The Tyranny of Pew-Pew: How Fun Fantasy Violence Became Inescapable


A while back, a friend expressed concern that her son, a ten-year-old, was watching too much My Little Pony. “It’s a sweet show,” she said, “but it’s not what I’d choose for every day.”

I asked what show she would prefer that he watch.

“Well, his dad has him started on that new Star Wars cartoon,” she said. “So there’s that.”

That cartoon, of course, is Star Wars: Rebels, a retro-now adventure series that harks back to the roguish, hardscrabble feel of the original Star Wars films — albeit with a look like PS4 cutscenes. Its rowdy band of insurgents wages guerrilla strikes against the galactic Empire: Spaceships explode; stormtroopers get blasted with lasers, knocked off speeder bikes, chucked out of airlocks.

When the rebels escape, Imperial middle management gets murdered, for a laugh, by Imperial senior management. In the ambitious three-part tale that wraps the first season, a captured rebel Jedi gets subjected to what I can only describe as nostalgic torture: Hey, that’s the black orb-like thing that Vader used to interrogate Princess Leia in ’77! And that blue lightning is what the Emperor fried Luke with in ’83! And Han got strapped to that sparkplug-looking torture rack in Empire!

But here’s the thing: Star Wars: Rebels is on the Disney Channel. A helpful graphic at the opening of each episode announces it’s rated TV-Y7 — meaning, perfectly appropriate for seven-year-olds.

I’m not here to say that all that jolly mayhem is any less appropriate for second-graders than Friendship Is Magic. And I’m not here to wonder whether Star Wars: Rebels is legacy pop culture — like DC and Marvel superheroes — that parents might be forcing on their kids the way white boomer dads evangelize Steely Dan.

Instead, as the Avengers kick off another summer of mighty Marvel mook-blasting, I just want to ask: Why do we (mostly) agree, today, that this material is appropriate? And is something lost when pew-pew action/adventure follows the trajectory of soft drinks and fast food — going from occasional treat to everyday staple? In short, how did the decapitations of orcs and robots become the very center of our media culture?

[Please note, fanboys, that these questions are being asked by someone who occasionally enjoys Star Wars: Rebels at the gym. That animation has grown on me: It’s just un-detailed enough to be legible when squinting at it on a treadmill. Also, note that there’s nothing short about the thoughts that follow, and there’s more here than you might expect on the topic of Burt Reynolds.]

When Killing Became Self-Help Fun
How did such entertainment become the pop-entertainment universe’s center of financial gravity — and the shared imaginative landscape of billions of us? The answer, I think, lies in the Seventies, the decade that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson started publishing Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, illuminating with rigorous numbers the secret assumption that has long underpinned violent storytelling: that killing every monster or badguy in the room makes us better.

But that idea wasn’t always the mainstream of our popular culture. It wasn’t too long ago that killing was dirty work for grown-ups. Once the westerns died, and Vietnam reminded Americans that it’s not always easy to spot the villains, movie and TV heroes who killed lots of sumbitches were grim grown-ups: Dirty Harrys, Buford Pussers, and even Burt Reynolds’s Gator, who in his first appearance, in ’73’s White Lightning, was closer to the conflicted backhills toughs of Justified than the grinnin’ galoots of Hooper or Smokey and the Bandit.

Simply put, killing was a grim and nasty business, and filmmakers expected you might want to close your eyes when the bullets hit.

As the Seventies wore on, and the movies grew increasingly stupid and profitable, tough-guy violence lightened up. In ’76’s Gator Reynolds might have been taking on corrupt cops, and by extension an America that had also corroded, but the punching was comic, a goof, closer to Richard Lester’s hopelessly square ’74 Three Musketeers than to White Lightning. Tough guys could kick the asses of our problems, make us feel good about it.

The Men of ’77
1977 changed everything in Hollywood, which means it also changed much of American culture. Elvis died, John Wayne was almost there, and popular movies offered three strikingly different takes on the masculine hero: First, Reynolds’s high-on-his-own-fumes wiseass, who by Smokey could barely bother to look engaged with the plots he raced his cars through. The action Hal Needham orchestrated around him was brilliantly executed automotive slapstick — it didn’t purport to mean anything at all. Reynolds’s charm — and his cornpone Keystone Cops milieu — would barely last into the 1980s.

In fact, Reynolds’s Seventies career offers a perfect metaphor for the way Hollywood watered down its violent heroes as the box office swelled: In White Lightning, Gator serves time for running moonshine. In ’77’s Smokey, Bandit’s mission is delivering Coors.

