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.”
Audiences can also tell whether they’re being respected or coerced. The Oscar-nominated CIA thriller “Zero Dark Thirty”opened like gangbusters here in January, when its top-performing theaters were (surprise, surprise) in Tysons Corner and other Northern Virginia locations convenient to military, intelligence and policymaking personnel. Despite premature criticism from politicians, journalists and activists who took issue with the film’s depiction of torture and its role in the search for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty” has found a large and receptive audience of viewers who presumably can judge for themselves whether waterboarding or old-fashioned intelligence-gathering proved more crucial in the hunt.
The debates about violence — whether vigilante or state-sanctioned — come down to one conclusion: that in a world of proliferating media, the ability to decode what movies say and how they say it has never been more important. Media literacy has now become as important as the three R’s. We still have a long way to go in making media literacy an everyday part of school curricula and living-room conversations. But generations raised on a steady diet of visual information have proved remarkably astute in sifting through movies, their messages and the moments when they go too far.
We don’t possess granular information on how subtly audiences processed the lurid revisionism of “Django Unchained” or whether they emerged from “Zero Dark Thirty” believing that torture has a justified place in American foreign policy. But the box-office figures do suggest that audiences are far more sophisticated and discerning than pundits — and movie studios — often give them credit for.
It will take more long-range data to detect a bona fide post-Newtown trend: “Die Hard Another Day” opens in a few days, and this summer will see its usual complement of shoot-’em-up spectacles. But over these past few weeks, at least for a moment, American filmgoers seemed willing to send Hollywood their own message: This time it really is different. We’ve finally had it with being played for chumps.
Did you take a pass on seeing “Jack Reacher,” “Parker,” “The Last Stand” or “Bullet to the Head”? Let us know why in the comments or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org with “movie violence” in the subject line.