Thor Ragnarok punching

Why have our superheroes gotten so villainous in their violence?

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May 28, 2020, 3:50 PM EDT (Updated)

In his review of Man of Steel, NPR writer Glen Weldon notes how the film’s climactic battle between Superman and General Zod — the ultimate battle of superhero and supervillain — deliberately echoes the events of September 11 in its aesthetic choices:

"The film ends with an epic, frenetically violent superhero battle of a scope often seen in the comics, but never heretofore on any screen. Figures soar through the air, crash into buildings, and fly away. Yet Snyder's camera doesn't follow them. Over and over again, he lingers on a damaged skyscraper to show it crumbling languidly into rubble and rebar, as screaming citizens flee in terror. This feels nothing like watching a man in a Godzilla suit trample a cardboard Tokyo, or seeing flying saucers vaporize an Epcot Village of tourist landmarks in Independence Day. It feels sour and cynical, like an attempt to elicit visceral reactions by siphoning emotive force from our communal memories of a very real horror."

This phenomenon was not created by Zack Snyder or the DCEU, nor are they the primary culprits of this brand of on-screen carnage. Yet the bloodless sea of concrete that evoked so many dark memories in Man of Steel, not to mention the little matter of Clark Kent snapping a man’s neck, feel indicative of something that’s been bubbling up over the past decade of superhero cinema. Don't just take our words for it, either. According to a study being presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2018 National Conference & Exhibition, the "good guys" in superhero films engage in more violent acts, on average, than the villains.

The study, called "Violence Depicted in Superhero-Based Films Stratified by Protagonist/Antagonist and Gender," analyzed 10 superhero-based films released in 2015 and 2016. The tallied results showed an average of 23 acts of violence per hour associated with the "good guys" of the film, compared to 18 violent acts per hour from the "bad guys". The most common act of violence associated with the protagonists were fighting, use of lethal weapons, destruction of property, murder, and bullying/intimidation/torture.

Such studies are, of course, not undisputed, and as we only have access to the abstract, we cannot fully dissect the hypothesis being put forward. However, even the most cynical reader of this study would be hard pressed to deny that we’re in a weird place with our pop culture. It’s not all necessarily bad, but it does raise questions over who these stories are for, why they are the way they are, and how we got here.

Superhero movies are big money. For the past decade, since Iron Man burst onto the screen and changed the game, the work of DC and Marvel has consistently taken up the top places in the ten highest grossing movies of each year. In 2018 alone, six of those spots are taken up by films with superhero characters and themes. This is the Avengers’ world and we just live in it.

It’s to be expected that our heroes punch things occasionally. Indeed, we expect it and cheer for it. Who among us didn’t cackle with delight when the Hulk pummelled Loki into the floor like he was a rag doll? When Wonder Woman took on the god of war himself and came out victorious, it was one of the great cinematic moments of 2017 for so many viewers, especially young girls who seldom get to see women be the hero. Superheroes are like any pop culture institution in that you can pick and choose what you take from them, and there is good to take from those heroes: Protect those who cannot look after themselves, speak truth to power, fight for something bigger than your own self-interests, bring something good into the world. And it’s important to remember that these films are made for kids. They may mostly be PG-13 in their ratings but they remain heavily marketed and created to be family viewing experiences because that’s where the money is. There are notable exceptions like the Deadpool films but otherwise, all that punching and destruction of skyscrapers is intended to be a universally enjoyable viewing experience.

That’s what seems to worry so many medical professionals as well as parents. When the biggest and most dominant forces in pop culture all look the same and have the heroes being more violent than the villains, how do you code violence as something bad?

It’s crucial that we don’t immediately draw a direct correlation between kids watching a movie and then doing what they see in it. That’s not how psychology works and sloppy reporting leads to stuff like the video game violence scare we still live in today, as well as the drama that followed hard rock musicians like Judas Priest and Marilyn Manson. However, it would also be foolish for us to pretend that we, at any age, are not in some way influenced or molded by the pop culture we consume. Films tend to grab the attention of kids more than their teachers or parents, and no mere human can go toe to toe with a $300 million movie for the focus of a group of children. Decades of ingrained messages about masculinity, violence, policing, government trust, and so on, as passed down through cinema and television, are as much a part of our psyche as what we read in the news or learn in school.

This sort of thing can be helpful shorthand for storytelling, especially superhero fiction which relies heavily on allegory and parallels to contemporary history and culture. Think about how Harry Potter uses Voldemort and his purebloods as a clunky but effective allegory for the rise of fascism in 1930s Europe. The X-Men comics serve as a strong allegory for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a focus that was shifted to gay rights in the Bryan Singer film adaptations. Superman as an allegorical messiah is nothing new in his history, although a fascinating video essay by a Vimeo user called V notes how often Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice seems to draw direct parallels between the character and religious artwork.

This allegory and storytelling shorthand has formed the crucial backbones of the genre since its inception: Superman saves innocent people from the villainous violence caused by forces they cannot comprehend; Batman doesn’t kill because that would be sinking to the level of evil. But what does it say when Superman slams through as many skyscrapers as Zod, or when Batman starts branding his victims knowing it will lead to their death? When violence is everyone’s tool, who gets to be good?

It could be argued that this is more faithful storytelling to true life. After all, the lines between good and bad aren’t always so distinct, and warfare is still viewed as a necessary means to an end by many. You go to war because there are no other choices. Sometimes, you just need to punch a Nazi, and that’s good! If you’re going to contextualize superheroes in a post-9/11 age, then you’re probably going to go to those images for storytelling shorthand, but you’re also probably going to think about how we view godlike superheroes and self-styled vigilantes in a trust-free age. Audiences may be too cynical to believe a man can fly and would be welcomed with open arms to Earth. Frankly, it may be that we’re too jaded by weak political rhetoric that positions civility as the gold standard even when we know it doesn’t work. Why not bring back Nazi punching in that context? It worked for Steve Rogers.

It’s no wonder the anti-hero has become so lauded in our times. Don Draper, Walter White, BoJack Horseman, Deadpool, basically any white dude on a prestige cable show. Venom marketed itself specifically as a story for one to unleash their inner anti-hero to and it’s now the 7th highest grossing movie of 2018 so far. Anti-heroism gives you more freedom to transgression. The heroes are too clean for some when you really crave that primal force and self-satisfied cheekiness. But even that gets samey after a while, and eventually, they have to choose a side.

The PG-13 violence of superhero cinema is also an industry problem that Hollywood has no real desire to fix. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) holds a strong grip of the film world and their views on violence remain curious. Think of how many times you’ve seen a movie where the muscled hero shot down dozens of people but because the massacre was utterly bloodless the film got a family-friendly rating. Realistically speaking, it’s probably a much darker message to send kids to show them violence without consequences, but those are the rules. Destroy all the buildings you want and be unequivocal in how many millions probably died as a result. Just don’t show them.

Ultimately, the biggest films on the planet are violent because it sells. Well, superhero movies with violent content sell and even if that’s not the defining quality that gets butts on seats, no studio is about to change up the formula and find out. Violence is super easy to be made to look cool, it always has been in pop culture history, and it remains a highly watchable spectacle. If it ain’t broke, don’t stop punching. The AAP study suggests that parents play a more active role in mediating their children's media choices, helping them to think critically about what they consume, but that's a skill we could all use a little more of.

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