I’ve never been one to strictly follow ratings advice, and neither did my parents: The first two movie theater experiences of my life were “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers” (1989) and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” ( 1991), at the tender ages of four and six. During “Halloween,” I ran out of the theater once a rake was shoved into the forehead of a sheriff, so I didn’t find out how the movie ended for another decade.
But despite my early indoctrination into horror, when friends have asked, “Can I bring my kids to see ‘Doctor Strange’ this weekend,” I’ve answered, “I don’t think I would.”
The Motion Picture Association’s film ratings board has existed since 1968, but the system created to assist parents in deciding what films are appropriate for children continues to make sometimes-inexplicable choices that can leave parents as confused as ever.
Take Marvel Studios’ “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” described by Marvel head Kevin Feige as the franchise’s first horror film, which received a PG-13 rating despite “intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language.”
One frequent criticism is that independent distributors are subject to more rigid standards than major studios. Feeling that parents are more concerned about exposure to sexual topics than bloodshed, the ratings board has typically made the deliberate choice to overlook blatant brutality and violence depicted in major studio films.
With the country intensely polarized, Americans have found no common ground on hot-button topics such as abortion rights and racism. In Hollywood and movies, it’s no different. When the Florida legislature passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, conservatives argued that their children’s innocence was in jeopardy due to unproven influences from educators surrounding sexuality and gender identity.
I’m reminded of one of the Academy Museum’s inaugural exhibits when it opened last year, “Inventing Worlds and Characters” which looked at questionable imagery and tropes in animation. Some parents have no reservations about their children taking in racist characters like Jim “Dandy Crow” in “Dumbo” (1941) or the aggressively lascivious Pepé Le Pew, the “Looney Tunes” skunk who continuously forces himself on another female character. However, to others, wider discussions of pronouns are off-limits.
It’s debatable whether “Doctor Strange” is strictly a horror film or a superhero film with horror elements, but with brutal scenes of people getting cut in half, shocking jump scares, and a sequence that is a terrifying (albeit terrific) ode to Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” we can safely classify this entry as the most “adult” MCU outing yet.
The “Doctor Strange” script, by Michael Waldron, encompasses the quintessential elements that make an MCU film recognizable to the average fan. Marvel’s 28th release attempts to raise the stakes and push the envelope on what these movies can be for cinephiles. There’s a fair amount of violence, and Raimi doesn’t shy away from the brutality of a world in which a sorcerer, a witch, and a few other fantastic multiverses would collide.
Studios have done their best to avoid R ratings for tentpoles, since limiting children and teens from entry results in fewer ticket sales. Though the R-rated “Deadpool” (2016) brought in more than $700 million at the box office, not many other directors were persuaded to bring darker, more vivid visions to their final cuts.
The ratings system has been unequivocally inconsistent for years. For example, Warner Bros’ “Dunkirk” (2017) directed by Christopher Nolan, a war film that shows a soldier being killed by a grenade, and multiple men drowning and being burned alive, received a PG-13 because the blood wasn’t as prominent.
Meanwhile, the classic comedy “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987) starring Steve Martin and John Candy, received an R-rating because of one scene where Martin’s Neal Page character unleashes a tirade of “F-bombs” after his rental car is stolen. “Foul language” is often invoked as a rationale for a harsher rating.
Take a thriller like “The Good Son” (1993), which starred Macaulay Culkin taking on the role of a 12-year-old boy who showcases his evil tendencies by drowning his little brother (off-screen) and throwing his sister onto a sheet of thin ice. The Joseph Ruben thriller features no nudity, little to any gore — despite a climax where Culkin is dropped from a cliff, lands on a rock (which the audience doesn’t see), and his broken body is seen from an unfathomable long distance — and has the actor dropping his very first “don’t fuck with me” on film. That film received an R rating for “for acts of violence and terror involving a disturbed child.” That doesn’t seem to gel with the process for the young adult franchise “The Hunger Games,” which features children murdering each other with knives and arrows, and being eaten by carnivorous animals. The film and its sequels, received PG-13 ratings for “intense violent thematic material and disturbing images.”
The ratings board acts as this systemic buffer for art reaching the minds of children, whether the MPA wants to admit that or not. Even though the rating system is voluntary, most theaters refuse to show unrated or NC-17 features. In effect, the rating system is often the make or break for financial success, and determines what stories are greenlit by studios.
MPA ratings also can’t take into consideration the fact that films affect everyone differently. “Arachnophobia” (1990) received a PG-13, but for someone like me who is deathly afraid of spiders, it might as well have earned a hard X.
Other horror classics avoided an R but have aged gracefully, including the desert monster comedy “Tremors” (1990), the paranormal flick “What Lies Beneath” (2000), the ghostly American remake “The Grudge” (2004), the Statue of Liberty head-throwing “Cloverfield” (2008) and the child-killing monsters that don’t like rocket ship toys “A Quiet Place” (2018). Even one of Raimi’s most inventive films, “Drag Me to Hell” (2009), shockingly avoided the scarlet R rating while blending body horror and actively funny sequences.
“Doctor Strange” is yet another example that with movies that target the widest possible audience, the MPA seems too worried about profanity but allows “intense violence” to slip on by with a PG-13.
While my parents would have surely brought me to see the MCU sequel without batting an eye, and as a father of an 11-year-old, I’d do the same, not every parenting style is equal. The MPA should reflect that more consistently.