R-Rated Superhero Stories Are Inherently Revisionist

Why the R-rated BATMAN V SUPERMAN is so weird.

Last night we learned that Warner Bros will be releasing an R-rated cut of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on home video. This isn’t the first time the studio has released an R-rated version of a children’s story - last year they put out a cut of The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies that carried the R rating. But in the case of Batman v Superman the R rating speaks to a vocal fanbase that believes superhero films need to be edgier, darker and more serious in order to be taken more seriously.

There is certainly plenty of precedent when it comes to superhero stories that are, for lack of a better term, R-rated. Marvel had an entire line, Max, devoted to the concept. Some R-rated superhero stories have been good, but only a few have been great, and they all share one quality: they’re deconstructions.

Superhero stories are a curious thing. They began life in the 1930s as tales for children and low-education adults. Superman crossed over into the mainstream with a popular radio show, serials and eventually a TV show, but he was the only one who seemed to truly bridge the gap between grown-ups and kids, and even his crossover stuff was clearly kiddie-oriented. Things changed in the 1960s as Marvel Comics targeted an older crowd, aiming their stories at smarter and hipper teens. As happened in the modern era with Harry Potter, the Marvel audience aged up but not out of the stories, and so Marvel kept pace. By the late 60s Marvel had positioned itself as ‘Pop Art,’ and it was telling stories often aimed at a college-aged audience.

Marvel changed the world of superheroes in major ways, but in retrospect one of the biggest impacts it had was the way it continued to court older audiences. By the 1980s an entire generation had grown up with superheroes and never left them behind, and the superheroes tried to keep up. As the comic book store began to rise so did comic books aimed at adults. At first this began as quality improvements - Camelot 3000 was printed on Baxter paper instead of newsprint, and Marvel launched the idea of graphic novels, complete stories told in one oversized tome, with The Death of Captain Marvel, a comic that tackled cancer. But the focus shifted to content, and DC in particular began to push the boundaries of violence and nudity*.

By 1982 it was becoming clear the weird position in which superhero stories had found themselves. Bright, colorful and silly characters originally intended to entertain children were now being embraced largely by adults. There was a cognitive dissonance at play as these characters in bright tights operating from simplistic moral stances began experiencing violence and sexuality at a more adult level. And Alan Moore, one of the great geniuses of comic books, tackled the subject head on. A couple of times.

His first go at it was the British comic Marvelman (retitled Miracleman in the US), a reboot of a very broad and goofy hero from the 1950s. Marvelman was basically the British version of Captain Marvel, aka Shazam!, a kid who when he said his magic word (Kimota, in this case) transformed into a perfect adult specimen with superpowers. Moore’s story picks up in 1982 with young hero Mike Moran all grown up and having no memory of his days as a superhero. But he has dreams, dreams of flying, and he eventually recovers his magic word and Marvelman is returned to the world. Except it’s the real world, not the shiny happy world of 1950s comics. It’s a world where the name of his sidekick - Dickie Dauntless, Young Marvelman, is ridiculous. It’s a world where a man who can smile while having bullets bounce off his chest is scary as hell. And it’s a world where, when two super-powered beings collide, the results are apocalyptic.

From the beginning Marvelman addresses the dissonance in superhero stories - Moran remembers the youthful, innocent adventures that seem so silly today. The villains he fought were essentially jokes, crooks without a real capacity for evil. Nobody got hurt. As Moran tells these freshly-remembered stories to his wife she laughs at them - they’re too goofy to be true.

They were true then, but the world is a different place in 1982. Marvelman’s magic word, Kimota, is ‘atomic’ backwards, something that seemed brightly futuristic in the 50s but, by the early 80s, only brought to mind death by nuclear fire. Every aspect of the superhero is sinister in a modern, realistic light. Moore’s revisionist take on the superhero was seismic, and in Marvelman he exploded all the concepts of what a superhero story was. He applies adult rationale and logic to the character, and to the extended Marvelman family. He attempts to get into the psychology of men who have been gifted powers that make them gods.

Marvelman did two stupendous things. The most famous happened in the pages of Miracleman #15  where Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, now a grown-up psychotic villain who snaps after being raped in a group home, battle in the streets of London. Artist John Totleben used Goya’s Disasters of War and American Civil War battlefield photographs as his points of reference for the carnage. And the carnage is extraordinary - people are torn limb from limb, bodies are impaled on spikes, guts spill into the streets. What Moore and Totleben are going for here isn’t just shock and edginess, it’s an examination of what it would truly be like if two beings on this scale had a fistfight in a populated area. It’s a sequence designed to make us rethink the bloodless, goofy superhero battles where heroes pick up buses to smack bad guys over the head. It confronts us with the reality of violence.

