Then, the blood-spattered spaghetti Western “Django Unchained” opened — on Christmas Day, of all times, not even a week after “Jack Reacher” arrived in theaters, its first-person perspective of a sniper recalling the events of mid-December with a repellent shudder.
In successive weeks, theaters were awash in a sea of unbridled carnage and ballistic mayhem, as “Gangster Squad,” “Parker,” “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” “Bullet to the Head” and “Stand Up Guys” blasted their way onto neighborhood screens. In the most perverse coincidence of the season, “The Last Stand,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and an enormous machine gun, arrived the very day that the Aurora Century 16 in Colorado reopened after a mass shooting there in July.
“This time it’s different?” Hollywood seemed to taunt. “Prove it.”
And we did. Sort of.
Consider: “Django Unchained” was an instant hit, becoming the most successful movie of Quentin Tarantino’s career. But in short order, “Gangster Squad,” “The Last Stand,” “Parker,” “Bullet to the Head” and “Stand Up Guys” tanked. Only “Hansel and Gretel” — like “Django,” an outlandish exercise in artistic license, in this case making a Grimms’ fairy tale even grimmer — proved successful, while its slightly more realistic, and far more cynical, brethren hit the deck like so many carnival-range rabbits.
The sight of such icons as Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone trying to look tough while wielding their high-caliber phallic symbols wasn’t just a ridiculous burlesque of macho posturing. After Newtown, it was downright distasteful. As reader Peter Hoagland wrote in an e-mail in December, he wasn’t sure where the post-Newtown conversation about gun violence was going, “but I for one am no longer willing to support it in films.”
It seems that Mr. Hoagland wasn’t alone. There are myriad variables at work whenever box-office numbers are in play — it could be that audiences simply think Cruise, Schwarzenegger and Stallone have outlived their credibility as action heroes. But another possible takeaway from the past six weeks’ worth of action flicks is that, when it came to screen violence, we accepted it in a universe of fables and flagrantly outlandish B-movies and rejected it in more realistic stories. Ritualized aggression may not faze us in the realm of imaginative play. But real-world body counts — even if they’re only enacted on-screen — have swiftly lost their entertainment value.
It might be wishful thinking, but I’d like to think that audiences can tell the difference between escapist fantasy and the kind of brutal realism — or realistic brutalism — that doesn’t just fetishize guns and bloody violence but normalizes them. They can tell, as Mr. Hoagland wrote in a more recent e-mail, when “they are being played for chumps.”