‘Doctor Strange’ conjures up ancient conversation about movie ratings

Recent criticism has some wondering if the film’s PG-13 rating is too permissive. Are there other factors contributing to this ‘hot take?’


Courtesy Marvel

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has ignited conversation about its darker, more horror-based content relative to its PG-13 rating. Is it really that disturbing?

This weekend, Variety’s Clayton Davis published a thinkpiece about  “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” in which he openly wonders how Disney managed to convince the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA), the ratings board that stamps ratings on every movie, to give the film a PG-13 rating. Here’s his thesis:

“Doctor Strange” is yet another example that with movies that target the widest possible audience, the MPAA seems too worried about profanity but allows “intense violence” to slip on by with a PG-13.

While criticizing the MPAA is an absolutely valid and worthwhile endeavor, why is there so much hand wringing over the violence in Sam Raimi’s horror-charged sequel to “Doctor Strange”? Is this film really so violent compared to other PG-13 spectacles that it should have been rated R?

To understand this issue, we need to talk a little bit about the history of the ratings system in film history. Going all the way back to 1909, we have stories about concerned parent groups getting riled up over what they considered inappropriate content in movies which led to the creation of the National Board of Censorship. Throughout the 1910s, several political groups tried to censor films for being “addictive,” “glorifying war,” and encouraging “juvenile delinquency.”

The first ratings system in the U.S. was created in 1930 by Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), who would later rename themselves the MPAA. This decision was made in order to make sure the federal government didn’t get involved in the censorship of movies, which may well have hurt business. This system, called the “Hays Code” after former Postmaster General William Hays, who was put in charge of the MPPDA, sought to bring a moral standard to movies that eventually led to just as much subversion as it did moral purity in film.

In the late 1960s, as the Hays Code proved obsolete and dated, the MPAA introduced the first ratings system that we still use today for the most part with a few changes. This system had its first real challenge in the mid-80s, after movies like Steven Spielberg’s PG-rated “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” began to freak out parent groups and led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. Prior to this, it wasn’t uncommon for PG films to feature gratuitous violence, foul language, or even nudity.

Since the mid-80s, the PG-13 rating has proven to be the marketing sweet spot for franchise films. It promises enough violence and sexuality to charge up older audiences without angering parents who want a two-hour-plus babysitter that won’t induce nightmares or lots of difficult questions.

So, of course “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was going to be PG-13, even with Sam Raimi, whose “Evil Dead” film series is the reason he was hired to direct this movie. Raimi is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of PG-13. Look no further than the operating room scene in “Spider-Man 2” in which Doctor Octopus’s arms come to life and slaughter a room full of surgeons.

Should the new “Doctor Strange” have been rated R, like “Deadpool”? There is a body count, a reanimated corpse, a grisly monster death, and a few jump scares. It definitely offers the most horror elements we’ve seen thus far from an official MCU movie. Outside the MCU, the “Venom” movies involve the hero biting people’s heads off, or in “Morbius,” a vampire sucks blood and spills even more of it. Those films didn’t result in thinkpieces about their PG-13 ratings.

Without diving into deep spoiler territory, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” isn’t any more graphic than the slew of PG-13 horror films we get each year. It does, however, offer one element that many of its brethren in the MCU do not. Consequences. Unlike “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” or even “Avengers: Endgame,” the violence in “Doctor Strange 2” has real consequences. Take for example, a scene where the movie’s villain threatens a hero by asking about their children, before saying they hope those kids have a mother who will be able to raise them after their father is dead. Then that character dies, and we are left thinking about fatherless children.

Also, let’s not forget that part of the thought process here, no matter how little consideration it might receive, is that the villain in “Doctor Strange 2” is a woman. And not just any woman, but the Scarlet Witch, who uses her powers in disturbing ways to achieve her ends. When Thanos killed his own daughter in “Infinity War,” no one seemed to think that was a bridge too far. There has never been a conversation about how awful it was when Darren Cross turned the scientist Frank into goo for daring to question the ethics of using shrinking technology in “Ant-Man.”

So, what we have here is a movie that dares to put real moral consequences on the violence of its characters, and doesn’t shy away from allowing a previous female hero to commit those acts of violence. We should be praising “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” for refusing to desensitize viewers to its brand of comic book violence. And we should be talking about what that violence means instead of whether or not this movie should have been rated R.