But the most astonishing thing that Moore did in Marvelman was, in an issue illustrated by Rick Veitch, explicitly show the birth of Marvelman’s child. And I mean explicit. Marvelman was the first true revisionist superhero story, and what other revisionist tales would miss was that Moore was bringing the entirety of adult human experience to superheroes. Future revisionist stuff, like Marvel’s Max line, would really operate at the level of a prurient 15 year old boy. Moore was operating at a level of adult literature. Marvelman paved the way for all the great revisionist superhero stories to come, and it presented a high-water mark for “R-rated” superhero comics. But it used the extreme content as a way of examining superheroes and their meaning - it isn’t just a comic based on the concept of ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if the hero punched guy’s heads off?’

That’s the other thing that Moore brought to his revisionist superhero stories - literary talent. He wasn’t just telling superhero tales that featured extreme content, he was telling the stories with literary panache. That would come to true fruition with Watchmen, a comic Moore created with artist Dave Gibbons that has a complicated and beautiful structure that utilizes the comic page and frames in a way that no one else has ever done again since.

Marvelman’s impact was felt more within the world of comic creators than with an American audience, where it was often hard to find. But Moore came to America, continuing his superhero revisionism with Watchmen, the 12 issue maxi-series that utterly redefined superheroes for the next few decades. It picks up many of the threads Moore examined in Marvelman, especially in terms of the psychology of a super-powered being and the idea that the villain can be sympathetic, but it goes even farther. Watchmen’s revisionism extends backwards in a way that Marvelman’s didn’t - it lifts the cowl from the silly old-timey Golden Age heroes and shows them as rapists and suicidal closet cases. There were no ‘good old days’ in the world of Watchmen, it was always actually ugly under the hood.

Watchmen also makes clear the connection between superheroes and fascism; it’s set in a world where Nixon is still president in the 80s, where super-powered beings are tools of the American empire and where the reality of vigilantes who break the bones of crooks is shown to be grotesque and cruel. Moore and Gibbons also directly connect sexuality to violence by having Nite-Owl impotent until he beats up some thugs; this is an extrapolation of the nearly-naked masculine power figure of the superhero using violence to assert dominance, and how he appeals to teen boys.

Again, the ‘R-rated’ content in Watchmen is used in the service of literary criticism. Moore is taking these tropes of superhero stories and bringing them to their logical conclusion, and he’s forcing adults to confront their own interest in these tales. Moore did not do much superhero work in the 80s - his other seminal work, The Killing Joke, is extreme but not so ‘R-rated’ that it couldn’t be folded into DC’s Comics Code Authority approved continuity - but almost all of it tackles the central question of what the superhero means in the modern world, and what base and ugly desires they fulfill. By the end of the 80s Moore was done with superheroes, having pushed them as far as he could. He would be back, though.

Watchmen was joined in 1986 by another genre-redefining work, The Dark Knight Returns. I’m not 100% sure that it counts as an ‘R-rated’ superhero story - in the modern world of blockbuster cinema much of it feels like a hard PG-13 - but at the time it was truly extraordinary for how far it took Batman within his own mythos. Part of what makes The Dark Knight Returns so complicated from a modern point of view is the fact that creator Frank Miller has almost completely transformed in the decades since its initial publication; his public remarks on politics post-9/11 indicate a guy who is exactly the kind of guy Miller was poking fun at in 1986.

The Dark Knight Returns, like Watchmen, examines the fascism inherent in the superhero story. Violence is key to this, and the book pushed the limits of violence for the time, especially in a story featuring one of the most popular superheroes in the world. It’s vital to remember the context of this comic - the general public perception of Batman was still dominated by Adam West. Frank Miller took Batman and inserted him into a world just two days from now, a world that was an extrapolation of the endless Cold War and the skyrocketing crime rate in the wake of the crack epidemic. He posits the daylight heroes, personified by Superman, as tools of the American empire while presenting Batman as a wasteland warrior leading a mob of killers and rapists. It’s a savage work, one that is often misread or at least underestimated in its complexity. Where Moore took superheroes and set them adrift in a world of grey morality, Miller is taking a world of grey morality and subjecting it to the brutality of Batman’s black and white worldview. Moore followed the trajectory of the vigilante hero in one direction with Rorschach, but Miller finds another trajectory - Batman morphs from superhero into revolutionary leader.

Again, all of these works use their extreme content in the service of stories that reflect on themselves and their genre. They’re also all narratively sophisticated - not only is the content for grown-ups, but so is the storytelling (in 1987 Time gave The Dark Knight Returns a bad review, complaining "The stories are convoluted, difficult to follow and crammed with far too much text.”). All of these works also break superheroes completely - in Marvelman they become literal gods, in Watchmen they end up as ineffectual dorks who are unable to stop the villain from saving the world, and in The Dark Knight Returns they are explicitly political operators and, in the end, revolutionaries.

Other works have approached superheroes from revisionist directions without being R-rated - see the great Squadron Supreme maxi-series - or have been R-rated while recognizing they can’t be superhero stories - see Alias and Jessica Jones, which are textually about someone who lives a life that is fundamentally incompatible with being a superhero. Alias is very much a post-Alan Moore comic, a superhero story that has gone beyond superheroics and is fundamentally about people.

