The night before the Santa Fe, Texas, high school shooting, I sat down for a showing of Deadpool 2, so that I could review it on WIRE’s Who Won the Week podcast the following morning. As usual, the movie was preceded by several trailers, among them Hotel Artemis and The Equalizer 2. In both of those previews, I witnessed the ostensible protagonists of the film being promoted gun down their human enemies in ways that made it clear that the person doing the killing is the hero, and with elements like a thumping soundtrack and stylish cinematography underscoring just how cool it all is. In the Hotel Artemis trailer, Sterling K. Brown’s answer to the question, “Do you have a plan?” is, “I got a gun.” Smash cut. Cue music.
Previews over, I munched my popcorn as the feature presentation began… and watched as, for two solid hours, bullets flew, headshots were taken, limbs were severed from their rightful place on human bodies. And the blood…so much blood. A lot of it was played for laughs, the body count hilariously rising while Ryan Reynolds’ title character made quip after quip as he engaged in a desperate chase to show a powerful young mutant that KILLING IS BAD AND YOU SHOULDN’T DO IT.
The cognitive dissonance there hurt my brain plenty while watching the movie, but it’s really hitting me now, as we watch the aftermath of yet another young, lone wolf gunman who thought the way to deal with his problems was to pick up a weapon and take human lives. As the usual debate about the need for increased regulation of firearms erupts all over social media, it's become clear, yet again, that no tragedy of this nature will ever break the hold that the gun seems to have over American culture. And as I’m watching all that unfold, I can’t help thinking back to how I felt sitting in the theater, taking in trailer after trailer after action sequence of gun-wielding heroes snuffing out lives with the flick of a finger.
Let me put a couple things out there as preface: I’m something of a sensitive person when it comes to violence, and have become increasingly so as I’ve gotten older. I have never been in a fight in my life, and I feel bad killing insects. But, I also grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I remember the push for censorship of media by groups like the PMRC. I also remember watching Commando, and Miami Vice, and playing games like Doom, and yet, feeling no urge to commit any sort of violent act. I was a Dungeons & Dragons player during a time when parents across the country thought it would make you kill yourself, for the love of Gygax, and yet, I’m still standing.
And yet, as I sit here processing yet another mass shooting tragedy, I can’t help but reflect on my experience at the theater Thursday night…and on other experiences that mirrored it, like watching John Wick brutally murder dozens of people, or sitting through an episode of the TV show Taken (shown in prime time on basic cable) in which the hero shot probably over a dozen men. I can’t help but remember movie after movie after TV show in which we’re shown a hero who, faced with a dilemma, goes to authorities, caregivers, or other outlets for doing the “right thing,” only to face a result of ineffective half-measures. The answer? Our righteous champion must take matters into his or her own hands, of course. The best way to do that? Pick up a gun, and put bullets in the right people.
The blood flies, the bodies drop, and then it’s on to the next bunch. The hero feels nothing but justified in his or her actions. Rarely, if ever, is what killing a person means a part of the discussion; I’ll always love Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven for its unflinching examination of what killing does not only to the killed and those connected to him or her, but also to the killer — but that's the rare exception. People are obstacles, to be disposed of as efficiently as possible. Those people? They all were “bad.” They all had it coming. There’s no need to feel remorse or regret for snuffing out a life, because the cause is just, even if that cause is as personal as, say, the wrongful death of a beloved pet.
It’s a common and compelling series of images, and I totally understand its popularity. We all feel beleaguered. We all face challenges that feel insurmountable given our current means. We all feel powerless in the face of forces bigger than ourselves. The fantasy that we can change that in an instant is an intoxicating and potent one, and to get to live it vicariously through the exploits of incredibly good-looking people projected on screens as tall as the side of a building is an appealing prospect. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve indulged in it more than once.
But it’s getting harder. With every shooting that gets reported, with every story about a broken person who decides that the only way they can better their situation is by ending the lives of others with a gun, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to enjoy watching realistic bullets and blood fly on screen. (Lasers and alien monsters don’t count, at least until the first recorded instance of anti-extraterrestrial laser gun violence, so don’t @ me with a Star Wars argument.) And, with every trailer that I see like the one for The Equalizer 2, I become increasingly convinced that those of us who work in this industry and those of us who consider ourselves fans of these types of entertainment need to take a long, hard look at the kind of culture to which we are contributing.
Now, let me be clear that I am aware this is all make-believe. I am also not of the opinion that watching one violent movie or playing one violent game will make someone murderous. Furthermore, I am well clued in to the fact that these entertainments are exported to many other countries, the grand majority of which don’t face the same levels of gun violence we experience here in the United States. In no way am I attempting to make the argument that gleefully violent media is the one and only factor turning high school kids into killers. There are so many elements involved that to try to boil it down to one thing would be reductive, at best, and duplicitous, at worst.
