Dear Hollywood: Can We Reconsider the Rising Digital Death Tolls?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
'Bucky's got a gun....now everybody is on the run'
Credit: Marvel Studios
The poster may be the best part of the movie
The poster may be the best part of the movie
Credit: Warner Bros.

In 1995, I subjected myself to a showing of Fair Game, an ill-conceived action vehicle in the then-fashion of the day, starring model Cindy Crawford along with one of the lesser Baldwin brothers. Yeah, I know – that’s on me. But hey, Joel Silver-produced action flicks were a thing back then.

Because I didn’t, Wikipedia remembered for me: Crawford played a Miami lawyer (no … really) who mucks something or other up for a Russian mafia and/or terrorist cell and goes on the run with Baldwin as the Russians make numerous attempts on her life. What I do distinctly remember about the film nearly 20 years later, however, is that by the middle of it I was outright rooting for the Russians.

No, that’s not a snarky comment about Crawford’s acting, having to shell out 6 bucks to see a Baldwin that wasn’t Alec, or an easy and dated cheap shot at Joel Silver and all he stood for in the 90s. I remember genuinely rooting for the Russians to kill her, and for the movie to end, because of the number of civilians that were killed or maimed – mostly on crowded Florida highways – simply for the “story" [cough] to have a reason for being.

At a certain point it occurred to me Crawford’s survival had no consequence other than she was the lead character I was supposed to root for. But the filmmakers provided no compelling reason why anyone should have been invested in her survival over the dozens of innocent bystanders who were being murdered or severely injured in horrific ways so that she could live.

It was the first time I remember being meta-aware of an action film’s body count vs. the justification for the death toll and it stuck with me to this day.

Why do I bring it up now? I was reminded of that feeling Wednesday while watching a preview screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Now, slow down. No one’s comparing Fair Game to The Winter SoldierMarvel’s extremely effective and most mature, game-changing film to date. I can and will highly recommend The Winter Soldier to both readers of Newsarama and friends and family and we’ll be talking about it a ton more in the next week. I was just reminded of a feeling as the titular cyborg assassin and dozens of henchmen in black pursue Nick Fury, and then Cap, the Black Widow, and Sam Wilson aka The Falcon in two separate action set pieces on the crowded highways and busy streets of Washington D.C.

Spoiler warning – The Winter Soldier’s civilian death count may not be Marvel's highest to date, but it’s the most in-your-face by a longshot – and not by the hands of giant robots, dark elves, or invading aliens – but by men with automatic firearms, rocket launchers, and crashing cars. In other words, real-world threats.

An action sequence being filmed on the set of Captain America: The Winter Soldier
An action sequence being filmed on the set of Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Credit: Cleveland.com/Marvel Studios

Of course Winter Soldier has something Fair Game did not - a compelling reason why the survival of each of the main characters is imperative: the entire world’s safety and freedom are at stake and the heroes of the film are the only ones who can secure it.

Of course Iron Man and Hawkeye and Thor could’ve helped, but that’s a topic for another day.

But that doesn’t make it any less noticeable (to me anyway) how many innocent lives are used as cannon fodder for what are admittedly some marvelously-crafted action sequences in Marvel’s most outwardly violent MCU entry.

The first Iron Man very self-consciously had Tony Stark repeatedly move an innocent family in an Audi Q7 out of harm’s way during his climatic battle with Obadiah Stane. The motif repeated itself as he saves a young boy in an Iron Man mask at the conclusion of Iron Man 2 and most if not all civilian lives are seemingly spared in Whiplash’s drone attack on the Armored Avenger.

In his first film, a mortal Thor put himself in harm’s way simply to spare the lives of few dozen citizens of a tiny New Mexico town.

And much of The Avengers triumphant magnum opus of a third act was preoccupied with trying to protect civilian New Yorkers, although the film’s ending montage makes it clear many lives were ultimately lost. But of course, alien invasion was the whole point.

During one scene in Marvel’s latest, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow implores civilians to scatter as she’s pursued by the Winter Soldier, but the film mostly doesn’t engage in the comic book conceit that superhero-supervillain battles occur in crowded cities with little to no loss of life. Judging by the number of wrecked cars during high speed pursuits and explosions and hails of gunfire seen hitting passing cars, the metro DC area hospitals and coroner offices were very busy the evenings those scenes take place. And their deaths were not even the point like in The Avengers; they just happened to be in the way.

The Black Widow runs from an assassination attempt in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Black Widow runs from an assassination attempt in Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Credit: Marvel Studios

Something has seemingly changed since those initial Iron Mans and it’s certainly not limited to Marvel Studios films. The Winter Soldier’s decidedly more Bourne-like up-close-and-personal body count is in fact very different from what’s currently in vogue in genre films, which is massive-scale digital destruction.

