Blockbusters like Pacific Rim, World War Z and Man of Steel give us a black and white alternative to the murkiness of real-life conflict.
We all like to think that movies and TV don’t influence us. It’s not as if you see Barry Scott yelling at you about Cillit Bang, then immediately rush out to buy some. Similarly, watching one of the many movies which glorify violence normally doesn’t inspire people to purchase a black market firearm the minute they leave the theatre.
We can say with a good degree of certainty that enough exposure to the media does influence our behaviour
It is uncomfortable to consider that we may be unwittingly manipulated by media. And yet, we can say with a good degree of certainty that enough exposure to it absolutely does influence our behaviour. If it didn’t, TV adverts would be very different (fewer attractive people rubbing themselves all over the products), and product placement in movies wouldn’t exist at all. In fact, subliminal advertising has proven to be so effective at secretly manipulating people that it is banned outright. This type of conditioning is considered immoral – which casts a dark shadow across product placement and other types of subtle advertising and propaganda. These forms of (largely unnoticed) manipulation are at best morally ambiguous.
Far stronger than hidden brand logos, though, is the almost imperceivable influence of story. Our ability to construct and manipulate narratives is one of the things that makes humanity unique. Our minds are wired to think in stories, and it’s the stories that we tell ourselves every day which control how we perceive our society, how we treat others, and even our own identity. Equally, popular stories are often a reflection of the cultural subconscious. If we deconstruct them carefully, they can reveal unseen truths about our society.
It is very telling then, that so many blockbusters lately have revolved around war. These would not necessarily be classed as traditional ‘war’ movies, but rather depict a fictional war in which the heroes defeat the plainly evil villains. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen Pacific Rim, Avengers Assemble, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Skyfall, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, World War Z, The Dark Knight Rises and Star Trek Into Darkness. All of these, to a greater of lesser extent, deal with a large scale conflict that, for want of a better description, we can call a war.
The telling thing about recent movie wars is that they massively simplify the politics of conflict
But the telling thing about all of these fictional wars is that they massively simplify the politics of conflict, which as we have recently seen with Syria, is far murkier than we would like to believe. There are no obvious right or wrong decisions to be made regarding war in our modern world – only an unending stream of uncertain choices that in all likelihood will not result in a better situation for anyone involved. Are these films, which have proven so popular, a reflection of our wish as a society to have simple black and white choices presented to us?
Perhaps they reveal a secret desire within all of us to be the good guys fighting the bad. To have our doubts and fears erased and believe as strongly in our cause as Superman. More likely though, these films are about us shirking our responsibilities. We want a hero to save us. An idol to look up to, who will protect us from the bleak moral conundrum of reality. And an enemy to look down upon, to make us feel better about ourselves.
This in itself could be seen as a type of hidden advertising or propaganda, promoting a way of thinking which will encourage people to support war, or a least be neutral towards it. A simplification of reality that allows us to escape our responsibility to be informed, thoughtful participants in our democracy, and instead simply holler support for our country and boo our enemies, relying on others to make the difficult decisions for us.
We have a responsibility to grapple with the grey world we’re living in. Our media should lead that charge
It’s doubtful that these repeated messages came about intentionally. Hollywood is simply providing us with the narratives that we crave right now, and if those stories allow us to escape reality for an hour or two, that isn’t so bad. But of late we’ve been lacking stories which represent the horror of war – an important counterbalance to the glorious fantasy violence that our eyes have become accustomed to. Superheroes and secret agents aside, we all have a responsibility now to grapple with the grey world that we are living in. Our media should lead that charge.