“Is the PG-13 rating helping or hurting families?” That’s the question I posed in an article published in Plugged In magazine in the summer of 2001. The answer seemed pretty obvious even then. But after watching two recent movies featuring heroes from the Marvel Comics universe, I’m more convinced than ever that this baffling rating serves Hollywood a lot better than it serves the rest of us.
For one thing, the vast majority of PG-13 movies are totally inappropriate for the average seventh grader. Why use 13 as the cutoff for features whose content strays perilously close to an R? Many of these films test boundaries. They look for loopholes. They play the ratings game with the Motion Picture Association of America in order to be as racy as possible without getting the R and limiting their profitability.
Take the superhero mutant prequel X-Men: First Class. It’s quite violent in places and racks up a significant body count, but the fatalities are shot strategically in order to comply with the MPAA’s acceptable limits. Similarly, frontal female nudity and a scene in which a man gropes the barely dressed woman straddling him on a bed would normally cost a film its PG-13. Not here. The makers of X-Men have found creative ways to be provocative without sacrificing their desired rating. They also get maximum pop out of an f-word, as permitted by the MPAA in a PG-13. In short, this otherwise compelling film gets torpedoed by gratuitous content.
For the most part, this is what the PG-13 has become.
On the other hand, did you see Thor? Although there are a few intense battles against computer-generated aliens, that superhero flick is surprisingly accessible. Noble. Dare I say wholesome? When it comes to the ladies, Thor’s a gentleman. In fact, the film’s most sensual moment is a passionate smooch planted on him after he gently kisses a woman’s hand. And as far as language, we get a handful of mild profanities, but a far cry from what the MPAA allows in a PG-13. Same rating as X-Men: First Class. Very different movie. In fact, Thor shows enough restraint that it could’ve received a PG. So why didn’t it? Again, I blame marketing.
Since audiences are conditioned to expect seasonal blockbusters and superhero movies in general to score a PG-13, the studio had to be a little concerned that a PG rating might actually hurt ticket sales. In 2011, a PG implies that a movie is soft. It’s a “family film.” And while that might be fine for Pixar, DreamWorks and the Judy Moodys of the world, that’s not a message Marvel or other studios angling for the 16-40 crowd want to send to their broad fan base. Indeed, ratings these days seem to be less about informing the public than positioning a movie for the biggest possible opening weekend.
I find this trend disappointing. Not just because the PG-13 has caused confusion by blurring expectations at the “edgy” end of the spectrum. And not simply because it’s alienating families that might otherwise enjoy a film like Thor. As a movie lover, I’m also saddened because this phenomenon has changed the look and feel of summer blockbusters (Transformers, anyone?). If PG classics of summers past, such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and E.T. The Extraterrestrial were released today, they’d no doubt look a little different, just to land a more lucrative PG-13 rating.