Thursday, June 7, 2012

Cap or Katniss? Violence in The Avengers and Hunger Games

It's strange business, being an Anabaptist-Christian pacifist who grew up loving comic books and videogames, both practices that are largely predicated on the myth of redemptive violence. Recently this has been brought to mind by two movies: "The Hunger Games" and "The Avengers." In this post I'll be focusing solely on the movies and not the prior art from which they're being adapted, and this is largely a "viewer response" commentary. Caveat: I'm currently near the end of the entire Hunger Games book trilogy and have a few thoughts that seem relevant from a theopolitical view, so some of what I say toward the end borrows from my having read the fuller story.

[Spoiler notice: I'm not going to give any major plot spoilers here, but I will discuss particulars of scenes and snippets of plot. So if even that counts as a "spoiler" and you have yet to see these movies and plan to, perhaps you shouldn't read on...]

First off, these two movies certainly share the view that violence is a necessary means. Neither espouse any pacifist ethic in any substantive way. What struck me, rather, is how violence functions in each movie and the response it elicited from the theater audiences that I was a part of in each instance.

Violence as comic relief

The representative scene in "The Avengers" is when The Hulk and Loki encounter each other in Stark's tower, which Loki has hijacked to serve his own "evil" purposes. After Hulk knocks Loki around a little bit, Loki utters contemptuously from the ground, "I am a god! I will not be bullied by..." At this point, Hulk picks up Loki by the legs and proceeds to swing him like a rag-doll, back and forth over his head, smashing him on the ground with each swing.

This is supposed to be funny, and it was. I laughed. In the constructed narrative world of the movie, this made perfect sense given the characters' dispositions and plot circumstances. There was another scene like this when Hulk and Thor team up on some nameless alien creatures, and in their brief moment of victory over the bad guys, Hulk punches an unsuspecting Thor into the wall. Again, it was funny, and I LOL'ed on command.

[Slightly off-topic: There's an earlier scene where Hulk and Thor are fighting antagonistically. This is in the "team-building" phase, which actually constitutes the majority of the film. After the demigod and the gamma ray green monster epically knock each other around for a while, Captain America appears on the scene to calm these two down. Now, Cap is simply a scientifically-enhanced human being. Powerful, yes, but physically incomparable to the two fighting in this scene. Thor gets annoyed at little ol' Cap trying to put down Hulk's and his little tussle, so he lunges at Cap, bringing Mj√∂lnir (his hammer; see my nerd cred!)  down to strike. Cap protects himself under his star-emblazoned shield, and when the mythical hammer strikes it, GOOOOOONNNNNNNG! Thor's assault is not only repelled, but the demigod is thrown back a good distance. The nationalistic symbolism was almost more than I could take, and I had the sudden, barely-suppressed urge to cry out in the movie theater, "DON'T MESS WITH TEXAS!!" (Despite the fact that Cap is from New York.)]

Violence as disgusting tragedy

The Hunger Games is different. While the books are a good deal more graphically violent than the first movie, the movie is still no lamb. The most striking scene came when the pack of "career" tributes were tricked into chasing decoy fires that Rue had set, while Katniss went about the business of destroying their horde of supplies, in order to starve them out since the careers weren't capable of rugged outdoor survival the way that Rue and Katniss were.

When the careers come back, the alpha male, 18 year-old Cato, loses his already short temper and takes his anger out on the younger, feeble-bodied boy who had rigged up their booby trap system, which Katniss had identified and exploited to blow the stockpile sky high. This expression of anger took the form of Cato snapping the small boy's neck, killing him instantly.

The movie theater was dead silent in the moments leading up to the killing, and when it actually happened one woman audibly gasped in horror.

This could happen

In an interview with the New York Times, Hunger Games author, Suzanne Collins, said, "I don’t write about adolescence... I write about war. For adolescents." In some ways she writes about war (and violence) in ways more realistic and brutally honest than anything "The Avengers" puts on display. This "adolescent" label for her work seems to disguise the depth and power of her description, and the potentially damning critique (my interpretation) of the military-consumerist/-entertainment complex that I've written of frequently on this blog. I think the narrative logic in Collins' dystopian post-American fictional universe has some recognizably American qualities. As in, her fictional world of Panem is thinkable given our current real-world societal circumstances.

When the woman in the silent theater gasped in horror at seeing a young boy being killed directly on screen, I thought to myself: "Good. This is the kind of reaction killing should elicit." So while neither of these two movies, and the fictional worlds from which they spring, offers any positive model for nonviolent ethics, my money is on The Hunger Games for the ways in which it lifts the veil off our consumeristic desire (hunger) for violence-soaked entertainment. It shows us a world in which those twisted desires come to their logical conclusion: societal decay and collapse, violent uprisings, the emergence of a totalitarian government keeping an elite minority doped up on entertainment and hedonistic excess while the rest of society is forced into slave labor in miserable living conditions. The Hunger Games I read as a warning, while "The Avengers" comes off as cultural masturbation by comparison.

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