With the success, both financially and critically, of Logan, the newest entry in the X-Men film series and the reportedly last to feature Hugh Jackman as the title character and Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, many people are claiming that its R rating is the reason for it being among the best comic book movies ever made. This and Deadpool have ensured that R-rated superhero movies will be more abundant (not that they’re anything new, considering we’ve had Blade, The Crow, Watchmen, Kick-Ass and others since the ’90s). Sure, the rating has allowed the filmmakers to let loose with the violence that’s inherent in the character (as well as allowing a multitude of F-bombs and brief bare breasts), but what really set Logan apart from the other films in the series is the tone and genre. Director James Mangold chose to forgo the glossy comic book-y style adopted by so many films in this genre to make a grim, futuristic western road trip flick. He tried to mix up the genres a bit in his previous entry, The Wolverine, by placing the setting in Japan, but was still hampered by studio involvement that dictated a certain consistent look and tone. This time, they took a hands-off approach and let him make a movie that fit his vision rather than to conform to what came before.
Logan marks the second time Fox has done this within this universe, after allowing Ryan Reynolds and director Tim Miller free reign to let Deadpool be as wild and funny—and violent—as possible. The film’s R-rating allowed that to happen, but that doesn’t mean that every film is appropriate for being age restricted. However, what that does mean is that studios need to allow filmmakers to take more chances and make films that are appropriate for their subject matter.
Marvel studios has a formula down pretty good with its Avenger series, but the films within their series that stand out are the ones that break the mold. Captain America: Winter Soldier is a political spy thriller at heart. Guardians of the Galaxy is a comedic anti-hero adventure. Doctor Strange is a mind-tripping fantasy. Even within the X-Men universe, there was a little leverage within their storytelling—First Class is a cold war thriller and Days of Future Past is a time travel adventure featuring the casts of the two eras represented on screen. But Apocalypse feels tired because it does nothing new—despite it’s ’80s setting and the introduction of younger versions of characters we’ve seen before, nothing feels new. It’s just hitting the same notes that cause a collective shrug from the audience. That said, imagine if First Class director Matthew Vaughn was given the freedom to go all-out like he has done with other films like The Kingsmen and Kick-Ass?
Other series have done well by allowing each film to be its own unique story, often changing genres mid-stream. Alien was a science-fiction based horror story while Aliens was a military-themed action adventure. Though Alien 3 returned to its horror roots, it did so with a completely different look and feel as its predecessors. Alien Resurrection was essentially a chase film, though tonally it couldn’t make up its mind if it was serious or a farce, and was the weakest entry in the series. Even Prometheus, which is set in the same universe, is essentially science fiction fare exploring deep issues with moments of horror.
One of the reasons Star Trek has been around for decades is that it tells different kinds of stories, both on the big and small screen. In cinemas, The Motion Picture was an epic science fiction think piece while Wrath of Khan was a nautical revenge adventure. The Search for Spock went both darker and more comedic, yet was a smaller and more character-based story. The most popular of the original cast series of films, The Voyage Home, was a fish-out-of water comedy that appealed to Trek fans and non-fans alike. The Final Frontier tried to return the series to all-out adventure before The Undiscovered Country wrapped up that run of films as a political espionage thriller. While there was a connective thread to the story in most of these six (especially with the “trilogy” comprised of the second through fourth films), they each took on their own personality that was guided by the writers and directors, for better or worse.
Critics can hold Star Trek V: The Final Frontier up as an example of when a director (in this case William Shatner) over-extended his creative reach and made a bad film. Yes, that is the danger of allowing the creative team too much freedom. For every The Dark Knight, you have the chance of getting Batman & Robin (though, to be fair, the latter was exactly what the studio wanted—a kid-friendly movie that could sell a lot of toys, so perhaps a better example would be Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Every film is a gamble, but studios playing it safe and churning out the same film repeatedly will cause viewer fatigue and lack of interest, which is why traditionally sequels have performed worse with each installment.
There’s a reason why a certain film or franchise connects with audiences. The characters resonate, the movie does something they hadn’t seen before, it offers a new take on an old trope, and so forth. We want to spend time in that universe again, which is why we enjoy sequels, but when the experience is a pale imitation of the first go-round, disappointment set in. That’s why it’s so exciting to see Wolverine and Professor X in a different setting, facing challenges they’ve never had before. Yes, the R-rated content had a lot to offer regarding shock value and allowing the filmmakers leeway in what content they can use, but moreover they chose to go a different route with storytelling. Imagine if they just did another X-Men Origins: Wolverine except with more cussing and blood.