viewer discretion is revised:

how violence in PG-13 movies should be handled

One of my favorite things about the summer is that I get time to watch movies. I don’t care too much about the sunshine outside; lead me to an auditorium with a projector or give me a couch in front of a TV and I’ll be happy. And although summer is the season for big-budget blockbusters, I try not to watch movies just for pure entertainment. Film is an art form, like literature and theatre, so I try to think critically about what I experience.

I was disappointed in myself, then, when I was told about a debate featured in the New York Times over violence in PG-13 movies, a topic that had somehow cropped up without my knowledge. The introduction to the debate mentions that there is a “trend of PG-13 movies becoming increasingly violent,” which I hadn’t really noticed. The introduction ends with the question, “Is it irresponsible to portray conflict without its gory consequences?”

The debaters present interesting and important ideas. There’s one point in particular that I want to expand upon. Betsy Bozdech discusses the harmful impact that depictions of violence can have on younger viewers and suggests that movies illustrate the detrimental consequences of violence. I think this suggestion is important for all audiences. In order for a film to portray violence responsibly, it has to convey the weight, the immense impact that violence can have. Violence shouldn’t be treated lightheartedly, and it shouldn’t be normalized. Instead, violence needs to be shown as damaging and as having significant and lasting consequences. This can be done without depicting gore.

One film that handles violence responsibly, for the most part, is Captain America: Civil War. Despite the fact that action and violence are common in superhero stories, the film shows that this violence has an impact. Early on, the superhero Wanda Maximoff tries to save civilians by launching a bomb that is about to detonate into the sky. When the bomb explodes next to a tall building and kills innocent people, the film’s audience feels horrified and witnesses Wanda’s horror, too. This event isn’t brushed aside. It keeps its magnitude. The deaths of the innocent people lead to the main conflict of the film: the question of whether or not superheroes need oversight. Also, Wanda doesn’t forget the tragedy. She struggles with guilt and with her doubts about her own powers and capabilities.

The film has several other portrayals of the impact of violence. A mother confronts Tony Stark, one of the heroes, over the death of her son, an innocent civilian caught in the middle of a battle between Stark’s team and a villain. The mother’s pain is evident, and Tony is so affected by the fact that innocent people have died that he supports oversight for superheroes. Later, T’Challa witnesses his father’s death, and this compels him to seek vengeance after he succeeds his father as the hero the Black Panther. He is so hurt and enraged, though, that he hastily pursues someone who has been framed for the murder instead of the real killer, and T’Challa realizes his mistake before he does something he would regret. At the film’s end, the main villain and real killer reveals that he is motivated to ruin the heroes because of the deaths of his family members, who have been killed in the same past conflict that has killed the mother’s young son. The irreversible consequences of violence is a major theme that pushes both the plot and the actions of the characters. Though there are moments of stylized violence and over-the-top action, the film does show the weight of violence while maintaining a PG-13 rating, without displaying gore.

I can contrast Captain America with 300, an R-rated movie that depicts bloodshed and gore while making violence feel light. 300 is about a battle, but it doesn’t convey the gravity of warfare. That’s because the violence, even though it is gory, is hyper-stylized. When warriors are killed, their deaths often have no impact because their deaths are entertaining to watch. 300 makes fighting look cool. This clashes with the reality that violence has destructive effects. The film therefore handles violence irresponsibly by presenting it as aesthetically pleasing instead of as horrific and life-destroying.

I think the question of violence in PG-13 movies is too narrow. Instead of focusing on just movies that avoid R ratings, we can look at all movies intended for different age groups and think about how they treat violence. There are multiple ways in which a film can depict violence as having weight, and there are several ways in which it can make violence weightless. It’s our responsibility as active moviegoers to think critically about the films we watch as we eagerly wait for the fall and winter movie seasons.