Imagine this narrative of an upcoming R-rated movie: A homicidal maniac escapes captivity, kidnaps a high-ranking city official and subjects him to a litany of extreme degradation and torture. The story's protagonist races against the clock to rescue the victim — but not before someone close to both men suffers a grievous wound.
It may come as a surprise that the hero and villain in question are none other than Batman and The Joker. The synopsis describes the latest superhero movie — this one a cartoon video, no less — called "The Killing Joke" that's expected to be released in July. Based on an iconic graphic novel published by Warner Brothers' DC Comics in 1988, "The Killing Joke's" dark tone and decidedly adult content earned it a place in the pantheon of avant garde storylines. To date, many fans and experts consider it one of the best Dark Knight stories ever written.
"We're at a point now that we can choose to be as authentic to the source material," said Sam Register, president of Warner Brothers Animation, in a recent interview with CNBC. "'The Killing Joke'" had been on the slate for years, and the director felt it could be close to the source material.
"We didn't go for rated-R but we knew that would be a possibility," he said. "We decided to embrace it."
The soon to be released video, whose R-rating is a first for a DC superhero endeavor, is part of a fabric of highly lucrative comic book films that are darker and more violent. However, what has become increasingly apparent is that fewer of them are suitable for children and young adults.
Movies like the PG-13 rated "Batman v. Superman," which hauled in nearly $900 million worldwide, and Marvel's "Deadpool" — the first R-rated film in the studio's cinematic universe and one that earned about $762 million globally — were noteworthy for their intense action, vulgarity and bloodshed. An upcoming sequel to the "Wolverine" franchise is also likely to carry an R-rating.
The last decade has turned comic book movies into creative goldmines, as fanboys who came of age reading the source material flock to relive childhood memories on the big screen. Yet the somber tone and violence has more people questioning whether the entertainment should be more kid-friendly, because many fans were first exposed to characters like Batman, Superman and the X-Men as children.
"It's fair to say superheroes are still for anybody, but filmed entertainment is catching up with the comics and that's a good thing," said Register, who himself has young children and was once a top exec at Cartoon Network. "If there's an audience we should be reaching that likes that [children's] content, then we should be talking to them too."
With the wide array of alternative forms of entertainment, including video games and Web-based platforms, "kids have a lot of stuff they can do … other than reading comics," he added.