At a recent screening of “Game Night,” a goofily larky comedy starring Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, the audience cringed in distaste when McAdams’s character playfully stuck a handgun in her mouth, unaware that it was real and loaded. Meanwhile, in a theater across the multiplex, an audience eager to see the visionary world-building of “Black Panther” first had to slog through trailers for a new “Mission: Impossible” movie, a “Deadpool” sequel and next week’s remake of “Death Wish,” in which Tom Cruise, Josh Brolin and Bruce Willis can be seen brandishing firearms with varying degrees of macho swagger and ironic snark.
It’s not that these gun-happy movies come “too soon” after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. At a time when an average of two dozen children are shot every day in the United States, we are now clearly living in a permanent state of “too soon.”
Nor is it, as President Trump suggested on Thursday, that violent movies are to blame for violent behavior. That cause-and-effect argument is far too simplistic, even taking into account the hypocrisy of an industry whose biggest stars routinely decry gun violence while the studios they work for profit from the production and export of valorizing it on screen.
But it’s the images themselves that are looking increasingly outdated, tone-deaf and stale as audience expectations undergo a profound generational shift.
Just as the grieving Parkland students have surprised all of us by their unwillingness to accept thoughts, prayers and other platitudes as a response to the carnage they witnessed, it’s possible to imagine that the generation they so eloquently represent will no longer find guns to be cool, consequence-free or remotely funny.
To be clear, “Game Night” is funny. And, unlike too many films, it does show the effects of being shot by a gun — even if the wounds gush and spurt to maximum gag-inducing effect. At one point blood sprays promiscuously over a cozy den, soaking precious keepsakes and a family dog. Later, a character pretends to be shot before suffering an actual excruciating bullet injury. After the initial shock wears off, we see that it’s all chill, with no one we care about getting gravely hurt. The reaction at the screening I attended was hesitant laughter, but mostly quiet gasps of discomfort.
As filmgoers, we’re conditioned to understand gradations of realism from years of watching guns used as props, symbols and signifiers, going back to the beginning of cinema with 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery” to the exploits of Dirty Harry and the theatrics of Quentin Tarantino. The occasional naturalistic crime or war movie aside, firearms are most often cast not as thoughtfully deployed weapons or tools for sustenance, but as shorthand for macho street cred and an easy way to inflate otherwise weak stakes. They’re either treated as toys or worshiped as fetish objects, but rarely are they taken seriously.
But even after more than a century, aesthetic assumptions can change, as we’ve seen in recent years wherein audiences have demanded more inclusive casts and more enlightened storytelling. It might be optimistic, but not entirely unreasonable, to wonder if the teenagers who have come of age in the post-Sandy Hook era will reject trivialized or “stylish” or worshipful depictions of firearms the same way that their contemporaries reject world-building that is monochromatically white or female characters who can only be weak, passive or one-dimensional.
That evolution raises the question: How much longer can Hollywood ask the more than 150,000 students who have survived a campus shooting since Columbine to accept the commodification of guns as entertainment? How much longer before their contemporaries call a Parkland-inspired “BS” on the use of guns as style points, whether in the form of an overcompensating accessory for Tom Cruise, the stuff of sarcastic posturing in “Deadpool 2” or as vectors of vigilante overkill in “Death Wish”? All the strutting, fretting, locking and loading feels tired to the point of obsolescence: overkill, literally and figuratively.
In recent days, the galvanizing young activists from Florida have been cruelly denigrated as “crisis actors,” too media-savvy to be on the level. But it comes as no surprise that, as digital natives, they know how to communicate via cameras and screens. That same media literacy enables them to be critical viewers, unpacking what they see in the movies and understanding the need for political and legislative change in real life.
Violence and bloodshed will always be an element of cinematic language, as long as people are drawn to stories about suffering, survival, life and death. In the hands of a genuine artist, they can lead to potent catharsis and the chance to grapple with our own mortality. But one measure of the leadership of the Stoneman Douglas generation might be convincing Hollywood that glib, cynical violence no longer sells, and teaching the rest of us that guns are anything but a game.