The Frustratingly Awesome Issue of Cinematic Violence

So, as most people know, I’m a comic book geek, superhero nerd and that I was part of a show that is a pop culture phenomenon and that combines elements of both… mostly the superhero thing, comics are a by product of it (meaning that first there was the show and comics books about the show came after).

The World Laid to Waste

The World Laid to Waste

Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations with folks via the interwebs about elements of recent superhero films, including Batman vs. Superman and Captain America: The Winter Soldier  – to be more specific, elements of the polarizing film Man of Steel.

And like most discussions via the wonder of the internet, things get heated, harsh words are said and points of view are muddled and misunderstood. I’m guilty of that, just like anyone else. Most of that is due to poor wording when responding to a post or not making your point clear when responding or refuting another point. Seriously, there are times when all I can think of during moments like that is Dan Hedaya’s maddening “I’m not arguing that with you” opening scene from Joe vs. the Volcano.

And a lot of what I have to say about the subject of violence and comic book movies will fall on deaf ears or be passed off as something that is not of concern – they are just movies after all. The violence and destruction isn’t real… it’s just for entertainment.

I like to think it isn’t though. I’d like to think that it makes people think. What I fear, however, is that it feeds a darker need to bring it into being, to actualize it.

Its also true that some of what I will say about this subject will come across as hypocritical because, I enjoy these movies. I’ll go see each and everyone of them – and I’ll be thrilled and excited and enjoy the hell out of them while I’m watching them.

It’s what happens after the lights come up that is of most concern to me. Its the same sort of concern that takes place when you finish the last page of a comic book or a novel. You start to process and to think beyond the spectacle and the imagery and to really try and understand the impact and reason for the images you’ve just seen or watched or viewed.

I used three words there to describe a single action – and that’s also part of the issue when discussing these films or books – there’s going to be more than one viewpoint, more than one way to look at them.

I think that gets lost when people jump to defend a character or a movie they feel upholds their viewpoint and what troubles them when another’s take challenges theirs or forces them to look beyond their undying loyal reverence.

I say Man of Steel was polarizing because it really divided Superman fans. Essays and rants were posted about it – I loved it! I hated it!


I was taken to task for suggesting the violence/devastation level in the trailer for Batman vs. Superman was troubling – because, it was argued, it was a natural consequence of the story of the film and realistic. Of course buildings are going to be destroyed. How silly of you to think otherwise.

I had the same feeling watching the end of Man of Steel and came away from that film finally understanding why Lex Luthor would hate and fear the Big Blue Boy Scout. A number of answers I got were along the lines of: “what do you expect from a superhero movie?” or “its realistic and so its OK” or “its just a movie – relax and enjoy it”.

And that’s what’s frustratingly fascinating about trying to discuss violence and superheroes … because in the end, you can’t have one without the other.

Stories about superheroes – going all the way back to the ancient myths that inspire them – are about people who can do what we cannot. They are powerful. They can defeat entire armies all by themselves. They exude confidence, attractiveness, strength and fortitude.

But in the end – they are POWERFUL.

They affect the world around them, while most of mortals can simply react to it. We cannot control many of the forces in our lives – hence we make up stories about beings that can. Because we want to be them.

Because we are POWERLESS.

It was pointed out to me that Batman is a symbol of hope, that he inspires people that if they train hard, hone their abilities and train their minds they can do anything.


I happen to agree with that sentiment.  I do think that humans can do amazing things when we apply ourselves. When we push ourselves we can work wonders. But here’s the tricky thing – you have to make sure that on the road to becoming Batman, that you don’t actually become Batman. Or Superman, or Captain America or your fictional hero of choice.

Why? Because they are dangerous beings.

And believe me, I know full well the gravity of what I’m writing/typing/saying here and how much of an old crotchety fart I sound… I’m one of the neighbors in the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis “Downtown” video:


Aspiring to Power is in of itself, not a bad thing. Becoming solely focused on gaining Power, is. That’s the line you cross – when you change from being a hero to becoming a supervillain.

