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From 'Blade II' to 'Zack Snyder’s Justice League,' these are the 11 best R-rated comic book movies
These movies are much more than having superheroes curse, though that happens, too.
The Daywalker laid bloody waste in 2002, and he let audiences know that there was merit in a comic book movie that held an R rating. Twenty years later, Blade II remains a landmark that gives permission (not that anyone's asking) for genre adaptations to curse and get bloody. It also made audiences pay attention to the work of Guillermo del Toro, a master artist that the world is lucky to have.
In the pantheon of R-rated comic book movies, Blade II still ranks very high. There are many more contenders now, though, as many movies have taken that R and gone berserk with it. Blade II wasn’t the first, but it’s definitely one of the most memorable.
To celebrate twenty years of Del Toro’s bloody business, we’re going through 11 of our favorite comic book movies that are branded with an R rating. We’re not calling them “superhero movies” because not all of these adaptations feature superheroes.
Do you like music, Mr. Finch? If so, onward to the list.
1. Blade (1998)
We wouldn’t have Blade II without the first Blade, directed by Stephen Norrington and written by David S. Goyer in 1998. This was before X-Men hit the screen and started a new era of its own. Wesley Snipes took on the titular character, striking down wicked vampires, and though we don’t enjoy it half as much as the sequel, there are joys to be found here. All of the necessary story set-up is done and done well, so there’s little heavy lifting for Snipes to do in the follow-up.
The action is good throughout, though for us the movie peaks early with the nightclub scene. Most importantly, Blade takes itself seriously while having fun at the same time. If you’re going to revisit Blade II, there’s no reason not to pop this one on first.
2. Sin City (2005)
Frank Miller teamed up with Robert Rodriquez (and guest director Quentin Tarantino) to bring his own graphic novel series to the screen, and the result is a (mostly) black and white festival of blood and brutality. What do you expect from a movie with this title? There’s “sin” everywhere you look. Pedophiles, corruption, cannibalism, sadism, and a couple of damn fine coats. Of the interconnected tales told here, we’re partial to the one focused on Marv (Mickey Rourke).
It seriously commits to a style, and if you like that style, this is a joy. If you don’t jive with that style, then you won’t last five minutes. This is noir on overdrive, with a script to match. It’s not every day that you get a movie loaded with so many quotable quotes, and many of them have nothing to do with the rating. “You’ll always be mine. Always… and never" is a particularly memorable example.
Also? Carla Gugino is in it, so that means it's a must-watch.
3. Logan (2017)
For us, this is the pinnacle of the entire X-Men franchise. We’re not alone on that. James Mangold shifted slightly into “Old Man Logan” territory to direct this latter-day Wolverine tale, and it is brutal in every way that a movie can be. The true violence that Logan is capable of is fully explored, and he is joined in that with the talents of his successor, Laura Kinney (Dafne Keen). Technically it’s a superhero movie, but it’s much more of a Western. There are no more guns in the valley.
The action is sensational, but once again the true power of this movie has nothing to do with the rating. Hugh Jackman was never better in the title role, the returning Patrick Stewart was never better as a past-his-prime Charles Xavier, and Keen absolutely murders the role of Laura. She’s the real reason to watch. Laura’s story could be continued at some point, sure, but Dafne Keen herself will definitely not be stopped.
4. Deadpool (2016)
Of course this movie is here. An R rating is really the only way that the outrageous Wade “Deadpool” Wilson can work. Try to change the character too much, and you get what we got in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Tim Miller directed a more faithful tale of the Merc with a Mouth, and wow, what a mouth. When Wilson isn’t killing, he’s swearing. Sometimes he’s doing both, other times he’s doing both while breaking the fourth wall.
It’s non-stop entertainment with a beating heart behind it, and its success let studios know that there was still an audience there for superhero movies with this rating. It was a risk in 2016, but that's only because the corporate suits calling the shots were (and are) devoid of imagination. The audience for movies like this never left. We can thank Miller and the stupendous star Ryan Reynolds for managing to break through the standard Hollywood bulls**t and actually get this made.
5. Dredd (2012)
This isn’t the only Judge Dredd movie, but it’s the only one we watch. Based on the character created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, Sylvester Stallone is nowhere in sight. Rob Schneider isn’t either, thankfully.
Karl Urban dons the helmet in this reboot, and he never removes it. It’s a smaller in scale than Stallone’s 1995 precursor, but it is tighter in every way. The action is better, the stakes are higher, and the brutality is earned. The futuristic cyberpunk setting is heightened, but still feels plausible. A cop running around with the power to be judge, jury, and executioner is definitely plausible… especially when there are no funny winks.
Urban shines and you never see his face. Lena Headey as the villainous Ma-Ma is another highlight. If you’re going to watch one of the movies based on this character, negotiation’s over. Sentence is… choose this one.
6. Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Directed by Matthew Vaughn, this adaptation of The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons takes a lot of liberty with its source material. We don’t mind, because this is the result. The violence is so over-the-top that it’s hilarious, but it manages to stay visceral at the same time. Leading the parade of blood for a lot of the movie is Colin Firth, and wow did we not know he was capable of this.
For action and violence, nothing tops the Galahad church rampage. For “how is this scene real” madness, there’s Galahad’s “happy meal” with Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). The latter scene has nothing worth an R rating in it; we’re just happy that it exists. By the time the head-popping finale comes around, we truly can never believe what we were seeing.