Here’s a bunch of press stills I found in the Voice archives of Reynolds in Hooper:

Reynolds’s smile said, “Ain’t this all just a laugh?” The other men of ’77 played it comic-book straight. Mark Hamill’s dashing naif Luke Skywalker grows great through violence in a manner closer to D&D and Marvel comics than to the Tolkien and Kurosawa that George Lucas has so often cited as his influences. Luke is more Peter Parker than Frodo Baggins, a dreamer flowering into a man as a talent for violence suddenly wakes in him through no doing of his own, although Lucas never bothered to reconcile the great contradiction between Luke’s adventures and his Jedi training: If killing Vader would lead him to the Dark Side, what are we to make of Luke’s routine slaughter of stormtroopers and TIE pilots?

Meanwhile, Hamill’s co-star, Harrison Ford, united in his particular manliness the best of Reynolds’s cocksure disinterest with just enough of that searching hopefulness of Hamill and Lucas: In the years to come, we would believe that Indiana Jones believes in mumbo-jumbo we knew Harrison Ford was barely tolerating.

(The other superstar dude of the ’77 box office: Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, who didn’t kill at all — unless you count that stand-up show where Annie Hall says she’s finally getting more of the references. Like it’s her job to train her brain to appreciate his stand-up!)

The seekers and geeks were taking over — soon, the Gators and Bandits were crashing into the Eighties like Porkins’s X-Wing into the Death Star trench. Since then, most of our biggest non-R-rated movie and TV fantasy heroes have hewn to Hamill/Ford archetypes: true-believer dreamers who seem to level-up as they dispatch bad guys, like Harry Potter, Captain America, Top Gun Tom Cruise, and Christopher Reeve’s Superman.

Or they’ve been gently cynical heroes-to-be, who carp a little as they’re nudged toward their inevitable world-saving and self-improvement: Iron Man, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, Will Smith in everything except After Earth. Reynolds’s characters, of course, can’t improve — they’re already the best at everything they do, which makes them much tougher for most of us to match ourselves up to.

The early adventure films of Lucas and Spielberg wiped away the breezy plotlessness of car-chase movies. Conviction to the fantasy was now as important as the stunt and effects work, even as the violence itself remained cheery and cartoonish — Star Wars‘ bantering heroes make being pinned down under enemy fire in a detention block look like great fun.

But for audiences who connected to Hamill/Ford heroes, even silly action took on great power. Luke versus Vader in the original Star Wars films felt important, epochal, in a way that Gator taking on a sheriff didn’t. Even the better James Bond movies never seemed to matter in that way — they were too grown up, in their way, to mistake their stories for anything more than fantastic play. Star Wars encouraged its audience to believe that fantastic play meant everything.

The Triumph of Trash
It’s worth remembering that, before Star Wars, our popular culture wasn’t cluttered up with violent sci-fi and fantasy heroes. There were comics, of course — Marvel pioneered the self-serious soap-opera smash-up serial long before Lucas got to it. There were the pulps and early D&D and quaint old movies I used to skip school to see on TV: Errol Flynn and Ray Harryhausen and Godzillas.

But you had to seek out those thrills, and they had the whiff of trash about them. During my Midwestern childhood, one relative warned me that a Conan comic would rot my brain; when I was ten, my mother asked me not to let her mother-in-law see that I was reading the novelization of Return of the Jedi; three years later, a youth pastor inveighed against the cover of my copy of a collection of Fritz Leiber’s wonderful Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stories, the book I loved more than any other. (Those rogues are much more Ford than Hamill — and when the hell do we get their movie?)

Just a generation before it came to dominate our culture, comic and fantasy violence was disreputable, a little underground, scruffy and impolite. It didn’t yet have clearly established rules covering what was and wasn’t acceptable: Note how the Fangoria-lite bloodiness of the first two Indiana Jones pictures contrasts with the gentlemen’s fisticuffs of the third one, a course correction made after the public scolded Lucas and Spielberg for having gone too far with the heart-ripping and kid-whipping. But the sadism of Temple of Doom or the Daredevil Netflix series differs from that of the Marvel films or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade only in tone and degree: At root, they’re all still about how awesome it would be to run around and kick everyone’s ass.

