Sep 24

(This week and next we are discussing blockbuster films and violence, partly inspired by our friend’s IndieGoGo campaign.)

First, let’s establish bona fides. We LOVE Star Wars.

A few years ago, Michael quizzed his then fiance with a hypothetical from Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs:

“You meet the perfect person. Romantically, this person is ideal: You find them physically attractive, intellectually stimulating, consistently funny, and deeply compassionate. However, they have one quirk: This individual is obsessed with Jim Henson's gothic puppet fantasy The Dark Crystal. Beyond watching it on DVD at least once a month, he/she peppers casual conversation with Dark Crystal references, uses Dark Crystal analogies to explain everyday events, and occasionally likes to talk intensely about the film's "deeper philosophy."

“Would this be enough to stop you from marrying this individual?”

His fiance’s response? Yeah, because that’s how you are with Star Wars.

It’s true. Ever since our father made the fateful decision to rent Return of the Jedi at the local video store (okay, now I feel old), Michael C and I have loved Star Wars. We started a Star Wars collection, stored in six boxes at our dad’s house. We’ve read supplementary material (meaning the books now called Star Wars legends). And not just the novels, but the guides and technical manuals on weapons, planets, vehicles and more. Though it’s always been more of Michael’s thing, we’ve watched those damn movies countless times. Hell, we went and saw Phantom Menace in theaters when it was released in 3D a few years ago. (Except for the race scene, “Duel of the Fates” and Darth Maul, still terrible.)

I say all this to prep for potential backlash when I say the following:

The violence in Star Wars is pretty damn immoral.

We started this series in response to an email we got from someone about adding a tax to violent movies a few years ago. If you add a tax to violent movies, Star Wars should be the first one.

Why? Because Han, Chewie, Luke, Leia and Lando literally murder hundreds of people and aliens, and no one seems to give a damn. Consequences, what consequences? Most obviously, Luke is a mass murderer, blowing up a space station with millions of people on it. (I’ve read accounts that it had 31 million people.) That means Luke, aided by Han, killed 31 million people in A New Hope. Wow. (H/T to Clerks, of course, which made this point first.)

Doesn’t that qualify you for the dark side? More importantly, how does this never come up again in the series? Zero guilt.

But that’s too obvious, as evidenced by the Clerks reference. A much more personal mass murder occurred after the destruction of Jabba’s pleasure barge. Han, Luke, Leia and Lando just kill hundreds of people on Jabba’s pleasure palace, and two scenes later no one seems affected by it. It’s just shocking, really. To murder innocent people--slaves and servants as well--and no one remarks, “I feel really guilty. I just murdered, like, 400 people. Many were slaves.” (And let’s pause to consider that many were space groupies, just hanging out with Jabba, sleeping on his Jabba’s floor, which is odd. And uncomfortable.)

Hell, the only guy who feels bad about violence is Malakili (Oh, sorry, the guy who owns the rancor Luke killed). And it’s because Luke killed his pet, not a person. Sure, Luke almost goes to the dark side wanting to murder the Emperor. Not sure how he’s not already there.

Star Wars is a pop film. Pulp fiction. It’s the original summer blockbuster. It’s fun. It also views the world in binary terms: dark side versus light side. And if you’re on the dark side, you can die without moral complications. If you work for the Emperor, ditto.

There are two historical precedents to judge whether Luke should have absolutely no moral qualms about killing: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The pilots involved felt no guilt about their involvement. Which makes sense, to some degree. Japan attacked America first. They wouldn’t surrender. A land invasion would have cost possibly millions of American lives. Just like destroying the Death Star, which had already destroyed a planet in service of an evil emperor.

Except that something still has to, or should, gnaw at you. Those were civilians in Hiroshima. And surely some of the soldiers on the Death Star weren’t evil, just doing their job. Even in the clip from Clerks above, what’s upsets them is the death of contractors, not those in the Imperial Army, which doesn’t make a lot of sense if you take conscription, poverty, patriotism and a myriad of other factors into account for why someone joins the military. Hell, knowing the poverty levels on many planets, I’d be sympathetic to anyone who joined the Imperial Guard. (Unless they’re all clones, but do clones have souls?)

And none of this excuses killing everyone on Jabba’s palace...

Which brings me to the worst part of this whole thing, the most nihilistic thing I can write: I just don’t care. These moral issues don’t change my love of the original trilogy; I think it’d be bad parenting to not show a kid the original Star Wars trilogy. But if you really think about it, from a moral viewpoint, Star Wars is morally reprehensible. Though I think these movies are pretty corrupt morally, I love them. Having realized they are corrupt morally, I still love them. And not really any less than before.

In many ways, really, that’s the the actual problem.

Sep 17

(This week and next we are discussing blockbuster films and violence, partly inspired by our friend’s IndieGoGo campaign for Burp Girl. Read the whole series here.)

For anyone who’s tried to be a screenwriter--and read the books or listened to the podcasts that go along with that--you know your screenplay has to have one thing: stakes. What’s at stake? If nothing is at stake, the story won’t be dramatic. (I could digress that this “rule”, like any rule, is broken all the time and I don’t actually believe every story must have stakes, but that’s a much longer argument for later.)

Unfortunately, trying to make their movies stand out, Hollywood has made the stakes too damn high.

I’m not the only person who’s pointed this out. Todd VanDerWerff at Vox (quickly becoming our favorite writer about the entertainment industry) made this argument about Jurassic World: it works because the fate of the world isn’t at stake.

