Deadpool May Break R-Rated Box-Office Records. Has It Also Changed the Impact of the R Rating?

R and loving it. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

The Deadpool machine keeps on chugging. After a second straight No. 1 weekend, the Ryan Reynolds superhero romp has now made $241 million domestically and $497 million worldwide (as of February 22). To put that in perspective, Captain America: The Winter Soldier made $259 million in its entire domestic run; last year, only seven movies made more in total than Deadpool has made in just over two weeks. Just as notable is the fact that Deadpool has already earned more than any R-rated movie from last year — the highest-performing restricted movie in 2015 was Fifty Shades of Grey, with $166 million domestically. At this rate, Deadpool can now set its sights on an even loftier achievement: being the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, since both record-holders — The Passion of the Christ's $370 million domestic total and The Matrix: Reloaded's $742 million worldwide gross — are seemingly within striking distance.

Looking at the list of the most lucrative R-rated releases provides an interesting snapshot of how you make money when your film excludes a large portion of the public — i.e., kids younger than 17, and the parents who might have come with them to the theater. (Of course, parents will still sometimes take their children to R-rated movies, but Deadpool isn’t doing Minions numbers with 5-year-olds.) It also hints at the significance of Deadpool’s success: There aren’t many precedents to suggest that this kind of hit is possible, and going forward, all R-rated mainstream movies will be eyeing Deadpool's numbers, if not its strategy.

Historically speaking, high-performing R-rated titles more or less fall into three categories. First, there’s the Mature Film, where the adult subject of the movie inherently makes it a hard R. These can range in subject and focus — expect this to be the first and last time someone compares The Passion of the Christ and Fifty Shades of Grey — but what they have in common is that they could not have been rated lower than R without fundamentally changing the nature of the film. In this category you have horror, à la The Exorcist and Hannibal, as well as films such as prostitution love-story Pretty Woman, with the broad connective tissue being that these movies are about sex or violence — they couldn't exist at a rating lower than R without being thematically compromised.

The second is the R-rated comedy. These films tend to exist in a genre apart from the normal comedy; part of their intrigue comes from the fact that they’re R-rated, and they’re often compared to each other rather than to comedies with a wider appeal. Probably the foundational document of this type is There’s Something About Mary, the 17th-highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time, but more recent examples include The Hangover franchise (Nos. 4, 5, and 105), Ted (No. 9), Wedding Crashers (No. 12), 22 Jump Street (No. 14), and Bridesmaids (No. 21).

Third is the Gritty Actioner. These are the movies that, unlike the Serious Film, could have worked at PG-13 but, by embracing an R rating, might’ve given themselves the extra edge or intensity to stand out. American Sniper, the second-highest-grossing R-rated movie, is a good example, as is The Matrix Reloaded at No. 3, Saving Private Ryan at No. 10, 300 at No. 11, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day at No. 13. There are action and war movies that exist at PG-13, but the R rating gives these an additional layer of impact.

Deadpool currently sits at No. 6, and if — or when — it passes Passion of the Christ for the top spot, it will do so despite not fitting neatly into any of these three categories. Thanks to its heavy emphasis on sex and violence as a distinguishing factor compared to the superhero movies that came before it, you could argue that Deadpool qualifies as a Mature Film. But it’s also undeniably heavy on risqué humor, giving it elements of an R-rated comedy, and it’s a graphically violent action film in the vein of Kick-Ass.

Further distinguishing Deadpool is the degree to which it attracted younger audiences, which was exceptional for a movie of any rating, much less one rated R. On its opening weekend, 37 percent of theatergoers were 18–24; compare that to X-Men: Days of Future Past, which saw only 19 percent of its viewers fall into that range, and you see the significance.

Deadpool might be, if not the first, then the first hugely successful R-rated movie specifically targeted toward a younger audience, particularly outside the realm of comedy. Its achievement could open the door for a new kind of R-rated blockbuster, at the same time further diluting the importance of a PG-13 rating, which was once thought of as being essential to releasing a worldwide hit. We're seeing it already: the third and final Wolverine movie is reportedly aiming for an R rating — which they say was in the works before Deadpool's success; sounds like a happy coincidence — and the ultradark Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will release an R-rated tweak of the theatrical PG-13 version on DVD and Blu-ray. In a world where superhero movies are thought of as the main vehicle for the mainstream film industry, Deadpool is making money that only the top echelon of that genre can touch. And if there’s one truism in Hollywood, it’s that if something works, expect it to happen again — and again, and again, and again.