When It Comes to Violence, Does a PG-13 Rating Mean Anything Anymore?

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Photo: DC Entertainment, Universal Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox

It’s rare that a summer blockbuster can earn headlines just from being granted a PG-13 rating, but this week, as the supervillain-stuffed Suicide Squad came before the MPAA and walked away without a more restrictive R, pop culture sites reported breathlessly on the development. “Suicide Squad Not Too Dark and Twisted for PG-13 Rating” wrote Slashfilm, while CNet deemed the rating “a softer kind of edgy.” Some fans feared a PG-13 meant the film’s violent scenes and highly touted bad attitude would be watered down and took their crusade to director David Ayer, who most recently directed the war film Fury. “Disappointed that Suicide Squad got a PG-13 rating,” tweeted one. “Your movies are at their best with the freedoms under an R rating.”

My hunch is that they’ll see little difference. Especially this summer, the PG-13 rating means less than it ever has when it comes to brutal, sustained violence.

A few weeks ago, we got the PG-13-rated X-Men: Apocalypse, where the image of Jennifer Lawrence in a chokehold was offered as marketing and enticement. That was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how cavalier the film’s depiction of violence is: By far the most gruesome installment of the main X-Men franchise, it features startling decapitations, a graphic shot of bones being pushed through bare skin, and so many slit throats you’d think the movie got some sort of morbid tax break for them. By the time Wolverine shows up for a cameo to gore more anonymous guards with his claws, I started to wonder if this was one of the stabbiest PG-13 films ever made.

Then I saw this week’s Warcraft. This humans vs. orcs fantasy film rarely goes more than ten minutes without someone gruesomely driving a sword through someone else's chest, and plenty of computer-generated blood “splashes” on the camera for emphasis. In one notably violent confrontation, our hero slides underneath a villain sword-first, tearing him from tip to taint. As we watch the baddie stumble and die in the foreground, the good guy plunges a sword through his back to complete the kill, shoving it through his adversary’s heart until it breaks through the front of his chest, the tip of his blade practically scraping the camera. Kids will love it in 3-D, I guess.

If you have even a passing interest in movies, it won’t come as news to you that the MPAA’s rating system is broken. Ten years ago, documentarian Kirby Dick took on the ratings board with This Film Is Not Yet Rated, where he decried the sometimes arbitrary, often confounding methods the board would use to hand in its ratings. Two to three uses of the F-word would ensure that a film received an R-rating, while a PG-13 movie could contain ten times as many murders: That's how a movie like Spotlight can be rated R even as hyper-violent summer movies slide by with a PG-13. But were Spotlight’s scattered curse words and carefully presented discussions of sexual abuse really more damaging than a series of X-Men eviscerations? It makes me wonder if even Deadpool could have gotten away with a PG-13 if its antihero had just chosen his words more carefully; certainly, that film’s cartoonish violence is no more egregious than the mass-market movies serving up stabbed chests on the regular.

Of course, Deadpool would have also had to snip a few seconds from its sex montage, because while the MPAA has become incredibly permissive when it comes to violence in film, they've grown ever more restrictive over the last decade when it comes to sex. It was bad enough when Dick made his documentary ten years ago and filmmakers described the hoops they'd jump through to make their sexual content palatable for the MPAA — a few too many thrusts and even a totally clothed sex scene could zoom from PG-13 to NC-17 — but it's even more hypocritical now, as screen violence gets more extreme.

While it’s tempting to say that all of us, including the MPAA, have just become more callous to cinematic brutality in an era where first-person shooters and shows like The Walking Dead push the envelope in terms of what can they depict onscreen, the ratings board remains stubbornly unrealistic about sex, regularly slapping an R on mildly provocative movies despite the far more intense sexual encounters that can easily be seen on cable TV and, oh, the internet. If a woman expresses sexual pleasure onscreen, the movie must be restricted, but if she stabs someone in the neck, it’s fit for families.

So don't worry, comic-book fans, you have nothing to fear. Warner Bros. will presumably someday market an R-rated cut of Suicide Squad in an attempt to squeeze a few more ancillary dollars out of the movie. In the meantime, I’m sure the PG-13 version will do harm just fine.