This Summer's Movies Have a PG-13 Problem

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by Matt Singer
June 14, 2013 1:23 PM
40 Comments
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"Star Trek Into Darkness."

This post contains MINOR SPOILERS for "Iron Man 3," "Star Trek Into Darkness," and "Man of Steel." If you want to avoid any particular section, just look for that title and skip that paragraph.

A viewer should walk out of a movie like "Man of Steel" feeling elated or, at the very least, entertained. This is a big summer blockbuster -- maybe the big summer blockbuster of 2013 -- and it's designed to dazzle us and excite us and thrill us with action, adventure, and spectacle. Even as I admired the craft that went into creating such a handsome, well-executed film, I felt none of those things from the end of the latest reinterpretation of Superman. I was less dazzled than dazed; less excited than alarmed; less thrilled than troubled by the surprising violence and destruction of "Man of Steel"'s lengthy climax. 

The movie ends -- and I don't think this is a spoiler -- with a big battle in Metropolis between Superman and the forces of General Zod, a mad Kryptonian warlord. As these super-beings pummel each other, they slam into and through countless skyscrapers, toppling dozens of buildings, and wreaking even more havoc. When the dust settles, there is literally a giant, hollowed-out crater where probably five square blocks of Metropolis used to be. But beyond a few shots of crowds running from dust clouds, there's almost no acknowledgement on the part of director Zack Snyder or even on the part of Superman, the superhero who's supposedly all about saving people, that every time one of these buildings falls, hundreds more innocent bystanders die. 

Walking out of "Man of Steel" I found that I loved Henry Cavill as Superman, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, and Michael Shannon as Zod, and kind of disliked the movie they were in -- particularly that final hour, which is mostly a Kryptonian demolition derby. I know blockbusters are predicated on a more-is-more aesthetic, but this was just too much. Too super (man). 

At Vulture, Kyle Buchanan has written an outstanding article about "Man of Steel" linking its "orgy of gratuitous building-battering" to a trend in recent blockbusters that evoke (or perhaps exploit) the imagery of 9/11. In doing so, he explains exactly why "Man of Steel" left me feeling so defeated:

"With the removal of mortality from the equation, the mayhem is just deadening; all bombast, little consequence. Zod's villainous compatriot Faora warns Superman, 'For every one of them you save, we will kill a million more:' 'A million' is such a large number -- and one so easily attained in expensive CGI-laden blockbusters these days -- that it's meaningless. A special-effects department can conjure up a million people as easily as they can one. That's why it's actually surprising in 'Fast & Furious 6' when, after the villain begins to run over innocent bystanders in his tank, Vin Diesel barks to his crew, 'Take their attention away from the people!' Characters in blockbusters these days rarely ever comment on the titanic amounts of destruction they (and we) are witnessing. We've seen buildings smashed onscreen since Godzilla trampled on Tokyo in 1954 (and I have no doubt we will again when the 'Godzilla' reboot is released next year), but now there's a coldly pornographic attention to detail that implies that the only lessons imparted by 9/11 were technical ones. It's as if more time and effort were spent on simulating a toppled skyscraper than in telling you why you should care about the people trapped in it."

Buchanan also refers to a similar scene in "Star Trek Into Darkness" where a spaceship crashes into San Francisco, obliterating Alcatraz in the blink of an eye, and knocking down who knows how many other buildings -- not to mention killing untold thousands -- before it finally comes to a stop. The key word here is untold. All of this carnage is mostly the flashy backdrop for a foot chase between the heroes and villains. They barely even notice the mass casualties all around them as they chase after one guy they want to capture in order to save a single wounded person on their ship. The Enterprise's crew succeeds, of course, but at what cost? It's hard to say because the movie barely addresses the devastation it has wrought for cheap, violent thrills (thrills it even advertised on the poster seen above; "Come watch this guy blow the shit out of these buildings!"). I guess the needs of the many really don't outweigh the needs of the few.

