The new Doctor Strange movie has raised eyebrows as to how it got a 12A certificate in the UK – and just what makes it a ‘softer’ film than The Batman.
When you think of director Sam Raimi, you don’t instantly think of family-friendly multiplex fare. You probably think about cameras rampaging through woods and Bruce Campbell chainsawing his own hand off while drenched with crimson gore. Certainly, when Raimi was announced as the new director for Marvel’s Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, many fans – myself very much included – hoped that we might be in for Marvel’s first horror movie.
It’s fair to say that Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness doesn’t quite deliver on that front. For the most part, this is very much a Marvel blockbuster. However, that’s not to say it’s entirely divorced from Raimi’s love of the macabre. A large chunk of the plot involves a malevolent spell book with shades of Evil Dead‘s Necronomicon and, if you’ve watched the movie’s trailers, you’ll know there’s a zombiefied incarnation of the titular hero kicking around as well.
Some, though, were perhaps disappointed – if not surprised, given modern blockbusters – when the BBFC’s ruling came out and the movie was given a 12A certificate in the UK. Indeed, some who have now seen the film believe it pushes the boundaries of that particular classification too far. Certainly – and I’m avoiding spoilers as much as possible here – there are gruesome moments in the movie which are on the edgy side, in comparison to the established feel of the last decade or more of Marvel material.
And it’s not as if it would be unprecedented for a superhero film to be greeted with a more restrictive age rating. Both of the films in the Venom franchise have been given a 15 certificate, as well as the same universe’s Morbius and DC’s moody The Batman earlier this year. In the latter case, numerous cinemas were forced to display notices reminding audiences of the rules forbidding them to allow anybody who appeared younger than 15 into the screening room without identification – such was the appetite of young fans (and the unpleasantness of some parents towards cinema staff)
Obviously, studios like the 12A rating a lot more than 15. One rating allows anybody to come along if there’s an adult willing to bring them, while the other imposes a hard limit. So why did Doctor Strange 2 avoid a 15 certificate, while young Batman fans were forced to sit his latest adventure out?
Why is Doctor Strange just a 12A?
Let’s head over to the official BBFC page for the movie for starters. The film is classified as a 12A for “moderate horror, violence, threat, injury detail”. While there is violence in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness,, it’s mostly bloodless and often takes the form of over-cranked sorcery and magic rather than anything grounded in the real world – as opposed to The Batman’s crunchy punches.
If you read the more detailed classification information provided by the BBFC, it’s clear that this was a major consideration in the decision. The organisation’s ruling makes reference to “superhuman beings battling with fantastical powers” and states that “fantastical creatures are attacked using different magical powers, resulting in brief gory injuries”.
Violence is often deemed to be less of a classification concern if it is taking place in a clearly unrealistic way, as much of the most gruesome scenes in Doctor Strange do. Most of us don’t have the ability to turn people into mush with our magical powers.
According to the BBFC: “The action largely takes place in alternate dimensions and universes, some of which resemble dreamscapes in which the laws of our world do not apply. Therefore, the surrealism of the multiverse and the fantastical nature of the horror, violence and threat, including the superhuman nature of many of the established characters, means the film is best placed at 12A.”
This is a movie in which just about everybody has some degree of superpowers. There are sorcerers, superheroes and multiversal demons, but very few fragile, ordinary people. So with that in mind, there’s an inherent distance to the violence. Everyone involved is capable of taking punishment that no normal human being could withstand, as opposed to a film in which horrifying acts are being perpetrated on people who realistically resemble those in the audience.
Ultimately, the way in which audiences interpret the 12A is particularly relevant. The BBFC states that films classified at 12A can “contain material that is not generally suitable for children aged under 12”, adding that parents should think carefully and consult classification information before taking children along. Crucially, a 12A does not – and this is a popular misconception – mean a movie is suitable for children. It means that it’s generally suitable for those 12 and over, but that parents may deem younger children mature enough to handle it.
How does it compare to other recent superhero movies?
The BBFC itself delved into this issue on a new episode of its podcast, discussing the changing face of superhero movie classification. One of the issues referred to in the podcast is the notion of “real world threat”, which a recent BBFC consultation highlighted as being a significant factor in whether movies are suitable for younger audiences. As stated above, this is a clear point of difference between something like Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, and the grounded Gotham of The Batman.
A key difference between the superhero films that have secured the 15 certificate and Doctor Strange is a single word in their classification: “strong”.
The two Venom films and Morbius were all classified 15 for “strong threat, horror, violence”, while The Batman was the same without the horror. When classification decisions are on the borderline – as all of these superhero movies certainly were – tone is often a deciding factor.
In the case of The Batman, for example, the BBFC guidance refers to the fact that “the tone is frequently dark and menacing”. Meanwhile, Venom: Let There Be Carnage is said to feature “strong scenes of threat and horror” as well as a “sustained horror sequence” when villain Cletus Kasady is subject to lethal injection before transforming into the titular alien organism and violently rampaging through a prison. While the Doctor Strange guidance does refer to “frequent scenes of threat”, the overall tone is the typical Marvel lightness.
Matt Reeves’s The Batman is a particularly interesting case, given that not everybody agreed with its rating. Belfast City Council ruled in March that the film could be released under a “15A” certificate. Though not a formal BBFC classification, the 15A rule worked in the same way as a 12A, with anybody able to see the movie if they were accompanied by an adult.
It’s particularly interesting to see a Batman movie serve as a lightning rod, given The Dark Knight was criticised for not being given a 15 certificate. The BBFC received 364 complaints about its decision to award the film a 12A. Further back, it was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 that was the first recipient of what was then the 12 certificate. Interestingly, it was Doctor Strange director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002 which fed into the introduction of the advisory element of the 12A. Superhero blockbusters have always posed a conundrum for ratings bodies.
And so it has proved for Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, which will no doubt bring about some complaints for the BBFC. But in this case, it’s less an issue of errant classification and more a case of audiences becoming complacent as to what the 12A label does and doesn’t mean.
Sam Raimi might be having fun at the edges of what 12A can allow, but he knows when to rein himself in. It’s somewhere before the chainsaws start hacking at wrists.
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