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Are the declining morals in Hollywood to blame for all the villains on screen?

Posted August 7

Ryan Reynolds in "Deadpool." (Deseret Photo)

Evil is suiting up to save the day when "Suicide Squad" hits theaters Aug. 5.

The film "Suicide Squad" features the biggest and baddest incarcerated supervillains of the DC Comics universe who are recruited by the United States government to join forces to carry out dangerous, black ops missions and ultimately save the world in exchange for commuted sentences. "Suicide Squad," which features popular villains such as the Joker, Harley Quinn and Deadshot, received a PG-13 rating for "sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language."

While there has been some speculation among fans and critics about the film receiving an R rating, "Suicide Squad" producer Charles Roven said in a November 2015 interview with Collider, an online entertainment news source, that the intent for the supervillain film was always a PG-13 rating to maintain continuity with other DC Comics films.

"We really want to make these films tonally consistent," Roven said in the interview. "So our plan right now is to make all these films PG-13. In some cases, you know, right there on the edge of PG-13, but still PG-13."

With the release of films such as "Suicide Squad" and this year's widely popular R-rated superhero flick "Deadpool," audiences are seeing a reboot of the traditional protagonist through the antihero, a central character who lacks conventional heroic attributes. And it's thanks to changes in moral standards in Hollywood that audiences are seeing more and more villains save the day.

A decline of a morality code

The rise of the antihero started in the 1960s with the decline of the film industry's standards of morality, the Hays Code, said Hyrum Lewis, who teaches film history at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

According to Lewis, the Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was the industry-wide moral guideline applied to most films released by the eight major studios in the early- to mid-1900s. It was dubbed the Hays Code after the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s president, Will H. Hays.

“(The studios) had agreed together to keep their content family friendly,” Lewis said.

But in the early 1960s, the production code began to unravel, Lewis said.

“Independent moviemakers didn’t feel the need to get the production code’s stamp of approval,” he said. “What we saw then is what we have today in films, which is a lot of sex, drugs and violence.”

Even still, with the introduction of the MPAA rating system in 1968 to replace the Hays Code, Lewis said that until recently, there was still a sense of moral absolutes in films.

“Even if there was a movie like ‘Rambo,’ which had a lot of violence and language, nonetheless there would still be a hero,” he said.

Lewis said some of the biggest changes occurred with film directors such as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman who experimented with themes that questioned the traditional beliefs of "right" and "wrong."

"These kind of maverick directors thought that part of their job was to not only show sex, drugs and rock and roll, but challenge our very idea of decency, of what constitutes moral right and wrong," Lewis said.

According to Lewis, "Taxi Driver" was the first antihero movie.

"Taxi Driver," released in 1976 and directed by Martin Scorsese, is the story of a mentally unstable Vietnam veteran who works the night shift as a taxi driver in New York. In the process, Travis Bickle, the protagonist, feeds his desire for violence while plotting to make the world a better place through schemes ranging from assassinating the president to saving a young prostitute.

"It was really landmark because not only did it show all of the material that had been forbidden by the (production) code, but it didn't really have a hero either," Lewis said. "Travis Bickle was the protagonist, but he was a scoundrel. It's really just basking in the moral relativism.

A rise in moral relativism

Moviegoers this year alone have seen two highly anticipated antihero films with February's "Deadpool" and this month's "Suicide Squad."

"Deadpool" is the story of a former Special Forces operative who suffers the consequences of a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers and a twisted sense of humor. Deadpool, his new alter ego, uses his new abilities to hunt down the man who nearly destroyed his life, according to IMDb.

Marvel's "Deadpool" grossed more than $360 million, according to IMDb. "Suicide Squad" is predicted to rake in $125 million in its opening weekend, according to a July article in Forbes.

"If the numbers hold, then Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc.’s supervillain team-up picture will easily set a new record for the month of August," the article states. "The current record holder is Walt Disney’s 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' which opened with $94 million two summers ago before legging it to $333 million domestic."