I left "Iron Man 3" with a similar feeling of unease. While Tony Stark, James Rhodes, and Pepper Potts are fighting the Mandarin in the big final battle, the Mandarin's forces are duking it out with dozens of Tony Stark's remote-controlled suits. Much of the early portions of "Iron Man 3" are about Tony Stark investigating a mystery; bombs that leave no shrapnel or evidence. Eventually, he realizes that the Mandarin is outfitting former U.S. combat soldiers with "Extremis" technology that turns them into human bombs. The "bombers" themselves are victims; test subjects who've been mutated against their will by the Mandarin's mad scientists. Stark even goes out of his way to tell the widow of one of the bombers that he wasn't a bad guy, and that the deaths he caused weren't his fault.

Clearly, these bombers weren't murderers -- and as we see at the end of the film, Tony Stark has the technology to turn them back into normal human beings. But what happens during the big climax? He tells his A.I. to target and destroy the Extremis enhanced thugs; and not just to target them, but to take them out "with extreme prejudice." Not "Try to keep the casualties to a minimum," not "These guys are still human somewhere deep down inside, let's save as many as we can." "Target with extreme prejudice." And as the primary protagonists and antagonists duke it out in the foreground, the background is filled with laser blasts and explosions -- presumably of Iron Man suits terminating these poor Extremis guys. 

The night before Buchanan's piece was published I was talking privately with a colleague who'd also seen "Man of Steel." We were comparing our reactions and I told him how uncomfortable the end of the film made me. He suggested that its oblivious attitude to collateral damage might have something to do with its rating. "It's PG-13," he noted. "I don't think we actually saw that many people die on screenjust thousands upon thousands upon thousands of implied deaths."

He's absolutely correct. But isn't the callous disregard for human life -- and the thoughtless use of wholesale (implied) death and destruction for entertainment -- just as disturbing as the actual consequences of violence and mayhem? Just because you didn't literally show me the people trapped in those collapsing structures doesn't mean they're not there. This is a very strange and very problematic quirk of the MPAA ratings system. Kill thousands of people, but do it off-screen. Level half a city, but show none of the dead bodies almost certainly buried beneath that half a city. Then you get a PG-13.

What would have happened if Iron Man had paused to consider the deaths he'd caused (or if these Extremis guys actually left behind some human remains)? What if Spock stopped his chase to assist someone injured by debris, and they were bleeding or had lost a limb? Or if Superman had pulled a dead victim from the wreckage of one of those skyscrapers? Would those scenes warrant R ratings? And if so, do the peculiarities of the PG-13 actually make these heroes less heroic? If they stop and help, they see things that keep kids out of movies. So instead they fly on, unconcerned for the bloodshed.

It's almost like they're not allowed to care. For a character like Superman, who wears a symbol on his chest that supposedly represents hope, that's kind of a problem. The only thing I walked out of "Man of Steel" hopeful for was a sequel where Metropolis doesn't get completely eradicated.

Read more of "Is It Possible to Make a Hollywood Blockbuster Without Evoking 9/11?"

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40 Comments

  • jazz | August 20, 2013 5:15 PMReply

    The extremis thugs in the third act of Iron Man 3 were NOT test subjects innocently going around their daily lives like the earlier victims, they were willing co-conspirators in a plot to kill the president, anyone who stands in the way of this plot, and murdering Tony Stark and co.! Killing them was flat out self-defense and defense of others.

    Criticisms of the other movies make sense, but that reading of Iron Man 3 is just insane.

  • Luke A | July 22, 2013 12:15 PMReply

    Despite the fact that Hollywood claims a largely progressive and/or liberal political bent (at least the actors do), I can't help but believe that these movies all push a decidedly nationalistic agenda. Is it that much of a stretch to see all of the protagonists in all of these movies as representative of Amurhica? The message seems to be the same in all of them: any amount of destruction is justifiable because this small group of people is trying to save the world. In other words: "Stop complaining about all this death; it's for your own good!"

