‘Birds of Prey’ Announced with an R Rating; Will ‘The Batman’ Be Next?

Comic book movies are in a state of flux, following a record year for superheroes. Four such films earned more than $1 billion in 2019, including three set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But the movie with the biggest impact isn’t Avengers: Endgame, now the highest-grossing global release of all time.

Rather, the big story is the success of Joker. Whereas the MCU has spent more than a decade building up audience goodwill, DC Films tried something risky and bold with Todd Phillips’ dark, disturbing character study. And the results are already starting to impact other DC projects, such as Birds of Prey.

Batman cosplay poses for a photo
Batman cosplay poses for a photo | Juan Torres Padilla/Getty Images

‘Joker’ has changed everything

Made for a reported $65 million budget, Joker isn’t exactly what anyone would expect from a comic book movie. In fact, Phillips and his team didn’t even consider it necessarily part of the genre, taking only tenuous inspiration from the source material. Normally, this would put off comic book fans, but Joker‘s distinct vision won even the most hardcore fans over.

Part of the film’s allure is, of course, owing to the controversy surrounding its release. Joker embraces a bleak, hopeless tone; after all, its Gotham has no Dark Knight to protect it. And that naturally carries over into bloody — and decidedly R-rated — chaos at times. As a character study, fans and critics can debate how well the film’s social commentary works. But the Warner Bros. executives are more than pleased.

So far, Joker is one of the highest-grossing DC Comics releases worldwide, second only to Aquaman. As a result, the relatively cheap production is easily the most profitable comic book release ever. With that kind of return on investment (and a promising awards season ahead), it’s no wonder Joker is causing shockwaves through Warner Bros. and DC Films.

‘Birds of Prey’ officially rated R

Take, for instance, Birds of Prey. That film — directed by Cathy Yan and set for release on Feb. 7, 2020 — is essentially a Suicide Squad spinoff led by Margot Robbie’s now-Joker-less Harley Quinn. It’s also the first DC Films release since Joker, and now the company is confidently releasing it too with an R rating.

The Motion Picture Association of America only recently branded Birds of Prey with an R rating “for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material.” But, to be fair, Robbie discussed with /Film how Birds of Prey was always intended to be R-rated.

I did feel like I had to censor myself a lot [in Suicide Squad], obviously to suit a PG rating. And a lot of the characters that exist in the DC world, to be honest, are quite dark. And a lot of them, Huntress, for example, have serious childhood trauma, have serious mental illnesses like Harley. But I felt like sometimes you can’t really go as deep with those things if you have to censor yourself.

In fact, Robbie originally pitched Birds of Prey as an “R-rated girl gang film” for that very reason. Citing the character’s need to play off of others, the actress — who earned praise in 2019 for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Bombshell — opted against a Harley Quinn standalone movie. Now, in the wake of Joker, Birds of Prey stands to be an even bigger hit.

How far will DC Films go with R ratings?

At one point, Warner Bros. may have preferred to edit Birds of Prey down to a more palatable PG-13. But after the box office success of Suicide Squad and now Joker, the studio is reportedly amping up its focus on darker projects going forward. So does this mean The Batman could be the first live-action film featuring the Dark Knight to receive an R rating?

Quite possibly. As Robbie mentions, many DC characters — including its heroes — have an inherently dark pathos. Few superheroes embody that as well as Batman. We are, after all, talking about a billionaire whose childhood trauma compels him to dress as a bat and pummel criminals. Director Matt Reeves and star Robert Pattinson could unpack a lot of that psychosis in a more visceral Batman film if Warner Bros. allows them to.

This is not to say DC Films will (or should) slap an R rating on every film haphazardly. We don’t expect Wonder Woman 1984 or the recently announced Shazam! sequel to go that route. But both of those characters are meant to be beacons of hope. The Batman — and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad — don’t come from the same positive perspective and might actually benefit from adopting the darkness a bit more than their predecessors.