With each tent-pole film now having the support a much heavier global tent, studios have been ratcheting up the mayhem in attempts to awe audiences. In a little less than a calendar year, we’ve seen General Zod’s ‘world engine’ crash land into Metropolis, Malekith‘s spaceship crash land into Greenwich, England, and London, England getting blown off the map entirely just as a demonstration of Cobra’s power.

London is made an example of in G.I. Joe: Retaliation
London is made an example of in G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Credit: Paramount Pictures

I was also reminded of that "Fair Game feeling" when recently watching Star Trek: Into Darkness for the second time, as the giant starship that dwarfs the size of the U.S.S Enterprise crash lands (there’s a lot of that going around) onto the busy streets of San Francisco, mostly to set up a chase on foot between Spock and Khan, and of course for the digital spectacle of it all.

Kirk’s hubris over his miracle worker-like ability to always pull victory from the jaws of defeat has been a major theme in both big-screen Star Trek incarnations, and just moments after he gave his life to save the crew of his ship in Into Darkness, another ship zooms past headed straight toward the unsuspecting citizens of San Fran. The choice to step over Kirk’s sacrifice and the triumph of the Enterprise’s salvation with the wanton destruction of a familiar U.S. city still strikes me as a contradictory one after two viewings.

Like The Winter Solider, Into Darkness was a well-crafted film I greatly enjoyed and recommend to others, but I think I would have enjoyed it just as much if I didn’t spend its last five minutes wondering to myself how many hundreds to thousands of civilian lives were taken simply to set up the MacGuffin of Spock pursuing Khan for his genetically superior blood.

So much of Into Darkness’ plot and emotional core was tied into the lives of individual characters – the dying little girl, Spock in the volcano, Captain Pike, Khan’s 72 brothers and sisters, and Kirk’s ultimate gesture. Once again, the death of those thousands of San Franciscans wasn’t even the point … it was an afterthought. They just happened to be in the way.

KHHHHHHAAAAAAANNNNNNN!!!!!!
KHHHHHHAAAAAAANNNNNNN!!!!!!
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Let's wait until you see The Winter Soldier before we talk about the third act's death toll and the crash landing Helicarriers.

Now I know there’s certainly precedent in the annals of genre – J.J. Abram’s first Star Trek featured the destruction of Vulcan, of course. The entire populated peaceful planet of Alderaan was also sacrificed in Star Wars just to show how badass the Death Star was. And as Randal Graves once astutely observed, thousands of likely apolitical contract construction workers lost their lives when the Rebels blew up second Death Star real good in Return of the Jedi.

Newsarama’s own readers will also remind me that these films are just escapist entertainment, and shouldn’t be taken so seriously. And that’s entirely my point – escapism. In the battle between good and evil, I have little issue with those who signed up for the fight paying the ultimate sacrifice, whichever side they choose to sign up for. So for the record, I’m not advocating for the equivalent of showing all the pilots escaping their downed planes in parachutes ala the 1980s GI Joe cartoon.

But I do wonder if the talented producers, writers, directors, and special effects wizards responsible for these otherwise top-notch films should reconsider the purpose and necessity of such large scale death tolls and mass mayhem as set dressing when so much of the drama of these films comes from the fates of individual characters.

Maybe what’s now known as “New York” in the Marvel movie-verse is the blueprint other filmmakers, both within Marvel and elsewhere, are trying to emulate. And there’s $1.5 billion good reasons to follow that lead.

But again, from the Chitauri to the nuke, that Avengers scene was about the preservation of life, not collateral damage for the sake of plot devices and digital 3D artistry.

Perhaps it’s just me. Maybe I’m out of step with and don’t have the appetite for destruction that John and Jane Q. Paying Moviegoer seem to possess. And again, there are some really, really cool action sequences in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I suppose I’m just saying that when a car crashes head-on into other cars or flips over at 60 MPH, or villains spray automatic gunfire into moving cars trying to get through to the hero shielded on the other side, this moviegoer can’t help remembering there are “regular" people supposedly in those cars – people on their way home from work, going to class, or headed out to the movies.

Gov. Christie's got nothing on the Winter Soldier when it comes to causing traffic jams
Gov. Christie's got nothing on the Winter Soldier when it comes to causing traffic jams
Credit: Marvel Studios

I can’t help but calculate the death toll and wonder what those people are losing their lives for. My enjoyment? I want to be invested in whether Cap or Kirk or Spock or Sam live (and of course I know they will), but isn't treating life and death so capriciously in ever escalating scale working against that purpose?

I can’t “escape" that. And I’m not certain it’s necessary I should have to try.

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