    That type of message was being sent by Augustus back in the 1st century too. It's what the "pax romana" was predicated on. It's been the cry of neo-conservatives in our country for decades: "You liberal pussies want book-reading so badly? Better lock 'n load!"

    After seeing Pacific Rim yesterday (and honestly, I felt NOTHING for the entire 2 hours) I went home and watched Errol Morris' The Fog of War. I was floored by how relevant that piece of filmmaking is to this entire conversation. "If we had lost WWII, we would have been tried as war criminals," McNamara says....then, "But what makes us moral just because we won?"

    The American people (I have to believe) are more nuanced and interesting than these movies want them to be. Maybe we can begin to teach Hollywood by way of our money...it seems to be the only thing that matters.

  • LL | July 9, 2013 12:37 AMReply

    The thing that bothered me about Iron Man is the fact that Stark just decides to start killing bad guys, no discussion. When he's captured in 'The Mandarin's' lair, and he tells his captors that 'you're gonna die first'. That's not heroic or moral. It's just base vigilantism. And the callousness extends to his attitude towards the other extremis victims. They are victims, because Guy Pearce didn't tell them about the 'side effects'.
    As for Superman, that was a glaring omission, the fact that these super beings are destroying tons of Metropolis and the good guy never tries to steer the carnage away from the city. Everyone remembers Superman II, when Chris Reeves screams as the supervillains toss a bus full of people at him "No! The people!" When he see the destruction the battle is causing, he flees because he knows Zod and his cronies will follow........the new Superman seems more alienated and wary of people, not all lovey dovey with them

  • JAB | July 8, 2013 7:24 PMReply

    JAKE has the best arguement in defense of MOS's final battle scene. Although I loved the movie I began to wonder why doesn't Kal-El move the battle over the Atlantic Ocean, but Zod wouldn't bite & the fate of the entire human planetary population was at stake. But about the only thing I side with MOS's critics is that the action scenes went on too long. Otherwise I think it is one of the five best superhero movies ever made.

  • Donella | June 27, 2013 2:39 PMReply

    I wonder if Mario Puzo's (The Godfather) story and screenplay presence for Superman I & II and lack of story and screenplay coherence for Man of Steel are what made the difference.

  • Scott | June 22, 2013 4:22 PMReply

    Yes! You summed up Man of Steel for me, particularly that third act. It was disaster porn.

  • Shusterman | June 21, 2013 6:46 PMReply

    I think the subtext of all this cinematic carnage is fairly obvious: if we have to kill thousands of people in order to stop one evil man, and preserve the "American" way of life, so be it. That seems to be the policy of our government, and these movies are used to not-so-subtly indoctrinate the young and non-American to this idea. People are going to die in the pursuit of justice, liberty and freedom, that's just the way it is, so get used it, and if you are one of the unlucky bastards who get caught up in the mayhem, well, whoops, sorry. That's the feeling behind these movies. I find it sickening, but apparently I'm in the minority

  • bollywoodjosh | June 19, 2013 5:52 AMReply

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  • Donella | June 17, 2013 3:23 PMReply

    My theater was silent towards the end of Man of Steel. No uplift. No clapping, no cheers at the end.

  • Amy | June 17, 2013 7:07 PM

    Same with me, except there was one guy sitting in the row in front of me who started loudly ranting about it to his friends. Normally, I'd find that really irritating, but this time, I kind of agreed with his general sentiment. I don't even care about Superman, and I walked out of that theater feeling angry.

  • Grey | June 17, 2013 2:25 PMReply

    I went to see the film this weekend without having read anything about it. As the destruction went on and on and on, the audience mood grew increasingly uncomfortable and muttery, and people started walking out of the film. A boy around 13 who'd come with his dad started crying during the visceral scenes with Perry and his trapped staff, and they left. At least half the audience had left by the time the fight grew to a close, and I didn't see any smiles on the faces of people leaving either. This was an uncomfortable watch, and I regret spending a beautiful Sunday afternoon on it, and that's a pity, because just like this article says, I liked all the actors and how they were handling their characters a LOT... I just didn't like the film they were in.

