rated r

Rated R Comic Book Films – A Retrospective

As February closes, we see the inevitable gauntlet of summer blockbuster season looming.  This season starts with equal amounts of trepidation and tempered excitement for our opener, Logan.  This is Hugh Jackman’s final turn as everyone’s favorite gruff loner and reluctant hero Wolverine.  Logan received the go-ahead for an R-rating almost immediately after the breakout success of Deadpool in February 2016.  While this bold move turned some heads, I took it upon myself to conduct an informal study on the relationship between film success and an R-rating.  This is what happens when you’re a librarian, a comic book fan, and you stay up later than you should.  Also, my editor earned her Ph.D., so this is technically a peer-reviewed publication.  Thanks Regina!


In order to qualify for inclusion in this study, the films needed to meet several criterion.

  1. Must have an R-rating.  Data pulled from IMDb.
  2. Must have had a theatrical release.  Data pulled from BoxOfficeMojo and The Numbers.
  3. Must be based (in part or in whole) on a comic book series, original graphic novel(s), comic strip in a larger periodical, such as a magazine or newspaper, or a character/characters from any of the aforementioned mediums.

Due to these restrictions, several films failed to qualify for this survey.  Man-Thing, Timecop 2: The Berlin Decision, Heavy Metal 2000, Justice League Darkand Batman: The Killing Joke all released straight to DVD.  Both Daredevil and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice debuted in theaters with PG-13 ratings; both respective directors’ cuts qualify as straight-to-DVD releases.  300: Rise of an Empire qualified even though Xerxes never saw publication.  However, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead get away with the same thing so RoaE passes too.  Conan technically originated in Weird Tales as a novella, but the 70s comics inspired the Schwarzenegger film.

Due to article length constraints, this survey only covers the success of R-rated films based on North American comics.  I know the Akira fans out there probably want my head on a plate right now.

Literature Review

I am not the first to cover this topic, but no one delved into the stats like I did.  My study is not a top ten list like most articles about R-rated movies.  This is an actual look into any relation that may exist between an R-rating and a comic book film’s success.  Den of Geek has a wonderful write-up, but they only discuss the movies’ financial success, which I find limiting.  My study looked at fan reviews, critic reviews, and financials to determine success.  CBR also published a great critical analysis of the success of R-rated films as compared to PG-13 films.  My study is only concerned with how successful the hard R-rating is as an entity unto itself.

The Data (aka, the Part You Actually Wanted to Read)

I don’t blame you; literature reviews suck.  Anyway, the following charts contains three points of data.  The first two points come from Rotten Tomatoes: percentages of favorable fan reviews and critical reviews.  Higher percentages indicate high favorability, and low percentages reflect low favorability.  RT ranks a movie as favorable when reviews score at or above 60%.  The final point shows simply  whether or not the movie made money or lost money.  For a color-coded and filterable list that looks better, go here.

