Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and the increasing violence of family movies

Luke Stevenson is a journalist at Community Care and an avid cinema-watcher. He is also one of the three hosts of The Popcorn Muncher Podcast.

Yondu and Wolverine are at the forefront of "family-friendly" murder in comic book movies
Yondu and Wolverine are at the forefront of “family-friendly” murder in comic book movies

The following article contains major spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, as well as X-Men: Apocalypse.

In the special spoiler-filled episode of The Popcorn Muncher Podcast where we discussed Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I reached an impasse with the site editor Tom over the violence that takes place in the movie, which received a 12A certificate from the BBFC and a PG-13 in America.

In a triumphant scene, Yondu (Michael Rooker) walks through a spaceship with Rocket and Baby Groot at his side, gleefully murdering the crew of the ship. Nameless bad guys are given arrows to the chest and head, while a pop number plays in the background. It’s a fun scene. Energetic in style and cool in its execution, it could be described as one of the movie’s high-points. However, it speaks to a wider issue in comic book movies and, more broadly, mainstream action movies. Namely, the 12A rating is being used too loosely.

I’m not a prude. I broadly don’t care what parents do or do not choose to show their children – within the realms of common decency, of course). I remember from the age of six watching movies like True Lies (15), Dirty Dancing (15) and Independence Day (12), and it never rubbed me the wrong way. You may say that this points to a level of parental neglect, but they were seen on video rather than in a cinema and I was always plainly aware that these movies were ‘adult’.

The fact they were rated 15 or 12 is what made them exciting to me, but it also kept me grounded in knowing what I was seeing was more mature than intended for my age. A lot of it went over my head, as did my watching of Wayne’s World, Austin Powers and Monty Python movies at a similar age.

These movies were more mature, but they were signposted as such and thus played to that mature audience. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and similar movies like X-Men: Apocalypse, the line between what is mature and what is for kids is becoming increasingly blurred as genuine children, along with a perhaps unsuspecting adult, can see this material in a cinema.

Jennifer Lawrence finds herself in Oscar Isaac's clutches in X-Men: Apocalypse
Jennifer Lawrence finds herself in Oscar Isaac’s clutches in X-Men: Apocalypse

While discussing the Yondu scene on the podcast, I compared it to a similar sequence in Kingsman where Colin Firth massacres everyone in a church full of people – a scene with which my editor, Tom, has significant issues. Both scenes revel in their violence and both scenes involve heavy body counts, but only one of these violent sequences of mass murder is contained within a movie marketed and deemed suitable for children – and that’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Similarly, in X-Men: Apocalypse, you could quite rightly take issues with the fact that Wolverine runs around a laboratory massacring people. 12A-certifcate films are now allowed one or two uses of the word ‘fuck’ and Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 says ‘shit’ quite casually and frequently.

In one way, this progression shows more about where we are at culturally. The people who certify these movies must be coming to a conclusion, somehow, that younger audiences are more capable of handling this stuff than my generation was. Their Finest – a low-key British drama – was certified at 12A and featured a naked sex scene. That’s something that would never have occurred just 10 or 15 years ago and reflects a culture more at ease with discussing sex, which I think is a step in the right direction.

Broadly, I don’t have much of a problem with these movies becoming more mature. The worst offenders are generally serving two audiences – adult fanboys/girls and children – and need to find a way to satisfy both, but what needs to be addressed is what overall message this leaves. In Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men and other recent example Rogue One, there are high body counts. Fine. Someone at the BBFC has decided that children are more capable with witnessing death than they once were, and that’s fine if that’s where we are moving to as a society. However, the flippancy with which these deaths are treated now need to be discussed.

The fact Yondu murders dozens of people with an arrow is treated without circumstance. The arrow is small after all and doesn’t leave much of a mark, or so the story tells us, but should this be the message we give young cinemagoers? Death is sad and it is painful. Deaths in these movies are often brutal, but their impact is lessened and, if there is blood, it’s minimal. If there is anguish, it’s heard out of shot.

Colin Firth became an action hero in Kingsman: The Secret Service
Colin Firth became an action hero in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Yondu’s death in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the only element of the story really treated with a degree of sadness, but his body is almost perfectly preserved without marks. This allows the main characters time to grieve and spill soliloquies over it.

I have issues with the violence in movies like Hacksaw Ridge, which equally treads the line of making real-life violence a heart-warming moment, but at least the frenetic brutality of war is shown in a way that tells its audiences that this is a bad thing. There’s blood, there’s guts and it’s made clear that that’s what violence is. If we are going to accept that young people are now more capable of witnessing death and violence, can we do it without making out that it’s all clean and quick?

You can make an argument – and I will defend young people’s intelligence to an extreme level – that they are aware, like I was when I watched True Lies, that this is a work of fiction and there is license to be taken. However, when a movie is marketed on the basis of a talking raccoon and a tiny tree creature and children can buy their snacks with a Baby Groot cup before going in, we need to start questioning what it is we are showing, and saying, to these cinemagoers.

Do you agree that 12A films need to be more responsible in their depiction of violence? Are comic book movies allowing filmmakers to push the boundaries of family-friendly certificates even further? Let me know in the comments section.

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