  • XIII | June 17, 2013 1:59 PMReply

    Don't eat what doesn't look appetizing. This headache of an article would not be written if you decided not to see this movie(s). Hopefully you don't stick around for the future...you won't handle spaceships explosions...don't have any babies please.

  • TP | June 17, 2013 12:50 PMReply

    It was Marvel Comics I believe that had a brief series ("Damage Control" maybe?, I forget) about the people that cleaned up all of the destruction in NY caused by the superheroes, and it probably didn't tackle the injury/death issue. Although I didn't read it, it was an interesting idea which didn't last too long... probably too much "reality". Maybe Joss Whedan can tackle it as his next low-budget project after Avengers 2.

  • Pete | June 17, 2013 8:36 AMReply

    SPOILERS AHEAD

    In STID, this was after Spock had spoken to Spock Prime and found out who the type of person Khan is, he knew he had to stop him or many more people would die. There was no time to stop and help anyone. In this way, it does stay true to "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

  • Sage | June 17, 2013 3:57 AMReply

    I don't think the extremis thugs in the third act were the same as the victims. These were people that made a choice and now defend it. I agree with most of this, but you misinterpreted that; they are not innocent people, because they are attacking you.

  • Matt | June 17, 2013 1:22 AMReply

    Usually I will defend a movie like an adult, but you're very wrong. I3 and MOS are fantastic movies. You need to get over yourself. Also, 9-11 was 13 years ago; move on.

  • John Parker | June 17, 2013 6:06 PM

    Wow. Clearly you were born without a heart.

    Also it was 12 years ago.

  • Donella | June 16, 2013 12:17 AMReply

    This is the same problem that I had with Man of Steel. The prolonged and excessive destructive violence of buildings falling, trucks and trains being tossed into buildings, planes falling out of the air and blazing a path through buildings. No acknowledgement that hundreds, maybe thousands of people died. It seemed like video game violence. Destruction without consequence. Richard Donner addressed this point by Superman giving up to fight another day rather than accept collateral damage as a consequence. With Man of Steel, its an endless night of 9/11 visual references.

  • 47ness | June 15, 2013 6:43 PMReply

    To paraphrase Joseph Stalin: "When you kill a man, it is a tragedy; when you kill ten million, it is a statistic." The people behind the blockbusters seem all to eager to exploit this mindset.

    Excellent article. It's nice to hear some common sense. Also compare all this with the general taboo of animals (especially pets) dying in movies.

  • Oluseyi | June 15, 2013 4:45 PMReply

    I recently rewatched the entire run of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons on Netflix, and I constantly found myself thinking about collateral damage as super-powered beings slammed one another against bridges and punched themselves through walls. It's one thing for malevolent villains intent on brutal conquest (or a Darkseid, whose goal is to rid the universe of all mortal life in order to rebuild it in his image) to be cavalier about bystanders, but I find that the chosen combat methods of the superheroes invariably are to hit their opponents into and through available structures.

    I saw the same reflected in Man of Steel. It's a legitimate criticism. Yes, Superman was fighting for the survival of all humanity, but choosing to use buildings, elevated railroad tracks and more as props and weapons in his fights seemed rather negligent. I expect MASSIVE splash damage when two gods fight in our streets and skies. I understand that the forces of Zod targeted humans as a means of luring Superman to them (so he wouldn't be able to take the fight to a less populated arena). Still, I'd hope that, eventually, someone would demonstrate Superman finding a better way to conduct these battles. It's a physical problem that nobody related to superhero comics, giant robot science fiction or similar genres seems to have given thought to.