“...in a film like Jurassic World, the world won't end; instead, people's lives will. Instead of asteroid versus everybody, this is dinosaur versus human, or even dinosaur versus dinosaur."

VanDerWerff makes a great point. I mean, even Ant-Man--whose power is literally a shrinking suit--kept referencing that the world would end if the technology leaked. Uh, no it wouldn’t have.

I actually have a slightly different complaint/take, born of the same impulse to raise the stakes too damn high: by taking the world to the brink of chaos, the heroes in many blockbusters actually lose. The only victory is pyrrhic at best. To establish stakes, cities get destroyed by rampaging monsters, villains, aliens or robots. Millions are killed. But they’re defeated at the end by the heroes. The world didn’t end, but millions still died.

In other words, I know longer feel good leaving many big budget films, because I believe the heroes have lost.

Some examples:

- The last chapter in the approximately seventeen-hour-long Hobbit series demonstrated this phenomenon perfectly. Smaug destroys Laketown, killing most everyone in the town, and a few hundred humans survive. Then the orcs attack and specifically attack the humans. How many people, if any, survived? Even if the good guys “win” at the end, at what cost? Most everyone is dead. Most of the dwarves are dead. A bunch of immortal elves died. Everyone’s dead, except for Frodo and Gandalf. Yay? (And the fate of the world wasn’t at stake.)

- Or take The Dark Knight Rises. Rises from what? Technically, Batman “wins” after he saves Gotham from a nuclear explosion. Then again, the citizens of Gotham were held hostage in a quasi-terrorist police state, with the executions of thousands by show trials led by Scarecrow for six months. Technically Batman “saved” Gotham, but I’d argue, end result, Gotham (and Batman) lost. Winning would have stopped Bane in the first place.

- Or, more infamously, Man of Steel. Even when it was first released, critics and fanboys widely panned the film for having Superman and Zod basically destroy all of Metropolis. Sure, Zod didn’t take over the Earth, but millions died.

- Captain America: Winter Soldier. We loved this movie. But did Captain America really win, or did HYDRA? End result: HYDRA destroyed SHIELD. Mission accomplished? Sure, other meta-humans weren’t killed. Still sucks.

Oddly enough, I’m not sure this trope is out there. I tried to research it, and aside from articles comparing the first two Avengers films to Man of Steel, others haven’t made this specific point.

I think I know why this happens. It’s not just about raising stakes, though that’s a huge reason why. More importantly, big budget blockbusters are too predictable. Everyone knows a happy ending is coming. How do you make the audience feel suspense then? Destroy so much that it appears like they won’t win.

But if you lean too far in the “Will the heroes win?” direction, at some point, my answer will just be no. It’s a logic concern. Midway through watching the last Hobbit film, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “There’s no way they can realistically come back from this.” I was right. Twelve dwarves joining a massive battle won’t make a difference.

More important, though, is the moral question: how do other filmgoers not notice or, worse, not care about this? If millions of anonymous people die on screen, doesn’t it matter? You shouldn’t leave the theater feeling good about what you’ve just seen.

Sep 15

A few weeks back, my friends Ben and Christina told me about a comedy webseries they are producing, partnered with Stan Lee’s World of Heroes. In it, Christina plays the heroine Burp Girl, a superhero with a power you can imagine. (Here is the link to the first episode and a link to their IndieGoGo campaign.)

Ben asked me if On V could write a post linking the themes of On Violence and super-hero movies to help promote the campaign. Maybe something about the violence endemic in comic book movies? I asked Eric C and he said, “A post? We have a whole series on that.”

You see, a few years ago, we received an email from a reader about putting a tax on violence in Hollywood films. It inspired Eric C to write a rebuttal post, “Hollywood’s Actual Violence Problem”, arguing...

“Hollywood does have a “violence problem”, but the problem isn’t violence; it’s morality. Like the screenplays that Michael C and I wrote, Hollywood films tend to be violent. Unlike our screenplays, they lack a moral point of view. They fail to the show the cost of violence and its complexity. Violence itself isn’t the problem, but how Hollywood portrays that violence. As Ebert’s dictum goes, it's not what a movie says, but how it says it...

“If we want to solve Hollywood’s violence problem, Hollywood needs to show the audience the problems with violence: the guilt that comes from killing and the lingering effects of PTSD.

“Not to mention the complexity of violence. Hollywood needs to show the difficulty of violence: killing the wrong people and the unintended consequences of killing those wrong people. Or even the unforeseen consequences of killing the right people...

“In short, Hollywood should stop glorifying violence. Stop presenting heroes who can kill dozens without guilt. Show violence as it actually is: complicated, hard and ugly. Present violence the way it actually is, and we may want to be less violent.”

That one email inspired Eric to rethink and examine violence in Hollywood, especially in big-budget blockbusters, comic book movies and action films. In Star Wars, Luke, Han and Leia just go around murdering people, from Yavin to Tatooine, with little emotional consequence. Legolas and Gimli might be sociopaths. And in comic books, we went from never killing bad guys to offing them left and right.

In short, it spawned a whole bunch of post ideas. Turns out, though, Eric C never actually finished outlining the series or writing more than two posts. Well, worry no more. We’re finishing that series. We’ll call it, “A Few More Takes on Hollywood’s Violence Problem”.

And support our friend’s IndieGoGo campaign!