Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Hypocrisy of PG-13 Superhero Films

Okay, so this little rant stems completely from being a father, but I've nearly reached the end of my tolerance for today's superhero flick. Specifically, the fact none of them can come down to the less-racy standards of a PG rating. It's viewed by script writers and older demographic fanboys who've long since grown up reading comic books that today's superhero movies have to show more balls by amping up the violence, the sexual innuendo and of course, foul language. Hence, we have what the comic world ought to consider coining "The Golden Age of the PG-13 Superhero Film." As if it needed a bronze era.

I have a marketing background, so I get it completely. PG is considered wussy. PG-13, cajones of steel. R rating? Potentially the stuff of legend. PG-13 is considered the midline, safe bet in which to hedge future profits from the standpoint of a movie studio. Throw in some fantastical violence like no one's ever seen and let the alter ego leads sling some curse words and you can consider it bank. Really, check out the box office receipts for Thor, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, Green Lantern and the X-Men films. None of them rated beneath a PG-13. All of them pushing the limits with outlandish effects, visceral nihilism, borderline brutality and crude dialogue. Jonah Hex should've gone for an R since the scarred western bounty hunter has a refined, limited audience to begin with.

At least Watchmen, perhaps the greatest superhero tale ever told, had the fortitude to film as an R and it nearly lives up to its source as a work of art. Ditto for Frank Miller's Sin City and David Lloyd's V is for Vendetta, every bit the spectacles as the original graphic novels. Though nowhere near as stellar, at least Constantine and Ninja Assassin didn't sell out for the PG-13, as well they shouldn't. None of those aforementioned stories are for young children.

But neither is Green Lantern, Daredevil, Captain America, X-Men: First Class, Iron Man or the Spiderman films, and that's the point. Much like the Pirates of the Carribean movies, these movies of wonderment lure youngsters as much as they do tweens, teens and nearly everyone on the age bracket who yelled "Up Up and Away!" or "I'm Batman!" as part of their playtime habits. In the past, Christopher Reeve's Superman never fetched higher than a PG rating and his first two outings remain amongst the greatest hero flicks of all-time. The first Michael Keaton-led Batman by all means pushed the line as a PG (in particular Jack Nicholson's gruesome portrayal of Joker) to the point something had to be done about it.

Thus the PG-13 rating was created to allow for stronger and often more intense visions. The two recent Fantastic Four films actually showed more moxy than their competitors by going for a straight PG. This proved financially viable at the box office since younger kids could show up to the party. Unfortunately, neither film has been received well by the superhero community, much less film fans in general. Rise of the Silver Surfer was the better of the two, but you can imagine director William Hoy grunting silently how he wished for greater leniency with partial nudity in Jessica Alba's scene of Sue Richards finding herself naked on the streets. Much as he probably would've wanted the chance to have The Thing call someone a prick, a douchebag or an asshole. Accordingly, the X-Men films push as much t&a as they can with Mystique, Storm, Jean Grey and Emma Frost without incurring an R.

And here is my where my beef lies. I have a four year old son who is captivated by superheroes. That's undeniably my influence, as I grew up reading comic books and watching Superfriends, both of which I've exposed him to. I have given him some of my old superhero toys and I've saved the creme de la creme for when he grows older--much older, as in past the time when a boy finds toys babyish and they end up in a trash can out of sight of his parents. My generation is the first to have been taught to hold onto our childhood treasures. Of course, it's all being sold back to us and our children anyhow, right?

The PG-13 hero film does its mightiest to ensure that transitional period in a young child's life is not only blocked, it's capitalized upon. The fascination with superheroes stays intact when they kick more butt than the Saturday morning versions did and they have the liberty to snarl obscenely amongst the other cast members. Sure, we're supposed to accept this all as part of reality, the way human beings really talk and interact. We live in the age of reality tv, where we're supposed to accept at face value what's depicted on the tube is representational of true life.

Bullshit, I say, and with an intended pun. I was positively livid that my son got exposed to a lace of profanity within the first ten minutes of Green Lantern, a film he's badgered me to pieces to let him watch. As a parent, I've shielded the child from most of my movies--especially all of my horror films released after 1960. I refuse to let him watch the Pirates of the Carribean movies because of their intense horror scenes and extreme violence. Whether you like those silly sea yarns or not, the fact remains Mickey Mouse has a mean streak since Disney releases the misadventures of Captain Jack Sparrow, a bumbling quasi-hero who influences children--mine, especially. Kids love pirates, what more can you say? Blackbeard was actually a son of a you-know-what, but pirates have always been romanticized. Sadly, though, standard classic adventure tales like Captains Courageous, Treasure Island or Moby Dick just aren't strong enough for kids today. Thanks a hunk, Mick. Disney also has a franchisee's hand in many of today's PG-13 superhero films and they even jacked up their own Tron franchise with more elaborate violence and a couple bits of suggestive lines in Tron: Legacy.

Now, should I have let my son watch Green Lantern? Not with that PG-13 disclaimer. I took a dumb chance and immediately dismissed him from the living room. I felt like a heel by his disappointment, but even the PG-rated Green Lantern animated film Emerald Knights (which is far superior to the Ryan Reynolds vehicle) had a few objectionable curse words that angered me even more as we checked it out together. I felt entrapped, honestly. I don't even dare let my son watch the new Batman: Year One animated film I received for Christmas, despite his incessant pestering. It's enough the child won't cease asking me to let him watch the ultra-bloody Robocop films. Batman: Year One is rated PG-13 for heavy violence and "sexual material." Push me all you want, boyo; it ain't happening.

Now, I have the original comics for this Frank Miller-penned Batman storyline and I remember it being fairly intense, but here is where we're at in the superhero world. Even the cartoons aren't kid friendly, yet as parents we're expected to shell out for action figures, playsets, posters, calendars, t-shirts and kid-oriented table ware featuring all of these heroes they're not allowed to watch. Hypocritical, yes?

As I write this, my son is watching the old Challenge of the Superfriends series on DVD, but he is also coming up every so often and asking me to pull Elektra off my shelf (I have the "unrated" version, yip yip), as is he nattering how much he wants to see the new Thor movie and the two Iron Man flicks. Conan the Barbarian? Child, please. I have to wait until the kid is in bed before I put these movies on and that's not right.

If I didn't have a child, would I be as offended? To certain latitudes, yes, because Superman and Superman II were some of the most magical superhero movies in history and they stood on their merits as PG films. Yes, there was a curse issued from Margot Kidder's fangy interpretation of Lois Lane and Superman did use his x-ray vision to check out her underwear, but there was still a shade of innocuousness about it back then. At least they didn't let Margot Kidder ask Supes if his crank was made of steel like they would today as a surefire cheap joke.

It's my fault, sure, but it's also the fault of Hollywood and its corporate greed. We all know Hollywood is on delicate ground with the home video revolution, much less the portability of cell phones and tablets where people can kick back to movies wherever they may roam. Hollywood needs to try all of its last gasp tricks including 3-D, remakes and of course, the still-penetrable superhero market. It's just a shame that I have to tell my son he can't go see the new Spiderman, Batman and Avengers movies next year because he's not old enough for them.

Try telling that to a child who can already recite the names of a quarter of both the Marvel and DC universes...

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