    SPOILER ALERT

    As @JOE said yesterday, though, the Extremis soldiers in the finale of Iron Man 3 were willing henchmen. The "bombs" were test cases, infected under false pretenses (limb regeneration for wounded war veterans), then coerced into detonating themselves at the target sites. Iron Man targeting them "with extreme prejudice" is a separate case, and the finale was (conveniently) staged in a shipyard, ensuring minimal civilian casualties.

  • possy fiddly | June 15, 2013 10:53 AMReply

    Why do you people even watch these movies? I really hope you are not expecting reality.

  • William Spiritdancer | June 15, 2013 8:59 AMReply

    I felt the same way at the end of Star Trek when the ship crashed into to towers. There was no acknowledgement of the incredible disaster this was.

  • Amy | June 15, 2013 5:04 PM

    Not that I don't think the scene could have been done better, but I thought they had the memorial scene in Star Trek Into Darkness to show how tragic it was. It did make the uplifting ending somewhat jarring, though.

  • C Lee | June 15, 2013 5:37 AMReply

    Bottom line: no one is getting killed. No one needs to believe mass-killing is occurring. Your premise is wrong.

  • luis | June 15, 2013 11:28 AM

    that man of steel ending was the equivalent of 20 9/11 type events ! and you say no one was getting killed ? are you nuts!?
    you didnt see all the people in the twin towers die...but they were in there

  • Sean Thompson | June 15, 2013 12:47 AMReply

    I found it pretty heavily implied that the Extremised soldiers were there of their own will at the end of Iron Man 3. We already saw some of them doing bad guy stuff in that town he ends up in, those guys trying to kill him and blowing up half town were the same sort of Extremised soldiers you imply are "innocent" somehow.

    But I can easily see your point about that shot in Star Trek, no that there weren't other things that just didn't click together in the script as well. I've yet to see Man of Steel, and should apparently wait, but I've no doubt the same sort of nonchalant destruction occurs by your description.

    It seems more a problem of lazy script writing though than anything else. Yes, it's their because the directors can do it, but it's not remarked upon because those writing the script didn't think about what they were writing.

  • Bruce | June 14, 2013 8:01 PMReply

    I agreed with you until the Iron Man 3 part. The extremis soldiers were terrorists who had helped the Mandarin kill countless innocents in the Middle East, blow up Stark's mansion with the intent of murder, blow up Air Force One and most of its passengers, and try to assassinate the President of the US after kidnapping him. Stark should not have "saved" them, and it's insulting to think any serious blogger would say he should have.

  • jakdolesa | June 14, 2013 7:46 PMReply

    During the two (or so) months after 9/11 journalists were asking filmakers questions such as: "Do you think there will be disaster movies at all in the future? After THIS happened?" This year we have already two movies with White House almost destructed. Not to mention Star Trek or Superman. Interesting. Feels like it after all was only a piece of TV entertainment 12 years ago...or is it on purpose, to remind us of our very feelings from those days?...
    Very nice article indeed!

  • hyde | June 14, 2013 6:33 PMReply

    some of this strikes me as similar to what happens a lot in aaa videogame entertainment, especially ones that try to be particularly "cinematic" in execution, like the Uncharted series. You're Nathan Drake, wisecracking hero--who cares if by the end of the game you have left a trail of hundreds of bullet ridden corpses in your wake. The carnage seems mostly a sideshow that you're not really supposed to think about all that much, it's just a blood red backdrop for sardonic one liners.

  • Ronn | June 14, 2013 4:27 PMReply

    On the one hand, I also noticed the extreme amount of destruction, but on the other hand, there have been plenty of times in Superman comics when Metropolis has suffered destruction due to Superman's fights (Doomsday, the Fall of Metropolis story from the 90s, to name but two that come to mind immediately). Showing heroes and villains get pummeled through buildings and streets is a well-established method of conveying how powerful these beings are, and Snyder likes to capture images from comics and bring them to life. He doesn't focus much on the citizens of Metropolis or the aftermath of the battle because that's not what the movie is about. If this was a heavy drama and there was this much gratuitous destruction, I'd agree with you 100%. But this is a comic book movie with some of the best comic book action ever shown on screen. I know there's part of you that dug that.

