A few weeks back it was announced that when Batman v. Superman hits bluray, it will be with a special R-rated cut that's 30 minutes longer. On the surface, there's optimism that the additional 30 minutes of footage could restore some coherence to story threads I found flawed in my original review. But as a matter of principle, I find it troubling that we've reached the point of an R-rated Superman & Batman film.
I expressed that perspective on Twitter and among the responses was someone who said, "Have you ever read a Batman comic? They're dark! Batman NEEDS to be R-Rated!"
You, sir, are an idiot.
If it was one isolated ignoramus spouting this, I'd be inclined to let it roll off of my back, but in the last week or so, I've seen this attitude displayed with more frequency. Couple that with the rather angry defensiveness of fans defending this film from its detractors, and we have symptoms of a much larger problem within the audience for comic book films.
One of my earliest exposures to Batman comics was a hardcover collection available in my library: Batman from the 30s to the 70s. The volume collected representative tales from the character's first forty years in print, the noir-ish stories of the 30s, the capers of the 40s, the goofy sci-fi of the 50s and 60s, and the more serious takes of the 70s. Shockingly, all of them were all-ages appropriate, even the more maturely written entries from the Denny O'Neil era that concluded the compilation. Concurrent with this, I discovered reruns of the Adam West Batman TV series, which takes a far campier approach to its subject. At the time, my interests veered towards the goofier and light-hearted stories, but there was nothing that made the more mature era off-limits for me, even at the age of seven or eight.
And then came 1989. I watched the Joker savagely beat Robin with a crowbar in a sequence that felt excessively violent for its time, but today feels practically quaint.
This was also the year that Tim Burton's BATMAN film came out. Post-Nolan, the film feels infused with a fair amount of goofiness, but at the time, this felt like a dark, grim interpretation of the Caped Crusader. For every silly Joker antic that threatened to pull the film towards camp, there was a brutal act of violence. The Batmobile is equipped with machine guns, and there are several instances of Batman committing murder - or at least attempted murder. There's nastiness like the Joker frying a guy alive on-screen, the facial scars he gives to his girlfriend, and the intensity of the moment where the Joker (but not us) becomes aware of his transformation.
Somehow my brother and I convinced our parents to take us to see it in the theater. I was nine. He was seven. That was probably just up against the age of being appropriate for the film, but the tone still felt mostly within bounds of what you'd expect in a Batman comic. It wasn't until after that I read Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Up to that point, it was possibly the most violent and most grim Batman story told. Owing to my age, I really didn't "get" the story. In fact, I'm sure I "read" it six or seven times as a kid and I'd still struggle to come up with a coherent synopsis. I just liked the art. The stuff I wasn't ready to get, I just ignored. And by the time I was old enough to "get" it, I decided I really didn't like Frank Miller's take on the character. (YEAR ONE notwithstanding.)
And you know what? Still not R-rated.
My biggest period of collecting Batman comics was a five year range from 1989-1994. A Death in the Family. Year Three. A Lonely Place of Dying. Robin, The Joker's Wild, Cry of the Huntress, Knightfall, KnightQuest, KnightsEnd, Prodigal. All of these were defining Batman tales of that era, and in their worst moments they're probably a tame PG-13.
The Knight saga even ends up being a criticism of those who wanted their Batman to be a brutal take-no-prisoners type. In short, Batman's back is broken and he ends up yielding the mantle of the Bat to Azrael. Eventually Azrael goes further and further over the edge, culminating in a moment where he leaves a criminal to die and indirectly results in the death of an innocent. By that point, the fans were ready for Bruce Wayne to regain his title, and the third act of that storyline saw that indeed happen. It was a clever move during an era where comics seemed to be becoming more bloodthirsty and unrelentingly violent. The creators answered the call for a more brutal Batman by giving the fans exactly what they wanted... and showed them how much they'd hate it.
From that point on, I checked in on Batman sporadically, enough to know that as late as just before the 2011 relaunch New 52, Batman was not a book where you'd regularly find disturbing, lurid violence. Violent things would happen, but only in rare cases would they be depicted in a fashion that went beyond good taste. I can only think of
I'm aware of a few instances in the New 52 storyline where good taste has taken a holiday. But even if everything since that relaunch was drenched in blood and guts, we'd be talking about less than a five-year span in a 77 year history.
I read and purchased comics regularly from 1986 up to 2011 and I can count on one hand the number of moments that demanded to be translated to screen in an R-rated fashion. I completely reject the notion that even if we're limiting our range to the "modern" era of Batman where most current readers grew up, the only good Batman story is an R-rated one.
A good Batman/Superman story is the sort of thing that REALLY doesn't need to be ultra-violent. It just needs to understand the characters. One of the more regrettable failings of Batman v. Superman is that for all the time they spend in conflict, the resolution of that conflict is lacking and without real resonance. I went in expecting the movie might adapt one of my favorite moments involving those two.
In the Post-Crisis continuity, there was tension early on between the two heroes, most of it coming from Superman, who disliked Batman's methods of operating outside the law. That soon turned to a grudging respect of each other, even if there was an undercurrent of mistrust. The storyline "Dark Knight Over Metropolis" resolved that as the two of them worked a case together and Superman gained a new respect for Batman's abilities.
The MacGuffin that brought Batman to Metropolis was a kryptonite ring, though Batman kept that detail private while he and Superman worked to bring down an evil organization called Intergang. At the end of the case, Batman gave the ring to Superman, revealing he had it the entire time. Impressed, Superman later pays a call to Batman in the Batcave in this wonderfully written moment by Roger Stern, art by Bob McLeod.
By entrusting Batman with the ring, all the tension between the two was put aside. It established there was no one more than the Dark Knight whom Superman trusted to get the job done in the name of justice. It also showed Batman that Superman was wise enough to understand his own power could not go unchecked, and that he saw the pragmatic need for countermeasures. This moment would be called back to in stories over the next several years.
That's the moment that Batman v. Superman should have built towards, the connection and resolution between these opposing forces. It even plays into the themes of power and accountability that already permeate the film. And you know what? It doesn't require a single bullet to the head, or snapped neck or barrage of bullets. It doesn't even require a thrown punch.
I'm sure a great many Batman fans would agree with me. No matter how vocal the contingent of the uninformed is, I'd like to think they represent a minority. And yet, there's this weird notion that the more violent something is, the more mature it is. Is it strange to root for the fact that a film is R-rated when you haven't even seen it to know if the PG-13 cut feels neutered?
Even at PG-13, there are moments that feel like they have more of a nasty edge than Nolan's trilogy. An early scene shows terrorists executing a man. Even though the killshot isn't shown, the moment feels ugly in a way that, say, a similar execution of a bank robber in The Dark Knight doesn't.
An audience that cheers an R-rated cut, sight unseen, is the sort of bloodthirsty arrested adolescent that I don't want my entertainment pandering to. I want you to understand I'm not decrying the very concept of graphic violence. I shudder to think of what a PG-13 cut of Saving Private Ryan would look like. Reducing Pulp Fiction to a PG-13 would distort and eviscerate Tarantino's voice. That material demands a certain willingness to push boundaries.
But if you're coming to me with the argument that the only good Batman story can be R-rated, you're an idiot. Seriously, go fuck yourself and educate yourself about the topic. Those glorious blood-soaked violence fests that you DEMAND be reproduced in all their gratuitous fashion? They're aberrations. Just because they're aggressive doesn't make them mature.
In fact, the same goes for you.