I enjoyed The Avengers. It was a well acted, well directed, intense movie, and I’ll probably see it again on the big screen, which is extremely rare for me. As super-hero movies go, it is as high quality as anything I’ve seen in recent years. (Although personally, I think the first Iron Man will hold up better to re-watching.)
Having said that I enjoyed the movie, I do think there are some serious conversations surrounding it. The movies we watch are a reflection of the world we perceive, and The Avengers is a perfect example of many of our collective perceptions. To begin with, let’s talk about violence. At two hours and change, the film is about an hour and fifty-five minutes of intense violence interspersed with about fifteen minutes of either talking about violence that’s about to happen, or recovering from violence that just happened. It is a very, very violent film.
It should go without saying, but just to be sure, let’s acknowledge the well known scientific fact: Film violence increases violent responses in viewers, especially young male viewers. (LINK) To put it in very plain language, a culture that inundates itself with film violence will be a significantly more violent culture than one in which violence is rare on film.
A cursory glance at American “man culture” illustrates this phenomenon. The meteoric rise in popularity of “MMA” fighting cannot be described as anything but the glorification of mano a mano graphic violence. Two men enter a metal cage and beat each other to bloody pulps any way they can. It’s barely a dripping spear away from the Roman gladiator arenas. Say what you will about the skill of the athletes, they are admired for brutally beating other men until they are unable to fight any longer.
We’re also a nation of war. We have been at war since the 13 year olds sitting behind me at the theater were in diapers. For the entirety of the Bush administration, we solved our problems with bigger bombs and faster planes. In short, whether it’s the news or sports or movies, we have a generation of 13 year old teens whose entire media experience has taught them that violence is the solution to conflict. Not only is it “the solution,” it’s the admirable solution. Our heroes resort to violence as a default.
Of course, violence is not new. We have been concerned with violence in teen films since at least the 80s, when Steven Spielberg created both a problem and a solution with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Gremlins. Both were considered too violent for PG, with the heart-ripping-out scene in Temple of Doom and the microwaved bloody mess inGremlins. The problem was that both movies were clearly directed at teenagers, so R was also inappropriate. Thus, PG-13 was born, and with that birth came the culture of acceptable violence in teen movies.
The Avengers takes 13 year old violence to places I’ve rarely seen. There is simply no comparison between Temple of Doom and the two hour destruction-fest I saw over the weekend. Though Dr. Jones and his sidekicks were involved in a great deal of mayhem, the film is properly called an “action flick” with a couple of graphic scenes. And the disturbing imagery in Gremlins was confined to the film’s climax, lasting no more than a couple of minutes.
The Avengers is not alone. The Dark Knight series also waltzed through the PG-13 filter, as did The Hunger Games. At The Avengers, all of the previews save one were for extremely violent movies rated PG-13. (The one exception was an upcoming Disney film about a Frankenpuppy. Or something like that.) Violence is, unfortunately, an escalating high. Social scientists have been describing the effect since Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-ridden demise in 1967. (LINK) In a nutshell, the adrenaline rush from a machine gun in this summer’s blockbuster will only be matched by a bazooka next summer, and ten bazookas the next. After enough summers, teens need to see entire cities destroyed in minutes by giant spiky worms the size of Giants Stadium. Also, a nuclear bomb blowing up an alien city. And at least six billion bullets and laser beams.
If we are true skeptics, we can no longer ignore the scientific reality of violent media and its effects on us all. With the sharp decline in teen relationship movies and the near ubiquity of ultra-violent action flicks, we are literally changing the neural pathways in our children, and priming them for lives centered on violence as the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Violent movies are not now, nor will they ever be the end of civilization as we know it, but we must not ignore the fact that media consumption, especially in children and teens, is a strong predictor of both perceptions of the world and behavioral responses to crises. We must make smart decisions as parents, activists, and consumers. The occasional violent movie is a fun diversion for mature people. Immersion into a culture of constant violence is bad for anyone. It’s especially bad for children.