U.S. release date
Tomato Meter Critics
Tomato Meter Fans
Success Legend
Fritz the Cat 12-Apr-1972 58% 60% Profit Mostly Successful Complete Success
The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat 26-Jun-1974 43% 40% Loss Complete Failure Mostly Successful
Heavy Metal 7-Aug-1981 57% 67% Profit Mostly Successful Mostly Unsuccessful
Conan the Barbarian 14-May-1982 70% 72% Profit Complete Success Complete Failure
The Punisher 25-Apr-1991 28% 32% Loss Complete Failure
The Crow 14-May-1994 82% 90% Profit Complete Success
Timecop 16-Sep-1994 43% 35% Profit Mostly Unsuccessful
Tank Girl 31-Mar-1995 38% 63% Loss Mostly Unsuccessful
Judge Dredd 30-Jun-1995 18% 30% Profit Mostly Unsuccessful
Barb Wire 3-May-1996 28% 16% Loss Complete Failure
Spawn 1-Aug-1997 18% 37% Profit Mostly Unsuccessful
Blade 21-Aug-1998 54% 78% Profit Mostly Successful
Virus 15-Jan-1999 9% 21% Loss Complete Failure
Ghost World 20-Jul-2001 92% 84% Profit Complete Success
From Hell 19-Oct-2001 57% 66% Profit Mostly Successful
Blade II 22-Mar-2002 57% 68% Profit Mostly Successful
Road to Perdition 12-Jul-2002 81% 86% Profit Complete Success
American Splendor 15-Aug-2003 94% 86% Profit Complete Success
The Punisher 16-Apr-2004 29% 63% Profit Mostly Successful
Blade: Trinity 8-Dec-2004 25% 59% Profit Mostly Unsuccessful
Constantine 18-Feb-2005 46% 72% Profit Mostly Successful
Sin City 1-Apr-2005 78% 78% Profit Complete Success
A History of Violence 23-Sep-2005 87% 76% Profit Complete Success
300 9-Mar-2006 60% 89% Profit Complete Success
V for Vendetta 17-Mar-2006 73% 90% Profit Complete Success
30 Days of Night 19-Oct-2007 51% 56% Profit Mostly Unsuccessful
Wanted 28-Jun-2008 72% 69% Profit Complete Success
Punisher: War Zone 2-Dec-2008 27% 42% Loss Complete Failure
Watchmen 6-Mar-2009 65% 71% Profit Complete Success
Whiteout 11-Sep-2009 7% 28% Loss Complete Failure
Surrogates 25-Sep-2009 39% 38% Profit Mostly Unsuccessful
Kick-Ass 26-Mar-2010 76% 81% Profit Complete Success
Dredd 7-Sep-2012 78% 72% Loss Mostly Successful
Kick-Ass 2 14-Aug-2013 31% 57% Profit Mostly Unsuccessful
300: Rise of an Empire 7-Mar-2014 43% 52% Profit Mostly Unsuccessful
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For 22-Aug-2014 43% 44% Loss Complete Failure
Kingsman: The Secret Service 29-Jan-2015 74% 84% Profit Complete Success
Deadpool 12-Feb-2016 84% 90% Profit Complete Success

Analysis (aka, the Part You’ll Probably Skip)

The data paints a muddled picture of R-rated comic book movie success.  The big takeaway I pulled from this data is R-rated movies hit success in streaks.  The first 22 years saw 4 of 6 movies rank either mostly or completely successful.  However, after The Crow in 1994 the rest of the 90s produced failures either in quality or in ticket sales.  The one bright exception is Blade from 1998.

The Crow marks the last time until 2009’s Watchmen where we saw a completely successful comic book movie with a big budget, superheroes, and based on a widely known comic.  2001’s Ghost World (starring Scarlett Johansson in her first comic book role) was the first completely successful R-rated film since The Crow.  One year later, Road to Perdition becomes the first big budget complete success.  2005’s Sin City ticks the “widely known comic” category.  Watchmen finally features superheroes (comics’ bread and butter) plus all of the above.

Ghost World started the 2000s hot streak.  Hollywood produced 16 R-rated comic films from Ghost World through Watchmen.  Of those sixteen, only 3 failed.  Additionally, this run of sixteen films picked up 11 nominations for Academy Awards, including 1 win.  Yes, six of those nods belong to Road to Perdition, but the fact that the Academy chose 6 different comic book movies for Oscars says something.

But alas, all good things come to an end.  After Watchmen, R-rated comic book movies started another cold streak.  Of the nine R-movies since Watchmen, five have failed.  The first Kick-Ass was a well-loved success, but its sequel underwhelmed.  Unfortunately, critics and fans loved Karl Urban’s Dredd but it tanked in theaters.  It is not until 2015’s surprise hit Kingsman: The Secret Service that we see our first completely successful R-film since Watchmen.  We all know what happened in 2016 with Deadpool.

Conclusions: Where Does This Leave Us?

I tend towards optimism, so I think Deadpool and Kingsman set off a new hot streak for us.  I believe Logan will succeed universally.  However, don’t be surprised if it flops.  These streaks are never all highs or all lows.  They generally trend either up or down with anomalous spikes and valleys.  Usually, three hits or misses in a row indicates the start of a hot or cold streak.  Logan is that tipping point that either starts a hot streak or cements Kingsman and Deadpool as blips in an inconsistent run of films since 2007’s 30 Days of Night.  10 years of up and down is too long.  On Friday, Wolverine becomes the first, true A-list superhero to headline an R-rated movie.  I would love to see history made this week, where Hollywood sees the value of making superhero movies for the audience who grew up with them.

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