In a new think-piece at The Hollywood Reporter, Greg Rucka sets about reviewing the MPAA rating for Man of Steel. He can’t review the film, because he knows even less about it than many of you reading this:
I haven’t seen Man of Steel, haven’t read the script, and I’ve assiduously avoided spoilers.
But he does know it has a PG-13 rating…
…though he doesn’t know why.
I don’t know what it means. I don’t know if it’s a warning that there’s another k-shiv coming for the kidneys [a reference to Superman Returns], or if it’s just the cost-of-doing-business, or even if it’s an MPAA-bias against all superhero violence. I don’t know if this is a genuine caution to parents, or a marketing decision aimed at a demographic too-cool for Superman’s brand of hope and idealism, yet embracing of Batman’s self-loathing rough justice, to assure them their ticket will be money well-spent. I don’t know if that PG-13 is there out of sincerity or cynicism or politics.
Knowing that this PG-13 rating means the film might not be be suitable for younger kids, Rucka makes his point. And it is a sound one:
Words like “realism” and “dark” and “gritty” get bandied about Hollywood as if the only merit a story can have is in its verisimilitude, but that’s a lie. Emotional honesty transcends reality; it’s what allows disbelief to be suspended, and yet what makes a story stay true. When Superman: The Movie was released, Richard Donner promised us we’d believe a man could fly. We did, but it wasn’t the wire-work alone.
Interestingly, some of the imagery in Rucka’s piece is the same as imagery in the Man of Steel trailer:
There’s a reason little boys and girls still take a red blanket or towel and tuck it into the back of their shirt, thrust their arms into the air, and raise their chins to the heavens as they leap off the sofa into imagination and adventure.
My opinion differs from Rucka’s in a few ways, and we appear to have made some differing assumptions. One is that parents won’t, or perhaps shouldn’t, take young kids to a PG-13 film.
I’m not so sure about that. I’ve not been sure since I sat down in a cinema in Cleveland and watched an R-rated film over the heads of the grade schoolers in the third row. The industrial set-up in America allows parents to take kids to all sorts of things, and I imagine Man of Steel will be pretty well visited.
And perhaps there’s been a slide in the MPAA’s use of the PG-13 reflective of the audience response to this rating? That’s certainly how the BBFC justify a lot of their decisions over here. Half of the label is a big 13, sure, but the other half is PG. The parents are being encouraged to choose, to think twice, not to keep the kids away.
From the MPAA’s explanation of what the rating means:
A PG-13 rating is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them.
In practical terms, though, the ratings seem to be perceived as a scale of “hardness” – hence all of the fanboy whining when a Die Hard movie gets a PG-13, or the talk about “hard R” ratings, whatever that really means. MPAA classifications have long since been sucked into the rhetoric of what’s cool and what’s not, and of course the MPAA have reacted to this, whether they consciously admit it or not.
But where Rucka and I really disagree is over this notion that Superman must always be about the same thing, or for the same audience. I’m no more averse to a child-unfriendly Superman than I am to a child-friendly Batman. I’m very fond of the TV series from the 60s, for example.
I’ll always be invested in the rights of an artist to take an icon like Superman and to reinvent it, to create something new that stands alongside the old incarnations. That’s how we got The Dark Knight Returns, how the Fleischers made Superman fly, and how Miles Morales came to be.
And while there’s every possibility that Warner Bros., David Goyer and Zack Snyder have simply jumped onto a grit-filled bandwagon with their new movie, perhaps in trying to recapture either the affections or box-office of Nolan’s Batman movies, it ain’t necessarily so. Their reinvention may well be driven by what it is they’re trying to say, and I fully support their right to say whatever they want, and to use the devices necessary to say those things.
I certainly don’t think a Superman film that’s not for kids is an inherently bad thing. I don’t even think a Superman film needs to portray Superman as being a good guy. I’m totally happy for creative minds to bend him, twist him, and find new stories to tell, points to make and ways to use this creation as a light to shine on the human condition.
And there is, of course, the issue of changing mores. Look back at the Fleischer Superman toons now, and you won’t have to dig deep to find racial caricatures. Those were entirely child-friendly in their times, but now? And this needle swings both ways – many adult-only films of old have been reclassified with friendlier certifications in later years.
Even if we could agree that Superman and his movies absolutely, incontrovertibly have to stand for “truth, justice and the American way” we’d then have to start arguing about what those things actually are, even while they go on reinventing themselves in the background of our argument.
Greg Rucka has some ideals that he’d like to see Superman and Superman stories represent. It would seem that David Goyer and Zack Snyder do too. As a spectator, I’m actually happier if they don’t match-up. More ideas, more stories, more interest.
Man of Steel will be along in June. Will you be taking the kids?