I also don’t believe, however, that pop culture can shrug its shoulders and “Who, me?” its way out of the conversation, any more than it can do so when examining questions like racial and gender representation and how those things can contribute to societal racism and misogyny. We, as fans, know this stuff is important. We know it can change things, move us, unite us, affect us emotionally and intellectually. If we are going to say that – if we are going to champion the potential positive impact of pop culture – we cannot and must not sweep the flip side of that under the rug just because it makes us ask thorny questions about who we are and why we like what we like.
So much of the entertainment we consume relies on the following formula: A) The world and its factions and machinations are powerful, and often set against you. B) Doing the “right thing” leads to ineffective half-measures at best, or outright suppression, at worst. C) A weapon — most often, a gun — is the equalizer, the thing that gives you the power to turn the tables on all those things holding you back and solve your own problems.
These messages are repeated over and over, in story after story. I certainly don’t think I’m remiss in calling it a pattern; one that’s been dressed up in a wide variety of outfits over the past few decades, but the basic tenets of which are so often the same. It is not a huge stretch to connect the dots from that series of tropes to people in the real world who claim they need to stockpile weapons due to a need to defend against home invasion or to face down a dystopian, tyrannical government… or, those who use them to commit terrible acts.
It can be very tempting to not try to understand people like the Santa Fe shooter, Elliot Rodger, or any other person who enacts the kinds of atrocities we see too often on the news. It’s easier to write them off as monsters, so fundamentally other that they’re almost not human. And there’s no mistaking that the acts in which they engage are monstrous. But, as George R.R. Martin once said, everyone is the hero of their own story, and looking at what so often motivates these people, as twisted as it often is, it can often be boiled down a basic formula: The world and its factions and machinations are powerful and set against me. There is no “right” way to fix this problem. A gun will allow me to exert power over things about which I feel powerless.
Now, look, before you blow up the comments, rest assured that I am not saying watching John Wick has ever been the thing that made someone commit a mass murder, or that, if someone like Elliot Rodger had never been exposed to pop culture, everything would have been hunky dory. There are an array of factors that lead someone down this horrible path, some of them understandable, and some so foreign to those of us who would never dream of hurting other people in this way that they will forever be incomprehensible. It’s a complicated cocktail smarter people than me have been unable to deconstruct for a long, long time.
This stuff is out there. Pop culture isn’t something niche, that only a few people consume; it feeds constantly into our collective societal psyche. And it’s impossible to avoid; even if you don’t have plans to see a movie like Deadpool 2, you’d be hard pressed to miss out on its marketing, to never see a clip from it pop up in one of your social media feeds, to not have it be a part of the stew that makes up your own personal perception on the zeitgeist, especially if you’re the type of person who follows this kind of thing, to begin with, like so many of us who work on and frequent this web site are. And, with so many of us carrying connectivity around with us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the level of penetration becomes even greater.
It’d be absurd to claim that has no effect, whatsoever. We’ve seen it work to the positive, before, with pop culture’s too-slow-but-still-faster-than-society-at-large’s move toward positive portrayals of LGBT characters paving the way for larger socio-political acceptance of previously totally marginalized groups. We’ve seen it with the reaction to movies like The Force Awakens, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther, all of which demonstrate the power of representation to move the needle of the overall cultural conversation. There have been reams of articles and essays written about the ways in which the way racist tropes, or misogyny, or homo- and transphobia, are depicted on screen contribute to those elements maintaining their hold on the real world.
Why is violence exempt from this discussion? Why guns? Why is it an element that gets left out, even by those of us on the progressive side who rally for the restriction of guns and champion the ability of representation in pop culture to inform the overall cultural conversation? Why, when it comes to the cocktail that is the cause of gun violence in America, is that the one ingredient that only gets called out by knee-jerk cultural reactionaries who would advocate for censorship, instead of being thoughtfully examined by the very people involved in the making and consuming of it?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. And, to be honest, I don’t have a solution to this issue handy. I’m very anti-censorship, and would never advocate for the banning of certain art; even art I, personally, find repulsive. I believe that an artist has to create work that rings true to them. But I do wonder, as we, as a society, pick up the pieces of another senseless mass shooting tragedy, at the truth that is being explored by played-for-fun portrayals of people gunning down other people without remorse or consequence. I do wonder at that.
My wish, I suppose, is that those of us involved in this world spend a little less time turning off our brains, as I so often hear advocated by people who tell me I’m overthinking a movie like Deadpool 2, and a little more time dwelling on these things. I understand escapism. There’s a place for cartoon fun and a place for depictions of violence in art and entertainment, and if that’s how you get your jollies, far be it from me to tell you to do otherwise. But, all I’m saying is, maybe, take some time simply to consider what it all means. Don’t make thoughtless consumption – or, if you’re on the other side of equation, thoughtless production – your default setting. That’s very easy to do, to focus only on what’s in front of you, to see only the rock and not the ripples it leaves as it splashes into the pond. The harder part is to engage with it consciously, with a full awareness of both what’s good and bad about what you’re being a part of putting out into the world.
I’m not saying not to watch the movies you want to watch, or binge the TV shows you want to binge. I’m just saying to think about it. It’s a small step, but at least it’s a step. Perhaps, in time, we’ll take another.