After the success of R-rated superhero movies like Logan and Deadpool, audiences are coming to the realization that superhero stories can be directed at multiple age groups, not only children. While this is frequently treated as a new phenomenon, it is anything but.
These are hardly the first R-rated superhero movies, so why are they perceived as game-changers for the genre? For starters, many R-rated comic adaptations do not feature superheroes, like Sin City or Road to Perdition. There are plenty of films based on comics that do not feature superheroes. Those that do focus on superheroes are usually based on comic book properties that have always featured adult content, like Watchmen or Kick-Ass.
Logan and Deadpool, however, are based on characters that have often been marketed towards children or adolescents. There has long been a perception that superheroes are "kids' stuff," and therefore limiting a big budget film's audience to adults seems risky. These films are far from the first attempts at R-rated superhero movies, but they are the first to succeed so spectacularly. Deadpool is one of the highest grossing superhero movies ever. Logan may not reach such heights, but its doing quite well regardless.
With a Deadpool sequel on the way and Warner Bros' rumored interest in R-rated DC projects, the film industry is apparently convinced in these films' financial viability. On a positive note, it seems that comic book movies are finally catching up to the variety that has characterized comic books for years. Deadpool and Logan may share a rating, but they are tonally very different. Unbound by the restrictions of PG-13 blockbusters, superhero movies can be self-aware revenge comedies, gory character-driven westerns, or anything in between. Superhero movies need this kind of variety in order to avoid audience fatigue.
However, there's a clear tension between how these characters are presented in comics and films and how they are marketed. Though they can be seen in films spouting profanity and disemboweling people, these characters still appear in child-friendly merchandise ranging from action figures to cereal boxes. We may have escaped from the perception that superheroes belong exclusively to children, but the idea that they now belong to adults is equally limiting.
It could be argued that a character like Wolverine, whose powers entail sustaining and dealing out grievous bodily harm, was never appropriate for children. Even with the blood and language censored, Deadpool is still an amoral murderer, not an upstanding role model. Or we could listen to Alan Moore, the man that helped lay the groundwork for adult-oriented superhero stories, who now says that adults should leave these characters behind and focus on the real world. R-rated movies have more freedom to explore certain themes and tones, but that doesn't mean that every R-rated superhero movie is inherently superior to its PG-13 counterparts.
As it now stands, superheroes are awkwardly torn between two groups of devoted fans that have little in common. It has been suggested that this tension could be resolved by releasing multiple versions of a film simultaneously. This idea may be intriguing, but it would be a major expense for film studios and likely result in an inferior version of the filmmakers' intended cut. It's also against MPAA rules, which would require the R-rated cut to be removed from theaters before the PG-13 cut could be released. There simply is no easy answer to this issue.
R-rated superhero movies do admittedly place parents of young children in a difficult position. However, filmmakers, like artists of any kind, are not obligated to cater to the audience's wishes. Even in this age of on-demand interactive media, film-goers may have to accept that no film is meant for everyone. Of course, if you want your five-year-old to see an alcoholic mutant stab a man in the head in slow motion, that's your business, bub.