    To touch on the larger issue: when did we get to the point where we're lamenting that there's too much destruction and action in our summer movies? When I saw Con Air, I didn't think "how can they just destroy parts of Las Vegas like that and not care about what happened to the people?" I thought "wow, that was over the top, unrealistic, and awesome."

    Man of Steel wasn't perfect, but it was action-packed and mostly well done. Sure, it didn't have as much heart as others, but Superman Returns had heart and people hate it.

  • Jake | June 14, 2013 4:16 PMReply

    I disagree. Spoilers ahead.
    If I remember correctly superman saved every single person on the planet by destroying the Kryptonian ship that was destroying earth's gravity. As for when he is in Metropolis and flying into buildings, he is doing so as he is fighting Zod. If he stopped to help people he would have just been hit hard again by Zod. There is a lot of destruction but to say that Superman didn't care about the people is outrageous. That was the whole point of the battle between him and Zod, that he had hope for Earth and believed in them enough to destroy the only other Kryptonian people in the universe.

  • Pat Banks | June 14, 2013 3:39 PMReply

    I finally caught A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD last night and I could not get past the collateral damage left from the opening action sequence on the Russian highway. What struck me even harder was how the John McClane character was laughing and making smart as he created as much death and destruction as the bad guys. While the John McClane from DIE HARD cracked smart, it was more as a pressure relief given the circumstance he was thrust in, not one he created.

  • Philip | June 14, 2013 3:29 PMReply

    I think that's one of the(many) things Avengers did right last year. The final battle was as much about keeping the city safe as it was about beating the bad guys. It took the time to show what the destruction meant and how the heroes were trying to avoid it

  • Lynn McKenzie | June 14, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    Wonderful. I felt that way watching STID as well. Everyone seemed so unconcerned with the carnage going on all around them.

    I remember distinctly in "Superman II" that Superman flew *away* from the big super-battle in order to protect the citizens of Metropolis. Can you see that happening today? Fat chance.

  • Z | June 14, 2013 3:02 PMReply

    A brilliant, long-overdue article. Well said.

    A true storyteller will have the loss of one life impact with the force of a "million". See the little girl in the red coat in Schlinder's List.

  • Matt | June 14, 2013 2:42 PMReply

    I really appreciate this article. I walked out of "Into Darkness" with the same sense of unease in how little the complete destruction of the city seemed to matter to anyone in the film.

  • ian | June 14, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    It's just poor storytelling. None of these films have been good at making you care about any of the people in it. I'm hoping "pacific rim" or "elysium" breaks the trend of lukewarm summer movies, but I wouldn't bet on it.

  • Joe | June 14, 2013 2:01 PMReply

    **Spoilers for IRON MAN 3**

    I've seen that critique of the IRON MAN 3 climax several times now, and I think the thing a lot of people seem to be missing is that the movie does make an effort to draw a distinction between the soldiers who received Extremis and fled, later to be roped back in or victimized (e.g., the "bombs") and the soldiers who were working willingly for Killian. The latter are definitely not portrayed as victims - they're volunteers. They didn't know what they were getting into when they were first treated with Extremis, but they seem to know what they'll be asked to do as Killian's muscle. In fact, those we see muscle-ing appear to *enjoy* being thugs. Tony could theoretically save them, but they'd have to stop trying to kill people, and they don't act interested in that prospect.

  • Josh | June 14, 2013 1:56 PMReply

    Metropolis gets leveled in the comics every couple of months. Its the age old debate. Do you live in Gotham City and risked getting murdered by the Joker one night or move to Metropolis which is a magnet for super powered aliens and a businessman with almost a Hitler case of meglomania.

  • Andrew | June 14, 2013 3:27 PM

    Smallville only gets destroyed on special occasions. Lucky bastards.

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