Even Deadpool, the R-rated superhero smash that is clearly having a major impact on how Warner Bros and Fox are approaching their superhero stories (the next Wolverine film will be rated R as well) is essentially a deconstructionist/revisionist superhero story. Beyond breaking the fourth wall, the character of Wade Wilson talks explicitly about how this isn’t the story of a superhero (even as it tries to be the story of a superhero). It’s almost as if the addition of adult material automatically removes a story from its true superhero context, or it breaks the entire superhero genre.

Marvelman, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns needed to happen in their time. So did other extreme content, reactionary and revisionist superhero stories like Bratpack and laterThe Authority (which in my mind exposes the silliness of the dark and gritty superhero story - it's kind of a revisionist revisionist story)- they needed to exist to confront the dichotomy between the childishness of the genre and the adulthood of the readers. They needed to exist to get into those depths so that creators could, hopefully, come out the other side.

Alan Moore quit superhero comics in the 80s, but he came back. Having pushed the superhero deep into reality he returned to comics and kicked reality right in the ass. His first major superhero work after an absence was 1963, an Image mini-series that tried to capture the magic of early Marvel Comics. He followed that up by taking the reigns of Supreme, Image’s version of Superman, and Moore removed all realism from the character, telling stories that were much more in line with Superman’s silly 1950s adventures. I’ve always felt that fandom unfairly glossed over Moore’s later refutation of his own dark work.

None of this is to say that superhero stories need to be for babies, but they probably do need to be for what we would consider the “Young Adult” audience. Harry Potter and the Hunger Games books (and movies) were able to tackle many adult themes and concepts, to go dark and harsh, without tripping over the line of what makes them appropriate for teens. Superheroes have always been essentially YA stories, and they are at their best when they have big, recognizable emotions set against broad, fantastical stories. The classic Chris Claremont run of X-Men comics is a great example of this - stories that have emotional weight, thematic heft, that flirt with truly mature examinations of guilt, hate and retribution… but that always remain appropriate for a 13 year old. In fact they’re excellent works for 13 year olds, stories that can expand a kid’s understanding of the world while also delivering top-notch action entertainment.

Fandom missed many of the points of the seminal dark 80s comics, and Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns in particular set the stage for a decade of grittiness that is being reflected in Batman v Superman, a movie seemingly based around a desire to enact the Batman and Superman fight from The Dark Knight Returns on the big screen. With the announced R-rated cut it seems clear that we have finally come to the place that fans have been clamoring to reach since 1986, but without examining the path that is being taken.

Batman v Superman is supposed to launch a whole new universe of DC Comics movies; this is the springboard from which Justice League and a satellite system of standalone movies will grow. The fact that the movie was predicated so heavily on The Dark Knight Returns was always worrisome in this light, but the fact that Warner Bros feels like the movie deserves an R-rating - in any format - is where the wrongheadedness truly comes to play. The Dark Knight Returns smashed Batman and Superman. The book was intended to tell the last Batman story, and to use it as the blueprint for a whole new universe seems bizarre at best. Here’s our new superhero franchise, and we’re going to start it off by taking notes from a story that explains why superheroes are synonymous with fascism. Let’s get really violent to prove it to you.

Maybe that’s the point. Man of Steel made some stabs at revisionism, attempting to view Superman’s arrival on Earth through a more ‘realistic’ lens (although one, I argue, that doesn’t take the actual character into account. It has more in common with Watchmen in that way - Alan Moore wasn’t attached to any existing characters and so he could make the psychologies of his heroes fit whatever point he wanted to make), and it’s clear that Batman v Superman will be examining the fallout of the massive and destructive battle at the end of Man of Steel. Perhaps the entire DC Movieverse is being built on the grounds of deconstruction. But it wasn’t just the deconstruction and extreme content that made the best of the 80s revisionist books work - they’re also marvels on a technical level. The craft on display keeps them from being juvenile wallows in sex and violence. Even if Batman v Superman is operating on storytelling heights equal to Moore and Miller (honestly unlikely), establishing your canon in the ashes of deconstruction is risky and potentially limiting.

It's a tricky feat to pull off, to approach your superhero universe from the point of view of ‘maybe all of this stuff is inherently bad.’ It's dangerously close to the point of view Hollywood brought to superhero movies before X-Men, when campiness ruled because the people making the movies looked down on the properties. Ironically, many assume that approaching superheroes from a more 'realistic,' R-rated angle is a sign of taking them seriously, but I disagree. Just look at Larry Niven's famous story Man of Steel, Woman of Tissue, about the sexual challenges facing Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and you realize that coming from this point of view can be as condescending as Batman and Robin. The true sign of respect for the genre is to approach it as it is, with all the good and the weird and the silly, all the things that made superhero stories last for almost a hundred years.  

At the very least approaching a new superhero universe only from the point of view of extreme realism and deconstruction would deny the basic pleasures of the genre, the pleasures that eventually called Alan Moore back to superheroes after he had tried to burn them to the ground.

*Just a note that we’re talking about superhero comics here. Comic books had been pushing content boundaries for decades, especially in the ‘comix’ scene where satirical, counterculture comics were being sold only to adults.