Spider-Cents and PG-13 Pains

I recently wrote a piece on some Action movie related things for a friend of mine’s blog.  I am reprinting the whole thing in its entirety here:

I was watching the new Spider-Man incarnation, The Amazing Spider-Man, the other day and I realized I have a difficult time getting into contemporary American cinema.  Maybe I’m getting old, but I can’t relate to the characters (who are, admittedly, younger than myself a lot of the time) or get into the drama of these stories.  I think it might be because the stories and characters take turns because they are expected, rather than earned.

I’ve come to notice a particular trend towards zero consequence in modern movies, and perhaps even more frequently in a lot of these Super Hero films.  Characters behave without recourse, and it ends up making these adventures ring false, and the deeds hollow.

The Peter Parker of The Amazing Spider-Man (not to be confused with the Peter Parker of the comic books of the same name) is the latest descendant of the Harry Potter-type. A your-parents-were-awesome-so-you-were-born-to-be-special wish fulfillment disguised as a character.  If it sounds like I don’t care for this modern iteration of a “hero”, it’s because I don’t.  He’s a whiny, needy, nothing and everything who is continually rewarded for his idiotic decisions and non-decisions alike.

Just your average (super good-looking, muscular, athletic, skateboarding, popular) nerd

He attacks police officers, afflicted scientists, and gets people he knows hurt and killed with such stunning frequency, you think he’d start to notice and straighten up.  But is he blamed or punished for this?  Not really.  The sole person who considers this emotionally unbalanced teen masquerading as a hero a true menace is treated as a villain.  No wonder kids want to be super heroes.

Notions of choice and accountability are rare in American cinema today.  I mean, the Ridley Scott-directed The Counselor was heavily about consequence, but it was also a convoluted mess almost no one saw.  Are audiences so desperate for escapism they’ll only watch movies with miniature drama, whose heroes all seem to represent the fulfillment of vague “chosen one” prophecies or children of greatness who can do no wrong?

Films seem to have long-since dropped the “will-they-or-won’t-they-survive” sort of drama, especially in today’s franchise-building efforts.  Was there anyone seriously concerned they would kill off Iron Man at the end of The Avengers?  No.  They had to invent an entirely original character, because they won’t even allow the movie’s antagonist a just demise.

“We’ll let you go if you promise not to do it again.”

I’ll give The Avengers credit in that you actually see people on the streets reacting to the carnage occurring around them.  Sure, it’s basically just a couple dozen or so people, but at least it doesn’t give the impression this is some vacated cityscape as in Man Of Steel.

Why are these movies so afraid of collateral damage?  It’s of thematic importance our heroes have something to fight for, and yet we rarely see it.  Without showing us the danger these scenarios ring completely hollow.  Do studios think we’re too squeamish to imagine our heroes might fail and our world will be dominated by these aliens?  Or do they think such thinking will eliminate the “fun factor” if we know innocent civilians are out amongst the chaos?

I once watched a film where a demigod opened up an interdimensional portal over New York, let loose a colossal monster which then began stomping cars and crushing buildings, and only a small mismatched band of heroes could hope to save everyone.

It also had a decent run time

It was called Ghostbusters, and I would argue not too many people  would accuse it of being a dour or unfun movie.  In fact, not only is Ghostbusters widely considered  a classic genre film, it does so entirely without avoiding the subjects of consequence and collateral damage.  One could even say some of the movie’s best bits are derived  from these very themes.

I’ve noticed modern films have a surprising lack of violence, or rather, the lack of consequence to the violence.  When I was a child, we had G.I. Joe and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  These shows, respectively, were about a paramilitary force loaded to the teeth with the most advanced weaponry, and set of bipedal reptiles trained in the ancient and deadly art of ninjistu, the martial art of ninja assassins.

These are shows whose very concepts are unavoidably linked to violence.  But each one found a way around using what, in most circumstances, would be lethal force to defeat their adversaries (always bent on world domination).  The favorite fix-it for these shows was the change from weapons utilizing bullets to those of lasers.