Why are these films so popular?

According to Marvel Universe creator Stan Lee in a video on Deadpool's Twitter page, it's because audiences relate more with characters such as Deadpool than they do your average superheros.

But these "normal" traits are played out on an extreme scale, Lewis said. Deadpool lives with a prostitute, commits violent murders, is highly foul-mouthed but does all of these things with the sense that he's fighting for a cause.

Lewis said the appeal is deeper than just a connection between audience and characters on the screen.

"It's happened in the last 10 years we are seeing more and more of the rise of the antihero," he said.

Lewis said this may be because some of today's top directors were young and very influenced by the directors of the 1970s when the antihero narrative was shaping its voice.

"Part of it, I'm guessing is also that filmmakers are appealing to an international audience like they never have before," Lewis said. "We have a globalization of film on a scale that was never seen before, and our American code of patriotism, individualism, everything that might be self-evidently good and bad might not seem so if you're living in Beijing or Tokyo or New Delhi."

While some of the nuances of morality may not translate, Lewis said what does are explosions and special effects and fight scenes.

"(Filmmakers) are just looking for a vehicle to carry those (things) so the sense of moral right and wrong and the sense of walking out of a theater being uplifted and feeling a sense of moral servitude and feeling that the good guys won, in a foreign market that's not as important," Lewis said. "Filmmakers are playing into that … and are appealing to a foreign market and less and less to our traditional American sense of right and wrong."

A need for discernment

A concern among some parents is the blurred lines between right and wrong when comparing a narrative such as "Captain America," a story about a morally straight superhero fighting to save the world, and a film such as "Suicide Squad" with an anything goes, the ends justify the means mentality.

While these films may share a PG-13 rating, parents must use discernment in vetting the media their children consume.

"To me, the (ratings) are becoming more and more useless," Lewis said. "It's not that they're loosening, it's that the PG-13 rating includes everything from an uplifting harmless movie that may have a few foul words, all the way up to something that's extremely violent and shows nudity."

Escapism

Pamela Rutledge, media psychologist and director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, California, said in an email interview that fiction, or art, is one of the ways humans grapple with the uncertainties and hard questions in life.

"Both ('Deadpool' and 'Suicide Squad') are over-the-top in terms of representing reality, but both also show antiheroes and speak to the disaffection with current social structure," Rutledge said. "Generally antiheroes also have some human vulnerability — so they are also about redemption."

Despite graphic and violent content that exists in many of the antihero films, Rutledge does not see a correlation between violent films and violent actions from filmgoers.

"I do not subscribe to the view that these movies represent a glorification of violence that the public will emulate," she said. "That theoretical model presumes the audience has no moral character or ethical values but can be completely brainwashed and manipulated by a 90-minute movie — that the audience is so dumb they are mistaking 'Deadpool' for reality."

Additionally, Rutledge said that both of these movies have comedic undertones, and are, if anything, escapism — which can also be healthy in balance.

"There is a gray area between good and evil," Rutledge said. "We are having a huge amount of social conflict precisely because people are trying to make things binary. The world is messy and complex."

Even children are watching these narratives played out, but in a more juvenile way.

Films such as "Megamind" and "Despicable Me," though each features a protagonist with questionable morals, undergo transformative, redemptive storylines that teach children that people are more than their bad choices, and that even the bad guys can rise above their mistakes.

For Lewis, though there may be some similar themes, such as the widening of the tight standards of moral rectitude heroes were once held to, these films are not true antihero narratives.

"It's not so much confirming that here's this jerk and he continues to be a jerk, but that's our hero. Instead, there's this guy and he has these problems, but through these experiences he (undergoes) this change of heart," Lewis said. "There's a little more of a redemptive narrative that's more classical Hollywood. So far as I'm concerned, animated movies have not gone quite as far in the direction of antihero as the rest of Hollywood, but it still remains to be seen."

Email: whitlocke@byui.edu

Twitter: emmiliewhitlock

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