History will say that Deadpool changed the superhero landscape, but I truly believe that film was just the first movie in a trend that had been bubbling for some time. Deadpool's massive success makes that trend happen faster and probably last longer, but studios were gearing up towards R-rated superhero movies for some time. Forgetting Watchmen, it was clear that the Zack Snyder aesthetic lends itself to an R rating, and in fact he shot a violence-filled R-rated version of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice* that will be released on home video. And even though we found out about an R-rated Wolverine III after the success of Deadpool, sources within Fox tell me that an R-rated script for that film had been delivered some time ago - this was happening, no matter what. That R-rating door was open, Deadpool just happened to be the first film through it.
It's a trend that re-enacts a trend in comic books, where an arms race for edgy, adult material led to some truly terrible comic books (let's be honest: the vast majority of Marvel Max comics were not very good). I'm curious to see how this plays out in cinema - best case scenario, this trends breaks the leaking levee that has been holding back R-rated action movies (we've been having a minor renaissance of these in the mid-budget range - could Deadpool help us get more in the big budget range?). Worst case scenario is that we end up with exactly what comics ended up with - patently bad superhero stories that rely on violence and grimness instead of character and story.
But this arms race will not involve Marvel. Speaking at a Disney investor meeting yesterday, Bob Iger said "We don't have any plans to make any R-rated Marvel films."
Of course Marvel has a little flexibility. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be PG-13 for the foreseeable future, the Netflix shows are more accurately described as PG-15, which I think is about a perfect upper level for superhero stories. Holding the line on movies makes a lot of sense - they're aiming for four quadrants, but more than that, they have defined what a superhero movie is. Warner Bros has been positioning BvS as an alternative to what Marvel is doing, so they need to go darker and more 'adult,' but Marvel's brand works best at this down-the-middle ratings range.
I think it's smart in the long run. Parents know they can take their ten year old to a Marvel movie. Will they be able to say the same about a Fox film or a Warner Bros film in the next few years? When Wolverine III is R, it will be cutting out a swath of young fans who literally have spent their whole lives so far with Hugh Jackman's take on the character. I like to imagine a lot of industrious 12 years sneaking into that movie, but I also imagine a lot of other kids whose parents will keep them away from it. I legitimately think we could see an R-rated theatrical release of a Batman film, and what does that mean for the character who was created to entertain children?
One side effect of getting older is recognizing that most of the things that I thought were 'adult' or 'mature' when I was a kid are actually crazy juvenile. I'll get roasted for this, but I think the conversation between Vision and Ultron at the end of The Age of Ultron was more 'mature' than any amount of Deadpool's violence or F-bombs. Don't get me wrong - I love gratuitious violence and extreme swearing, I just no longer fool myself into thinking that this stuff is for 'grown ups.' That stuff is appealing to the kid in me. A philosophical discussion about the nature of humanity - that's for grown-ups.