To go PG-13 or not to go PG-13? That is the question most studios grapple with before releasing their latest genre blockbuster. Is it safer to widen the net of viewership for that crucial first box office weekend, or should artistic merit and brand confidence prevail in the face of an R rating? MPAA certainly makes the final call, although by now editors, producers, and directors have a clear expectation of which rating they’ll receive upon panel review. In the case of Sony Pictures’ “Venom,” director Ruben Fleischer and the studio made a concerted effort to stay true to the comic book “all-ages” inclusiveness. The added profits of expanding the viewing age probably didn’t hurt. However, as we’ve seen with “Deadpool,” “Logan” and most recently “The Nun,” R-ratings won’t impede performance so long as there’s a salivating need for the material.
When it comes to the aforementioned films that bit the bullet and proceeded with the R rating, violence and innuendo are what set them apart. To strip them of their heaviest ammo would undermine their universe’s integrity. Imagine if James Mangold’s hardened and gritty “Logan” watered down the severity of the violence? Logan would just be another churned out “X-Men” product without pulpy purpose or mortal stake. Moreover, there’s a profoundness in the way Wolverine is so tied with brutality that it becomes both fuel and funeral. In the case of “The Nun,” jump scares are a staple of “The Conjuring” universe – not to mention horror maestro/producer overlord James Wan’s signature style – but unless there’s gory repercussion, the tactic would cease to be effective. So where does that leave “Venom” when it comes to its tonal responsibilities?
Not having seen “Venom,” I’d be remiss to comment on whether the film works because of or in spite of its soft PG-13 rating. What little can be gleaned from early reaction is that there’s nothing distinguishable about this “supervillain” origin story. Many have stated the film could have situated itself comfortably a decade or so among other mediocre superhero films. There’s a definite sense that while not rising to masterpiece level on every outing, the MCU at least knows itself and has no trouble getting that across. Because so much of Venom’s appeal is his nightmarish character design, there’s a degree of assumption that such upfront terror is synonymous with violent scourge. When that proves to be untrue, it’s only natural that questions of “Why bother?” pop up.
There is now power in the R rating in that it allows a pop culture property to evolve. Thanks to recent R-rated financial smashes, select franchises are free from the pressure of appeasing parental boards or frugal Hollywood executives. Audiences, in turn, reciprocate such creative expansion by doubling down on their loyalty. Sure, “Venom” is projected to win the weekend against Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” and it might even top “Gravity’s” October record of $55 million. However, the overwhelmingly negative reviews could limit the movie as a frontloaded success. Consequently, “Venom” might drop from public consumption altogether in a matter of weeks. The problem is that directors and their shadowing bosses have their heads buried so deeply in the sand of source material that they fail to gauge contemporary genre interests. What does “Venom” truly represent in 2018, not from when you were a wide-eyed child consumed by freakish imagery?
This article is by no means discounting the PG-13 rating. One only needs to turn back time to last year when Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” became one of the highest-grossing World War II films of all-time without spilling blood. In that instance, Nolan’s didactic use of sound on the battlefield elicits a stronger visceral reaction than blood spatter ever could. Thus, the ratings system can be utilized however the artist sees fit, so long as he or she isn’t beholden to it. With “Venom,” there’s no rhyme or reason as to why it abstained from pushing itself to the “horror-ific” max. With an overwhelming influx of superhero genre films, why settle for riding the middle when your subject is intrinsically a monster of its own design?