Twentieth Century Fox is betting R marks the spot for box office gold, as theaters grow more packed with superhero movies, and a maturing audience demands edgier content.
The studio is finally giving fans what they've clamored for since Hugh Jackman first played the X-Men's marquee mutant nearly 17 years ago: an R-rated Wolverine movie. If the upcoming "Logan" —which opens next Friday—is a success, it could be the start of a string of X-Men movies that embrace mature content, some say.
This marks the first time a studio has ventured an R-rating on a movie starring an A-list superhero since the golden age of comic book movies kicked off with "Iron Man" in 2008.
Prevailing wisdom has held that a PG-13 rating will draw wider crowds. But the success last year of Fox's adult-oriented "Deadpool" — as well as Netflix's gritty Marvel Comics shows like "Daredevil" and "Luke Cage" — have overturned conventional thinking. Meanwhile, DC Comics has begun embracing adult-oriented superhero content of its own, producing two R-rated cartoon features in the last year: "The Killing Joke" and "Justice League Dark".
A passion project of star Ryan Reynolds, "Deadpool" exceeded many analysts' expectations, setting a box office record for an R-rated film and earning the biggest worldwide haul of any movie in the X-Men franchise.
To be sure, "Deadpool" succeeded not just because it featured graphic violence and language. It was also bolstered by a deft social media campaign and gave audiences a fresh take on the superhero genre, in part by poking fun at it.
But an R-rating also makes sense for Jackman's final appearance as the X-Men's enforcer because the character has always been rooted in a history of violence. "Logan" features a weakened, aging Wolverine who is coming to terms with that legacy.
"To be able to crank up the volume to 11 is a great way to get audiences really excited about these movies, particularly for characters like Wolverine and Deadpool who have a hard edge to them," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore.
"These are really intense characters that I think, in order to be fully fleshed out, almost require the R-rated treatment."
Critics seem to agree. "Logan" has a 96 percent rating among 71 critics on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
Movie-goers also seem to be energized. "Logan" was the third most talked about movie on social media in the week through Feb. 19, behind "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" and the upcoming live-action "Beauty and the Beast," according to comScore data.
"Logan" has also largely kept pace with the social media darling "Deadpool" on Instagram, according to engagement measuring firm Spredfast.
The film is tracking for a roughly $60 million opening at the U.S. box office, though some put that figure higher. BoxOffice.com is projecting a roughly $80 million opening, and chief analyst Shawn Robbins says forecasts are trending higher.
"Logan's momentum has continued to sharpen in a big way thanks to Fox's strong ad campaign and ecstatic reviews from critics. Social media buzz reflects significant interest driven by those factors as well as the film's R rating and Jackman's final turn as the iconic character," he said in an email.
More R-rated X-Men movies?
A "Deadpool" sequel is sure to be R-rated, and an under-development film based on the para-military X-Force group seems like another candidate for the rating.
Yet Dergarabedian said he is not yet convinced Fox will move its flagship X-Men films in the same direction, because the the spirit of the property doesn't beg for it. A spinoff based on the "New Mutants" series featuring teenage characters and helmed by "The Fault in Our Stars" director Josh Boone also seems unlikely to get an R-rating.
Still, the core X-Men films are showing signs of fatigue. Last year's "X-Men: Apocalypse" underperformed its predecessor by $200 million globally.
Releasing R-rated X-Men movies would help Fox differentiate itself from Disney's Marvel films and Warner Bros.' DC movies, said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. Fox could even release two cuts of the film for different age groups, he added.
"Since there is so much potential in the X-Men universe for Fox, there is no doubt they're going to mine it and spin it off and give us another dozen sequels. The question is what direction do they go?" he said.
Whether "Logan" outperforms 2013's "The Wolverine" and approaches the success of "Deadpool" could determine Fox's path, according to Bock.