When I posted on FB a link to the supercut of the Batman vs. Superman trailer (see link above) it sparked a number of threads in which the merit of violence was discussed, as well as the finer points of what motivates/drives the character of Batman.

The debate about Batman was off topic, but just barely… and at least one erroneous claim was made on the whole DC film universe being for ‘adults’ compared to the Marvel film universe ‘which is for kids’. We also went back on forth about the ‘accuracy’ of the films vs. the comics on which they are based.

The original reason for the post was to highlight what I thought was the excessive level of destruction that is wrought upon a city in BvsS… the same level as was shown in Man of Steel. To me, that was a point worthy of discussion – is that level of destruction necessary in order to tell superhero stories?

Of course I got a number of responses to the tune of : “a superhero movie without destruction? yeah, get real.”

And that to me is the very point of why I asked the question – its our reaction or acceptance of that level of violence as a given that speaks to who we are as people and a society. And it’s a frightening prospect to think that a lot of people are OK with it…

Another point that got bandied about was: “What do you expect them to do? Have a superhero movie without fighting? How will they beat Doomsday then?”

*mic drop*

*mic drop*

Boom! End of Argument Dave, in your face!

Which leads me to the conclusion that that is the penultimate reason fans go to see these movies. How boring it would be to see Superman not punching someone in the face. Maybe what they should release into the theaters are simply dialogue-less vignettes of four color heroes facing off against one another and just fighting and punching and tearing the world down around them.

Because, let’s face it, fighting is what superheroes do – in fact, its all they do. Each comic book you read, each poster you see, each film you watch is centered on the act of one being punching another being in the face. I’ve posted before about the nature of the world we live in and the constant state of war we are in with it – we cannot see it any other way, we cannot view life except as a series of fights and battles and struggles.

I realize I’m shouting into the wind. And it’s a hypocritical kind of shouting because I watch and enjoy and get thrilled and excited about these movies just like any other fan. I write stories about larger than life people that battle for one ideal or another – I understand the nature of conflict and the vicarious thrill of amazing feats of prowess or the edge-of-your-seat excitement when an athlete accomplishes an amazing feat of agility or speed.

And so, when I’m shown a scene of extreme violence and destruction on a screen 50ft x 70ft I’m awestruck. I cheer and clap along with everyone else…

Yet, it still doesn’t quiet that nagging voice in my head that says – wow, that was excessively violent – I mean, Kick-Ass? Kingsmen? Wanted? Jeez… it’s as though Alex from A Clockwork Orange is sitting in the studio boardroom and saying “Yeah, yeah. More of that guv’! Only we do it with Supes, right? And Bats too!”

And that’s the point I was attempting to discuss – that the more we watch these types of set pieces, the more we become numb to the level of violence and destruction – or worse we get addicted or stimulated by it.

I even pointed out in the thread that Batman was an overly brutal insane thug… and the response was: “…and?”

Which was heartbreaking. We’re already numb. We’re already addicted.

I’d like to think I’m immune, but I’m not. I’m subject to fits of anger and powerlessness just like everyone and I’ve found myself in a number of occasions where I felt like the only recourse I had was to lash out…

As I write this, someone somewhere is punching someone, or thinking about punching someone… or like me, writing a story where someone punches someone.

When does it stop? Will it ever? Or will it continue to get more and more excessive because, we in the real world, sit there in the dark, gazing up at the screen, munching snacks and thinking – ‘Meh, not really realistic enough. They should blow more stuff up‘.

I’m not advocating that superhero films should be about picking daisies or fluffy puff comedies or anything of the sort.

In truth I don’t have an answer. I’m just asking questions.

If you are not bothered by the fights and violence and destruction, then the questions mean next to nothing to you. And that’s fine, that’s your right and you are welcome to it. I wish I could be that blissful.




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