Why Movie Franchises Should Have Consistent Ratings

In 2015, with ‘Suicide Squad’ aiming for a PG-13 rating in order to conform with the rest of the DC Extended Universe films, we looked at why such consistency is a good idea.
Joker Suicide Squad movie franchises ratings
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on November 16th, 2015

Fans have been looking at Suicide Squad like it’s the most badass thing Warner Bros. has ever done with a DC Comics adaptation. So, some of them might be surprised that the movie will be rated PG-13 by the MPAA when it’s released next summer. In an interview with Collider, producer Charles Roven stated, “The intention of the film is definitely to be PG-13. We really want to make these films tonally consistent … because this is a shared universe … Our plan right now is to make all these films PG-13. In some cases, you know, right there on the edge of PG-13, but still PG-13.”

That’s great to hear, whatever it means for the level of graphic violence or language you’d expect from something like this in order to make it harder, for the R. This will be the third installment of the DC Extended Universe, following the already released PG-13 Man of Steel, which certainly had enough death in it, even if mostly offscreen, to scare the children, and next year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which looks pretty dark yet will also surely be stamped with the common, compromising MPAA rating permitting anyone 13 and older. Why alienate those younger teens just to have more blood and guts?

First, from the perspective of Warner Bros., the R-rated movies they’ve done based on DC properties (Constantine, V for Vendetta and Watchmen – all Alan Moore creations, as it turns out) haven’t been their biggest successes. Second, from the perspective of the audience, it might be appreciated. As Roven says, movie franchises should have a consistent tone, because they take place in the same universe. You can’t have Ben Affleck’s Batman being one way in Batman v Superman and then another way in Suicide Squad. But that’s not what would happen. It’s more that Jared Leto’s Joker would be far more explicitly sadistic than anything comparable in the DC movies before or after.

Still, there are exceptions to Roven’s point about tonal consistency, like Alien to Aliens becoming more action than horror and Gremlins to Gremlins 2: The New Batch getting funnier, and also with the evolutions of the Fast and Furious, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Evil Dead series and others. Perhaps tone isn’t what needs to be consistent so much as content. That’d be more about whether or not Suicide Squad since it’s centered on baddies, has more f-bombs, gratuitous gore, and sexually suggestive dialogue like you’d hear about and see from the “worst of the worst” villains, the kind that winds up in maximum security prisons and psych hospitals.

Compare the Comic-Con teaser for Suicide Squad and the Green Band trailer for Deadpool, which Fox is allowing to be R-rated in spite of its being in the typically PG-13-rated X-Men universe, and the former looks like it’d get the harder classification from the MPAA. Then you see in the Red Band trailer that Deadpool has more blood and brains splattered and some dick jokes, and neither of those is really necessary for Suicide Squad, which can give off a sense of sex, violence, and frighteningly evil and sick and twisted characters without being so graphic and certainly without being so lewd for the sake of being lewd (DC is trying to stay away from humor anyway). Both movies are tonally off from their respective franchises, either darker or more vulgar, but it’s heightened content that does Deadpool in for its franchise.

Imagine if the character Deadpool, who will be talking dirty and playing messy in his own movie, crosses over into the PG-13 X-Men movies. He’ll still be goofy and violent, but it will be a watered-down, censored version of the guy, and that’s where the inconsistency of content will really show. It’s unfair to the rest of the franchise because it not just reveals but emphasizes how generally held back it is in terms of its world’s core reality. Without an R-rated installment, the X-Men movies have a limit to how far its content goes and that’s where we accept and believe the universe to be situated compared to our own.

The same thing is true for any of a number of franchises that started out R-rated and then dropped to PG-13 or even PG. Later installments of such series as The Terminator, Police Academy, RoboCop, Conan, Die Hard (which came back to an R in its latest), Alien/Predator (it’s one of their crossovers that got the weaker rating), The Expendables and Scary Movie come off as softer, inconsistent in their “reality” from the original and earlier incarnations of their universes. There also may be inconsistency in tone, but it’s mainly in what is shown. Maybe for some, it’s just the elimination of nudity, but those that alter the depiction of violence wind up in a comparative manner to seem fake. For the X-Men series, Deadpool retroactively does the same thing to seven precursors as the first Terminator did for its last two sequels.

While the integrity of a franchise is harmed by such inconsistency, so are the ratings themselves. Never mind what other criticisms can be thrown at the MPAA for numerous issues, including their lack of consistency in their system. An argument could be made that they shouldn’t allow for a franchise to have movies with different ratings any more than they should give a single movie multiple ratings for different scenes. It’s possible that someone will watch Terminator Salvation or Terminator Genisys without seeing the first three movies, but it’s not likely. Especially for Genisys, which really assumes you’ve seen at least the first two. Anyone aged 13 through 16 going to see Genisys in the theater has very likely already seen the R-rated movies that lead into it. By giving it a PG-13, the MPAA is encouraging people under 17 to see R-rated movies.

Any movie franchise that has R-rated installments and PG- or PG-13-rated installments is hardly different than any R-rated movie that has toys for little kids and/or spins-off a cartoon series, as many did back in the 1980s when theater owners and American society as a whole was laxer about the ratings. I don’t mean to come off as puritanical about it, either. I grew up on R-rated movies and think many are fine for kids (and man, the large Commando action figure was awesome). I’m just pointing out a ludicrous flaw in the system, which is exploited by studios for increased ticket sales.

And it works both ways. If a studio thinks it can earn some cool points and therefore reach an extra crowd by releasing one installment, probably a spinoff, with R-rated content, they’re doing so perfectly aware that younger fans of the franchise are going to want to see that movie. The MPAA, if it’s for what it’s supposed to be for, should be concerned about that, as should any parents who view ratings as their intended guide. They can take issue with any innuendo or otherwise implied or suggested sexual or violent material in Suicide Squad and the rest of the DC Extended Universe, but not with its consistency or integrity.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.