We really like the sequel too (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), as well as the recent prequel (The King’s Man). This franchise should get much more attention than it currently gets.
7. Watchmen (2009)
It’s not perfect, but then again no adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' benchmark graphic novel was ever going to be. We didn’t think that anything based in Watchmen lore could be perfect until Regina King and the streaming series came along in 2019, but that’s a whole other article.
This adaptation was directed by the ever-divisive Zack Snyder, so if you like his work and his style, you may be open to what this movie has to offer. The source material is full of violence and naughty words, so Snyder doesn’t hold back. When this movie works, it really works. The birth of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) sequence always stands out, but the conquering hero who owns every scene that he’s in is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. From his ongoing monologues, to his psychiatric appointments, to the prison break, to the end, he never plays a wrong note. You can debate the pros and cons of giant squids and various stylistic choices all you want (and people do), but if you have a problem with Haley, you're an a**hole.
Oh, and also? Carla Gugino is in this one too. It's a must-watch.
8. V for Vendetta (2005)
Another Alan Moore adaptation, and another movie that he disowned. You won’t find his name anywhere associated with this, or with Watchmen. Still, Lilly and Lana Wachowski adapted it from the original graphic novel by Moore and David Lloyd. James McTeigue directed.
Once again, the movie is often very different from the source material. We’re not complaining, as the important questions raised by the original book are still intact. The totalitarian Britain of the future is still awful, and the masked rogue known as “V” plans to overthrow it. Themes of terrorism and fascism abound. Blood and violence also abound amidst the gunpowder treason and plot, and McTeigue makes knife throwing more beautiful than we ever thought it could be. The true horror is what men are capable of, which is why we’re invested in the crusade of V (Hugo Weaving) in the first place.
We never see his face, yet we think of Weaving when we think of this movie. We think of him toppling dominoes. We think of Natalie Portman being reborn in the rain. Most of all, we think of one character and performance that is never talked about, one that has nothing to do with the rating. Stephen Rea’s Finch steals the movie from everyone as far as we’re concerned, and his line, “…and I realized we’re all part of it, and all trapped by it,” still haunts us.
9. Snowpiercer (2013)
Bong hive, rise! Just as the Oscar-winning Guillermo del Toro was brought to greater public attention with Blade II, the Oscar-winning Bong Joon-ho was given a lot more attention after this thrilling and violent tale of the rich and the poor trying to survive on a train. Bong made many brilliant movies before this one, but Chris Evans and a few tossed axes made Americans take more notice than they previously had. If that's what it takes to get people to watch Mother (2009) then so be it. Watch Mother.
Adapted by Bong and Kelly Masterson from the graphic novel “Le Transperceneige” by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, this violent ride through the snow is an R-rated microcosm of the world. The action comes in bursts, but the tension never lets up as Curtis (Evans) makes his way to the front of the titular train. Though Evans is great in his role, Song Kang-ho and Tilda Swinton steal the movie.
We also like one particular shot of fish, mostly because Bong told a cut-happy Harvey Weinstein that it was a tribute to his fisherman father so he could keep it. Bong Joon-ho's father was not a fisherman.
10. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
The entire movie is summed up with the opening title card about the aspect ratio, and how it is Zack Snyder’s artistic vision. That’s the essence of this 4-hour fan dream come true. If you can accept that title card, then you’ll probably accept everything that comes after it. And so much of what comes after it is fantastic.
This is Snyder on overdrive, so once again, you’re good if you’re a fan of his. If you’re not? Prepare for four hours of hell. Snyder doesn’t hold back, and that’s the point. He doesn’t have to hold back the language, the violence, the runtime, or the aspect ratio. He did whatever he wanted. You may not like all of it, but it’s certainly better than the chop-up “here you go nerds” version of the movie that was previously released in theaters.
It’s all worth it for Ray Fisher’s performance as Vic Stone, who was barely present in the original cut. We’re not just saying that because of ‘reasons’ either. The extended Cyborg sequences, along with a “why the hell did they cut this” finale with the Flash, make this entire enterprise worthwhile.
11. Road to Perdition (2002)
Much ado was made when this movie came out, and almost all of it was about how Tom Hanks was playing a villain. Michael Sullivan is a mob enforcer, and he’s a violent man who won't see heaven, but he’s not a villain.
Directed by Sam Mendes and based on the graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, this is a highly underrated gangster noir that earns its rating, but for the millionth time, that’s not where the power of the movie lies. A horrid-looking Jude Law does horrid things, and yes there’s a ton of mob violence. In the end though, this is a story of Sullivan bonding with his son, played by future Arrowverse Superman Tyler Hoechlin.
It’s also about Sullivan and his surrogate father figure, played by Paul Newman. The drama mixes with the action in the movie’s most memorable scene, which features Hanks, Newman, a tommy gun, and rain. It’s an unforgettable scene from a movie that many people don’t realize was based on a graphic novel.
The movie isn’t a superhero story at all, yet it features Hoechlin, Law (a future Captain Marvel star), Ciaran Hinds (future DC villain Steppenwolf), and future 007, Daniel Craig. This came before the capes, but it remains an R-rated comic book movie. It might be the best one on this list.