Opinion | The ‘Doctor Strange’ sequel is rated PG-13 because it’s for teens, not because it’s not high art

By | May 13, 2022
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The brewing debate over the MPA rating for director Sam Raimi’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is nominally about the tricky gray area separating a PG-13 movie and an R-rated one. In truth, it’s the latest effort by fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to convince the rest of us that these are grown-up movies for adults and deserve to be treated, and rated, as such.

The MPA’s Classification and Ratings Administration aims for consistency above all else. As Joan Graves, then-chair of the group, noted repeatedly during a 2013 panel at SXSW moderated by The Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg, the whole point of the MPA ratings board is to provide information to parents while balancing the concerns of 300 million-plus people living in regions that have, occasionally, radically different preconceptions about child rearing. Even parents who disagree with one another about what’s appropriate need to have some frame of reference when deciding whether to let their 14-year-old wander into a movie unaccompanied.

So what would be the case for giving the PG-13 movie “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” an R-rating? Writing in Variety, Clayton Davis gives the argument his best shot, arguing that, “with brutal scenes of people getting cut in half, shocking jump scares, and a sequence that is a terrifying (albeit terrific) ode to Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’ ,’ we can safely classify this entry as the most ‘adult’ MCU outing yet.”

Meanwhile, the perpetually jittery on Twitter suggested the film’s level of gore was too intense for normal viewers and needed a trigger warning beyond the MPA’s rating.

Still, this seems like a bit of a stretch. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is as much a PG-13 movie as any of its predecessors. Which is essentially the only means we have to judge ratings since they’re all relative by design.

There’s no foul language or sex to speak of. And the violence is well within the bounds of other PG-13 offerings: Most of the action is of the CGI sparkle-fingers variety, with one slightly more intense sequence featuring a handful of new-to-us multiversal heroes serving as cannon fodder that , frankly, is the only thing that pops this up from a PG movie to a PG-13 movie.

The “tone” of “Multiverse of Madness” is slightly trickier to quantify than the swearing, sexing and slugging. But we don’t have to look far to see a similar offering: Raimi’s own “Drag Me to Hell” is infinitely meaner, rougher and uglier than “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and that movie also secured a PG-13 rating during its theatrical run.

As a parent, I probably wouldn’t let my daughter go see “Multiverse of Madness.” But that’s mostly because she’s 6 and not, say, 14. In other words, it’s because she’s under 13, an age that feels, more or less, about right for a movie of this type. The PG-13 rating exists for a reason, and those reasons are “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (which, despite featuring the extraction of a still-beating heart, nabbed a PG) and “Red Dawn” (the unapologetically bloody first PG-13 picture), borderline movies that weren’t quite R-worthy but were probably too intense for little kids.

But really, the debate here isn’t about whether Marvel’s latest offering is appropriate for children; it’s about whether they’re appropriate for adults. The suggestion that “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is an R-rated movie has more to do with the demand that these movies be taken “seriously.” The strident belief that the movie about wizards and witches traipsing through the multiverse is an R-rated adventure is a kissing cousin to the strident belief that MCU movies are owed best picture nominations as a marker of their seriousness.

There remains a fervent belief among comic book fans that the genre is the Rodney Dangerfield of filmmaking, a belief stoked by actors who react indignantly whenever you suggest a paycheck job in a kids movie isnt equivalent to high art. No matter how many times you channel Don Draper and yell “that’s what the money is for” — and “Multiverse of Madness” will make a ton of it — fans will demand that respect accompany the lure. An R-rating would confer that respect, the acknowledgment that, hey, this is a movie for people who can vote and go to war.

The MPA’s job is not to assuage the adults in the audience that their vestigial belief in the inherent childishness of comic book movies is false. It’s to guide parents and help them decide what is okay for their younger wards to enjoy. In the case of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” they’ve done a fine job.

If you take your small child to see a movie with a PG-13 rating and they wind up with nightmares after seeing a giant Lovecraftian monstrosity get its CGeyeball plucked from its head, well, that’s on you. And if you’re spending this much time justifying that same trip to the movies as a major artistic experience, that’s for you to examine as well.

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