To be fair, the whole show is incredibly weird

The change in weaponry has a dual effect: firstly in that the weapon can pretty much magically change its use and level of damage and effect; and secondly that impressionable children may feel less apt to dig out their father’s laser gun and unwittingly zap someone to death.  Mostly, it’s for the latter.  In accordance with our culture’s strange rules, violence must be, in all its forms, shielded from the eyes of the youth.  This is why these television shows, and the many that preceded them and those that followed, used the same device to bring violent concepts safely into the hearts and minds of the youth.

Yeah, this is real

And how a comic book about lethal mutant ninja monsters who kill people

became a kid’s t-shirt and a catchphrase.

How does this relate to consequence?  I’m getting there.  See, the other thing shows about violent confrontation need is some level of of consequence.  Having heroes who can perform all manner of martial art gymnastics is good and well, but they’ll probably need to hit something if you want to keep kids watching.  But if our heroes are beating people mercilessly, won’t that encourage violent behavior in children? Enter the robots.

A robot feels nothing.  You can chop it apart, beat it, shoot it (with lasers), blow it up, mangle its innards, and it can still be shown on Saturday morning television to kids of all ages.  Loop hole granted.

When we’re talking about live-action films, we’re in the same boat.  But here, we’re also talking about a lot more money at stake.  Films are more commerce than art anymore, and anyone who disagrees can look at the sudden prevalence of PG-13 action films for proof.

Movies rarely receive the PG-13 rating by chance.  Much planning, editing, and giving up of artistic ground takes place before finally being granted this rating instead of a dreaded R rating.  Film studios recognize that kids under 17 will be turned away from R-rated films, and thus pressure filmmakers into making PG-13 movies and even frequently take finished films away from said filmmakers and edit them down.

Take the new RoboCop, a remake of one of the most famously violent movies ever made.  Iconic sequences from the original mostly involve vast amounts of blood and gore as the titled protagonist blasts round after round into corporate and streets scum, shredding their flesh apart in an amazing and also disgusting display of red violence.

Probably not lasers doing that

In one particular sequence, a corporate upstart is horrifically killed when a test of one of the corporation’s new products goes wrong.  The big machine pumps hundreds of rounds into the poor man’s already dead and mutilated body, implicating not only the companies shocked executives as spectators, but also us, the audience at home.  We’re meant to be completely taken aback by what we’ve witnessed, similar to the titular character’s human demise early in the film.

Not quite the same, ahem, impact

The remake completely sanitizes these moments by removing the gore, changing RoboCop’s “death” to a blocked out but colorful CGI explosion, and removing the violence of the original film’s lethal bullets by giving our hero a taser gun and making his enemies robots instead of humans.  Seeing a human body torn to shreds by an array of bullets is affecting.  Seeing non-blinking cyborgs with sparks bouncing off of them is quite a bit less so.  It may open the movie up to a broader audience, but it’s also a loss for the film’s integrity.  But worse, while we might suddenly be treated to a litany of ways to dispatch robots, and thus technically more violence, we are not shown or feeling the consequences of such violence.  We, the audience, are not asked to think about these acts, which may have a far more damnable effect.

If there is no consequence to violence, than what’s to stop an impressionable mind from committing it on another?  If all of the adversaries of one’s heroes are unfeeling combatants, why not begin assuming everyone who stands against you is equally unfeeling and undeserving of remorse?

Continuing on, the lack of consequence in choice in these more modern films may also have a damning effect in itself.  I return to the character of Peter Parker.  He causes his uncle to die.  He reveals his secret identity to his love interest. He reveals his secret identity to his love interest’s father.  He basically gets that guy killed.  What recourse does he suffer for these acts? Nothing.  He ends the film on good terms with his love interest, who’s father he had promised he’d leave her alone in a last dying wish scenario.  His bad behavior is rewarded throughout the entire film, while his primary antagonist, Dr. Connors (Lizard) is a man trying desperately to save lives and his own career but is treated as a vile enemy.  Something is off here.

Yet he still gets the girl

I feel like I’m not being particularly constructive here.  I really could go on and on about other movies which deal with choice, consequence, and violence incredibly well.  But let me try and end this on a more conciliatory note.  I believe this new iteration can be turned around.  They can make it all built toward something so character-shaping and interesting it would make for a very good turnaround.  Something even Sam Raimi’s much better Spider-Man movies messed up.

Fans of the comics know exactly what I’m talking about.