In the Eighties, for the first time since Bonanza‘s Sixties peak, Americans began to admit that what they really wanted to watch was grown-ups playing the old kids’ game of Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians or whatever you called it. (My neighbors, pragmatists, just dubbed it “Guns.”) The success of Kenner’s Star Wars toys — which encouraged kids to pew-pew back and forth, forever — sparked dozens of imitators, especially in the cheapjack world of TV cartoons.

You don’t hear much today about how stridently the culture resisted this, how the clown Geraldo assailed Dungeons & Dragons or concerned parents railed against our He-Men and G.I. Joes: Evangelicals and liberals alike campaigned against a suddenly pervasive media violence that today only seems to bug the latter.

The doomed campaign was even occasionally effective: Advertisers feared these groups so much that ABC insisted that Thundarr the Barbarian, whose show premiered in ’80, carry a laser sword, lest kids be inspired to wave around sharp objects. It’s the same weak-kneed logic that leads to the villains of last-gen Disney films always dying by happenstance rather than the hero’s doing.

For kids, that fretfulness distinguished cartoon fare from the Lucas-Spielberg gold standard: Indiana Jones sent a slug through that swordsman’s heart, winning cheers from audiences, while in syndication the Joes fought an endless war as bloody as Friendship Is Magic. That meant kids were steeped in two varieties of joyous mayhem: the movies’ cavalier killing of bad guys, for laughs, or TV’s dishonest, cleaned-up variety, where violence was stripped of consequence.

In 2015 it’s hard to say which approach is more appalling.

And Then Everyone Got Old
The real problem with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t its CGI or its space aliens or its Shia LaBeouf or the way creaky Harrison Ford seems to disprove the taunt Paul Freeman’s Belloq hit him with back in Raiders: “Who knows? In a thousand years even you may be worth something!” No, the problem is that the director has grown past his interest in the woo-hoo! slaughter of bad guys. (He can still ace more innocent action, though. Give Tintin another chance.)

Spielberg’s adeptness with — and ambivalence toward — violence is the most interesting thing about him, apart from his offhand mastery. He’s now a man and artist aspiring to moral seriousness, and he seems to share the qualms of the critics of Raiders and Temple of Doom: To compensate, he plays too nice. Late Indy won’t shoot a Russian in cold blood the way he shot that swordsman, or the way the original Han Solo shot Greedo. He may as well carry Thundarr’s laser sword.

(An aside: Like Luke Skywalker, who kills all the time but then struggles not to kill Vader, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron embodies Spielberg’s contradictions: He’s the greatest in the world at smashy-smashy, and he spends his life wanting to be anything else.)

But here’s the funny thing. Those critics got old, too, and have mostly given in. And the fans of the first Hamill/Ford heroes are getting old, too, with their kids and younger siblings, the ones raised on Hamill/Ford knockoffs, having kids, too. These groups, relishing in the high-stakes rough play of the Marvel films and The Lord of the Rings movies and the late Harry Potters, and comfortable with the genocidal self-improvement treadmill of Diablo and Final Fantasy, seem to have discovered and agreed upon the rules that Lucas and Spielberg were fumbling toward.

There’s a generational consensus: Young people’s fantasy violence should be escapist, suspenseful, sometimes funny, full of passionate conviction about its own mythology, populated with dreamers and nice-guy scoundrels, and it should always be un-shy about whether the bad guys are dying. (Even the Fast & Furious movies follow these rules.) But that violence should also not be grim or grotesque or — even worse — too comic.

Oh, and a newish rule that Lucas in particular has struggled with: Villains and the disposable henchmen our heroes will enjoy mowing down should not seem like parodies of any earthly ethnic groups.

So it makes sense that Jedi-torture and stormtrooper death is now branded as TV-Y7. That’s the baseline, the kids’ stuff. A couple hours later, though, after those kids are asleep, the grown-ups might watch something less nostalgic and more adult, something less beholden to those rules — Game of Thrones, maybe.

The treat has become the staple, the underculture has become the overculture, and now it’s the cartoons about friendship and ponies that parents aren’t sure about. Once he gets hooked on Star Wars, my friend’s ten-year-old can rest assured that he will never have to pass a single day of his life without the chance to watch heroes kill — and pretend that the killing is both good fun and of urgent importance.

Finally, did you see the time Burt Reynolds played a fantasyland king in an Uwe Boll film? Man, the age of Star Wars and Hamill/Ford conviction has been rough on that guy.

That’s the rule of ’77: Fantasy heroes can’t snap, “What the hell does that mean?”