The double-standard ethics of action heroes.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was an influential early author of pulp-style novels. He is best known for Tarzan, of whom he wrote more than a dozen books; he also had a series set on Mars, one set of Venus, and one set in a dinosaur-infested inside of a hollow Earth. He also had several stand-alone novels; The Efficiency Expert is on of the least violent and the one I generally recommend. In most of his books you can expect to find
An expert fighter with few if any personal flaws.
A world-class beauty of peerless virtue who loves the fighter.
An unmitigatedly evil villain who lusts for the beauty, and also wants to destroy or enslave a lot of other people.
Villain steals girl; fighter foils villain. There are other plot elements, of course, but those basics are virtually always present.
One of the ways that Burroughs helps the hero seem flawless is that he almost always shows mercy on the villain. Often the climax is something like:
Hero and villain fight; villain does something that should result in the hero’s unfailing demise but hero escapes death by some fluke.
Hero and villain fight again; hero wins, but decides not to kill villain.
Villain does something vengeful or stupid that results in villain’s death anyway.
It’s a simple formula, but it works well. It’s one that many other action heroes have followed, both on paper and on the screen.
One day in my late teens I was reading in Genesis 6 (or perhaps Moses 8) and pondered the line “the earth was filled with violence.” At the time I consumed little if any “violent” media and lived a peaceful life in most ways. But then I thought about The Master Mind of Mars, a Burroughs novel I had recently read, and realized that John Carter killed a lot of people in it. The main villains were treated with mercy, but their employees were slaughtered by the dozen.
As I have become familiar with many action films in recent years I have noticed that this strange mixed morality is almost universal. There are some films where peons are granted the same clemency as villains, but there are a lot where the reel is littered with dead guards. When I see an action film these days I often engage in widow-counting on the side: how many guards’ wives end up widows as a result of the “merciful hero”’s actions? The numbers are sometimes shocking, very high on even “kid-friendly” movies.
I am a lot more concerned about the prevalence of guards being killed casually and without gore than I am about the “main” violence in movies today. There’s something nefariously subliminal in the by-the-way message “anyone working for an evil employer is expendable.” It’s an idea as old as war itself, of course: the soldiers of the enemy are traditionally upholding exactly the same values of loyalty, patriotism, and family safety as the soldiers of our side. But war is messy, big, undertaken by committees after deliberation and almost always seen as worse than peace. That one person could decide that one other person is a problem and as a consequence have no qualms with slaying dozens in order to reach that target is more worrying to me precisely because it is so often portrayed as background, as automatic and not even open to ethical debate.
In general I am more concerned with casual evil than with evil that campaigns for itself. It’s a lot harder to fight surprise that an adult is a virgin than it is to fight any particular encouragement to fornicate. Shops that do not carry any modest clothing at all are a lot more troubling than nude beaches, because at least the beaches have to identify themselves as such and thus leave the propriety of covering one’s body in discussion.
There is an old saying, “define the terms, win the argument.” I fear that today we are seeing some arguments for evil won not by defining the terms but by eradicating the terms altogether. If I tell friends “I’d rather not watch that movie, it’s too violent” they think I mean too gory, vicious, or visceral. There are some quite tame movies—family-friendly cartoons, even—that have widow-counts too high for comfort, but how do I say that? “The ‘good guys’ show no respect for the life of strangers” sums it up well, but it always surprises people when I say it. It’s not an idea that is in most of their mental vocabularies.
So I widow-count, and post my thoughts on this blog. Maybe someday “acts in a way that could maim or kill employees” will start appearing in more people’s evaluations of movie and book content.