumptions. Every aspect of a story needs to have a punch. Violence, the kind that is impactful whether it be in a comedic sense or a heart wrenching sense, should have a purpose within the narrative. It needs to establish something that can’t be established without it. In Deadpool, more visualization actually evolved into less violent impact. That’s a strategic decision. If you use strategy, the character integrity should come loooong before a rating hoping to exploit black comedy or, in contrast, grit. (Think of the DC obsession with grit after Nolan’s Batman films. Now think about Fantastic Four trying to artificially create tension without understanding what gave the grit any traction to begin with.)
In short, ratings shouldn’t guide films. Characters should guide films. Some characters just benefit more from being able to be dirty, fast, and a little embarrassing. And guess who fits that description.