*Minor spoilers for Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Iron Man 3 ahead*
No phenomenon fascinates me more than violence, and no medium of art enthralls me more than film, so I am, naturally, very interested in violent films. That is not to say I like bloody, gory movies — your Hostel’s and Human Centipede’s. In fact, I really loathe that kind of queasy, exploitative fare, but not as much as the modern model of the Hollywood blockbuster, with its far more troubling, almost subliminal degree of violence that needs to stop … now.
If you saw Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, White House Down, World War Z or The Wolverine over the summer, you might have an idea as to what I’m getting at. Former Indiewire critic Matt Singer called it this summer’s crop of movies’ “PG-13 Problem,” while other critics, from Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan to The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, decried the stain of 9/11 on this year’s action movies. The sanitation of violence and the evocation of 21st century terrorism go hand-in-hand — look at Man of Steel. At the end of that film, Superman and General Zod face off for like 30 minutes and take down about half of Metropolis with them, totaling, according to Watson Technical Consulting, around $750 billion in property damage and 129,000 civilian deaths. That’s more than 9/11 right there — closer to Hiroshima. But the real problem is that all this death goes unacknowledged under Zack Snyder’s direction. Without the disfigurements and falling, flailing bodies such destruction entails, or even a reflective moment where Superman acknowledges the losses he partially caused, Man of Steel earns a cozy PG-13 rating. Bring the whole family.
These “implied deaths” — to borrow Matt Singer’s phrase — have no emotional impact on me, no matter how long I think about it. That’s the problem. When the loss of life in a movie boils down to unquantifiable statistics and Joseph Stalin references, we are losing something. Man of Steel was especially awful, but even the half-decent offerings from the summer staged similar bloodless bloodbaths: Khan razing San Francisco with the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek Into Darkness; Tony Stark, in a borderline patriotic display, ordering all 42 of his suits to kill the Extremis mutants in Iron Man 3; the side of a plane blowing open mid-flight, sending all the zombies on-board flying out like rag dolls in World War Z. At least World War Z showed these zombies hurtling toward their death, though the decision to end all trailers of the film with this shot — a spot reserved for a blockbuster’s “money shot” — suggests a more callous, “Doesn’t that look awesome?!” intent. The budgets for these large-scale flicks has ballooned year after year, with more money dedicated to constantly improving special effects technology. These filmmakers want to make sure you see what they are paying for, and almost all have come to the conclusion that the best approach is to kill a hell of a lot of (fictional) people, in the coolest way possible. We have arrived at a very depressing place, where incomprehensible massacres serve as nothing more than set dressing.
For all the trash talk hurled at The Lone Ranger, some of it deserved, I will defend its grotesque, off-the-wall scene where the bad guy stabs a dude in his sternum, carves out his heart and proceeds to eat it. It was definitely at odds, tonally, with the rest of its Disney production, but at least it shook me, inspiring a WTF or two, even if director Gore Verbinski concealed the real gore off-screen. I do not care if filmmakers think violence is an inherent fact of life or a horrible disturbance in the otherwise positive human experience, but they have to provoke us with it and, most importantly, comment on its existence.
Of all Hollywood movies this summer, I cannot think of any that truly justified its use of violence. Rely on the independents, then, to bring brains and a sense of morality to the cinema, perhaps none more than Fruitvale Station. With Oscar Grant, a 23-year-old who was killed by a BART police officer in the early hours of New Years Day, 2009, as its protagonist, this film dodges the gangsta scenery that Hollywood loves to trot out whenever a young African-American male assumes a lead role. Instead, director-writer Ryan Coogler lets us live with Oscar for his final 24 hours. He plays with his daughter; loves his girlfriend, despite their fights; cooks for his mother’s birthday; lies to his family about losing his job. Oscar is like anyone else, with flaws to spare. Coogler stages a harrowing, protracted sequence at the end, when Oscar is shot and grasping for life, that communicates a painful message: No one deserves this. The chaos descends from nowhere, ensnaring him and his loved ones in a pain that Coogler captures through shaky cam and agonizing close-ups. The death of one man is a tragedy, indeed.
Fruitvale Station reportedly cost somewhere around $1 million in production expenses — that’s like a day’s worth of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine protein supplements. After watching Lawrence of Arabia this past Sunday at Cornell Cinema, I long for the challenging, mature spectacles Hollywood so rarely produces anymore. In that 1962 epic, cinematographer Freddie Young fills the screen with legendary shots of Middle Eastern landscapes and architecture. Yet director David Lean balances all that with some wrenching close-ups of Peter O’Toole’s face as he, as T.E. Lawrence, hesitates and then orders the massacre — “No prisoners!” — of hundreds of fleeing Turkish soldiers. It’s one of the most disturbing things you’ll ever see, because Lean forces you to think about, and literally look at, the blood on this man’s hands — he’s the hero, for god’s sake, of this whole movie! But I guess he was no superhero, who don’t got the time for sissy introspection, and whatnot — they have an explosion quota to meet.
This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.