I know I’m supposed to be a “funny” writer, and my last few blog posts probably haven’t been in the “funny” vein. I don’t want these posts to be too much of a bummer, but if there’s one thing Man of Steel did for me, it was remind me just how much Superman and the ideals he represent mean to me. He’s always stood for not just optimism, but the brightest and best possibilities of unapologetic fun science fiction. Basically, Man of Steel feels like a sucker punch (irony, intended). Except I saw it coming well in advance. Somehow, that doesn’t cushion the blow.
But don’t worry. I’m not here to beat that specific dead horse anymore. I’ve got an upcoming book to promote. Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest is due out next month, and it’s pretty awesome. I’ll be posting some stuff about it, probably doing a Youtube reading, etc. But I also had a new topic on my mind that I’d like to get to before that.
I used to love action adventure films. Now, they’re hit or miss, and I think it’s all about theme and presentation. Too many films now are thematically inconsistent in how they portray violence and destruction that it’s difficult to enjoy them as adventures. Man of Steel is a great example. By lovingly and with great detail painting every bit of the destruction of Metropolis, it suddenly stops being this grand adventure and instead, it becomes a terrifying experience. But Man of Steel isn’t alone in this regard. Star Trek: Into Darkness crashes a starship into a major city with beautiful detail and then simply forgets about all the carnage less than a minute later.
Yet Star Wars has The Empire blow up a hole planet, and it doesn’t feel nearly as bloodthirsty. G.I. Joe: Retaliation destroys London. And Independence Day blows up so many cities, it’s hard to argue it’s all just fun and games. Why is it, I wonder, that these films don’t leave such a sour aftertaste even while others unleash their own destructive spectacle?
I think it comes down to a consistent theme.
The modifier “Porn” gets thrown around a lot, as in Torture Porn or (the new one I keep running across) Destruction Porn. And while I’m not a big fan of the label, I think I get where it’s coming from. Porn is, after all, more interested in the sex and its portrayal, than in the plot or the consequences of having casual sex with a person you just met at the bank or who delivered your latest pizza. And that’s okay. That’s porn’s rules, and if you try to apply real world logic to pornography, you’re just going to give yourself a headache.
But the thing about porn, is that it is generally consistent in its tone. I’m not saying all porn is shallow and vapid, but it’s all right to acknowledge that the genre knows what it wants to do and has no problems doing it. There is the more subtle “Erotica” category, and that, too, relies on sex as its central point, just generally with a warm fog over the proceedings.
In that way, many of these new spectacle films remind me a hell of a lot less like erotica and a hell of a lot more of porn. If Zack Snyder remade Star Wars today, the planet Alderon’s destruction would have been a horrific experience. We would’ve had meticulous tracking shots of people screaming in the cities. Maybe a mother holding her child as darkness falls. Maybe thousands of people tumbling into fiery abysses. And it would be incredibly well directed and compelling, even as it cast a shadow over the rest of the film.
Sure, it’s absurd that Alderon just disintegrates in a moment in the original film, but there’s a reason for that. It sticks with the level of realism of the space adventure. The Empire might have just killed billions, but it isn’t meant to bum us out. It’s just something evil empires do to show how evil they are. Some might argue that this is a callous way of telling the destruction of Alderon, and they would be right. But considering Star Wars is an all-ages space adventure, I’m not sure dwelling on planetcide would ever be the way to go.
Though I’m not a big fan of presenting realism in fantasies of this sort, I can still see a compelling reason to do it. A film that chooses to remind us of the damage and horror that is traditional spectacle scenes might do some very interesting things with it. It wouldn’t necessarily be a story I would want to see, but it could be challenging to our notions of harmless fun and make us question how easily we can dismiss the deaths and miseries of other people simply because we’ve never met them.
That’s the real problem though. We get the destruction. We just don’t get the consequences. Not really.
Metropolis is reduces to a crater. We have just watched it crumble, building by building, in such a way that it’s impossible to feel good about it. Superman’s struggle is a titanic battle of incredibly powerful forces that can level a city. And we’ve seen everyone fleeing for their lives and it iy’s implied that thousands of died. It’s pretty much impossible to ignore or downplay. It’s a powerful deconstruction of what Superman and spectacle has stood for. And then, it just ignores all that when the movie ends.
I’ve heard too often that movies glamorize violence, and there is definitely something to that. But making destruction more graphic isn’t the same as removing its glamor. Heck, for some people, it’s pretty much the opposite.
This is why Into Darkness is a far bigger offender than Man of Steel. A spaceship the size of a small meteor crashes into San Francisco, and it literally has no bearing on the plot beyond looking cool and getting Khan to Earth so Spock can chase him. The scene that takes place moments after shows that not even the citizens of the city seem to notice or care. And I might even be able to play along with the movie in this regard if it hadn’t just rendered the loss of life and property damage with such exquisite detail.
But the film that has always embodied this paradox to me most perfectly is Kick Ass. The violence in this film is ugly and unpleasant. Blood is splattered across the screen. Limbs are hacked off. Death is ugly, and the people who deal in it are damaged and broken. But, for all its darkness, it still suggest that violence is somehow fun. We’re expected to root for its heroes, even as they dismember and kill. And we’re expected to somehow see this film as an indictment of our violent fantasies even as we cheer.
There is more to deglamorizing violence than merely showing blood. And I might even argue that films that soak us in gore while trying to give us an action adventure are having a hard time of it. The previews for Kick Ass 2 only seem to be more of the same. Hyperviolence doesn’t bother me, but the film’s desire to have its cake and eat it too does. Thematically, it seems to be saying too many contradictory things. And it’s an understandable paradox. The Kick Ass comic book is a lot more violent and unpleasant than the movie (which is saying something), but the movie has to reach a far wider audience.
Ultimately, films like this give me mood whiplash. If Man of Steel wants to destroy Metropolis in horrific detail, it is certainly allowed. But if it expects me to just smile and laugh a minute later, it seems to seriously underestimate its visceral destruction and my short term memory. And though Into Darkness is a bad film for many reasons, the one I find most unforgivable is how it crushes a city and then expects me to just be happy that Kirk is back alive. And Kick Ass isn’t a deconstruction of violence just because it chooses to have swearing and gore in it. It’s just an unimaginative superhero flick that happens to have swearing and gore in it.
That’s the catch though. We don’t want to actually ruin our fantasy adventures. We just want to act as if we’re more mature because we took a moment to make them unpleasant. But then we go back to cheering and laughing. And that can work too if we don’t focus too much on the details. I’m certainly willing to play along when a story allows me to. But it can’t hold me down and pour horrific death in my face and then expect me to forget it.
Of course, I don’t think that’s the point of any of these stories at all. Snyder didn’t want to paint a more realistic version of Superman. He just wanted to top the destruction that was in The Avengers. Into Darkness didn’t want to make us ponder the fragility of life. It just wanted to have a cool spaceship crash followed by a cool fight scene. Kick Ass was never interested in portraying realistic superheroes. It just wanted to make goofy characters who swear a lot. And so what? Nothing wrong with that. Fiction comes in many forms, and we all have our own different desires and emotional needs to satisfy. And that’s cool.
But deep stuff? Not exactly.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,