There was some brouhaha about the rating for The Dark Knight when it came out (PG-13) ... at least on Yahoo, if they're a reliable source. (I'm already calling today's story about an 8-year-old blues guitar prodigy as tomorrow's "oops, that was a hoax." I could be wrong, but I guessed that "shark spotted at Jaws beach" story was untrue, and by now, I'm pretty skeptical).
Then in yesterday's Entertainment Weekly, a letter to the editor described the rating as "shockingly benign."
Now, there's no question the movie isn't for little kids, but nobody is pretending it is. The trailers all made it pretty clear what people were in for, and here's the official MPAA rating: "Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace." That seems fairly accurate, and it's gotta be right on the poster.
Now, if it's so intense, why isn't it rated R? Because this is exactly the sort of grey area that the PG-13 rating was specifically created for! (Just as a side note, the movie has no sex, nudity, or profanity: things that the ratings system has always judged more harshly than it does violence). While I would agree the violence is "intense," it's not graphic, not in a way that I would say is R-rated. We're not talking about Dawn of the Dead or Reservoir Dogs here. Especially considering CSI and Bones and other cop shows with some fairly intense and disturbing stuff which they shown on prime-time TV, what's actually seen is not that bad. It's more a question of tone and context that make it intense, and that's a more in-your-mind than on-the-screen thing.
Another side note: I'd say the violence is comparable to that in Iron Man, and the whole more realistic world-at-war aspect of that movie was potentially disturbing in its own right, but nobody made any outcry about that. Also PG-13.
It seems to me, in this case, that the rating is doing what it's supposed to do. It informs parents that this movie is probably not appropriate for children under 13. It's in the name: PG-13. That means you probably shouldn't bring your 7-year-old, and if you do, whose fault is that? Short of requiring state ID cards for children at birth (which I'm sure someone is working on right now), I don't know how else theaters are supposed to protect kids via an arbitrary age limit, especially if their parents can't be bothered.
I saw The Dark Knight in a packed theater, and I didn't see any kids I'd judge under 13 who were unattended by adults. I saw a lot of little kids with parents who should have known better...just like I do when I see really violent R-rated films, especially the ones that are tagged "action" instead of, say, "horror."
The ratings must be like speed limits. People get used to them, so they ignore them. Apparently, we need a new rating, the "We Really Mean It PG-13."