I'm perfectly OK with action movie violence. It can be artful, it can theatrical, it can be shameless and stupid and, if the right kind of bad guys are being blown away, it can be lots of fun. Summer is the season for that kind of carnage.
But this summer is rubbing me the wrong way.
Blame it on the current climate, but this year's onslaught of movie violence isn't encouraging me to drift away to new places. In fact, the evidence suggests that blockbuster escapism has inexplicably tipped into body horror, the films of summer 2013 confusing body count for scale.
"The Lone Ranger," positioned as this summer's fun-for-the-whole-family Independence Day spectacle, stars with the traditional Disney castle logo card. There's a bit silliness in the beginning, wherein a young lad meets one of his idol's: Tonto. And he's told the story of a true hero, The Lone Ranger, who helped save the Old West from some evil, train-building business types. Gore Verbinski finds the same light-weight tone he did in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Until he decides to take 90 degree turn and have the main villain, Butch Cavendish, cut out and eat a man's heart. When actor William Fichter turns around from completing the deed, blood is dripping down his face.
I don't believe the violence in this year's summer movies is necessarily more extreme than it has been in summers past. I don't even think that the ripple effect of gun control debates and real life moments of violence that have filled headlines for the past year are influencing my experiences in theaters. It's that the movies are tonally out of flux. Verbinski juxtaposes an absolutely thrilling train chase sequence with a shower of bullets mulling innocent bystanders. For the most part, Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp's shtick works, but then a soldier ramps up a gatling gun to maul a few dozen Comanches and throws everything into a tizzy (read our review of "The Lone Ranger"). "The Lone Ranger", like the other tentpoles of the Summer 2013 season, doesn't seem to know what it can get away with, or why its gratuitous moments of violence don't feel cool so much as they do callous. The details are still unclear (as the movie doesn't hit theaters for a few more weeks), but Jim Carrey's decision to abruptly distance himself from "Kick-Ass 2" due to his concern about the film's representations of violence is further reason to pause and take stock of what's happening in pop cinema.
Am I prudish or is this a syndrome? Without rushing to judgement, let's take stock of the violence that has been wedged into this summer's blockbusters:
Iron Man 3: Marvel has always found ways around tangible violence: Iron Man fights a guy in a giant robot suit, Thor battles indistinguishable Frost Giants in wide shots, Captain America clobbers Nazi-types firing laser guns, etc. But when you hire Shane Black, writer of "Lethal Weapon" and "The Last Boy Scout," you're going to get that late '80s analog edge. "Iron Man 3" has a startling amount of gunfire. In one scene, a suit-less Tony Stark is forced to pick up a pistol and shoot his way out of The Mandarin's mansion. It's very Bond-esque, though perhaps out of place in the colorful, "fun" world of Marvel movies.
Star Trek Into Darkness: As Vadim Rizov noted last month, more and more, filmmakers are turning to 9/11 imagery to add emotional weight to the CGI chaos that makeup the summer tentpoles. J.J. Abrams does it in "Into Darkness" by turning Benedict Cumberbatch's Khan into full-blown terrorist. It's not just a Kirk/Khan face-off — thousands of Earthlings die at the hand-planted bombs and a crashing Starship. Between Scotty's one-liners and Kirk's set piece on the in the radioactive engine chamber, we get the smoldering remains complete with cascading building sides and "we've been here before" feeling in our gut.
Furious 6: (Beware spoilers) Despite the "Fast" franchise's real world setting, there's little repercussion to the exploits of Vin Diesel & Co., which allows for gratuitous violence (unless you have strong feelings for automobiles). "Furious 6" is in the same boat, coming out as one of the few blockbusters to avoid bloodshed. We see Luke Evans' Shaw pop one in a henchman to make a point, but it's to paint the villain as a uncompromising assh**e. Shaw gets his due — along with secret comrade Riley (Gina Carano) — with an implied death-by-crashing-plane.
The Hangover Part III: The hard-R mentality of the "Hangover" franchise has routinely applied to language and drug use. In "Part III," it inexplicably covers a heightened amount of gun violence. The third entry is supposed to be more of a gangster tale, but the body count masks any trace of humor in the situation. Then again, shooting characters point blank in the chest is historically the only may to top the hilarious beheading of a giraffe. That's just Screenwriting 101.
The Purge: "One night a year, all crime is legal." For the characters of "The Purge," that means 12 hours of murderous mayhem. Director James DeMonaco's riff on the invasion thriller featured everything from crowbar-bashing, slicing and dicing with a machete, shotgun blasts, and an array of DIY executions. The movie was a huge hit with audiences, eager to witness the "What If?" situation play out in all its bloody glory.
This Is the End: Seth Rogen's directorial debut is quite funny, but consider the major selling point: in the apocalyptic comedy, audiences will see their favorite comedians die. If you have ever dreamed of seeing Michael Cera impaled by a street light, this is the summer movie for you.
Despicable Me 2: [Minor Spoiler Alert] The animated sequel ends with a big shoot out. Yes, Gru, his daughters, and his former sidekick Dr. Nefario are using jam for ammunition, but it's a set piece with guns a'blazin'.
Man of Steel: (Beware spoilers) See: 9/11 flashbacks. The conclusion of the latest Superman movie is over-discussed, but even this fan can't help but agree that the senseless destruction (and shift of focus to fleeing citizens on the streets of Metropolis) is out of place in a movie about two aliens duking it out over a World Engine. Zack Snyder, David Goyer, and Christopher Nolan even make a point to show how violent they can go with "Man of Steel." The final beat of the big battle is Superman snapping Zod's neck — a bold move. Unfortunately, the preceding hour works against the choice.
World War Z: Somehow, the movie about brain eating zombies taking over the planet is less violent than "The Hangover Part III."
White House Down: While not as outlandishly gory as its R-rated counterpart "Olympus Has Fallen," Roland Emmerich's defending-the-POTUS blockbuster has its fair share of violence. Emmerich has never been one to hold back from gratuitous destruction — "2012" suffers from the same wanton destruction as "STID" and "Man of Steel" — but here his way of going big or going home is to play shoot'em-up. Bullets fly and our hero John Cale doesn't think twice about putting two in the heads of the White House intruders. Maybe it wouldn't stick out of the summer surroundings weren't already putting us on edge. When a gun is placed point blank against Cale's daughter's head to make a point, "White Houes Down" drifts towards unsettling.
How will the rest of the summer unfold? Guillermo Del Toro's "Pacific Rim" is a robots vs. monsters brawl that would have to go great lengths to muster up anything resembling authentic violence. Later we'll see Neil Blomkamp's sci-fi thriller "Elysium," which if "District 9" is any indication, could be full of exploding people. "Kick-Ass" Creator Mark Millar says we can expect some over-the-top bloodshed. Who was expecting anything less?