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Violence, Brutality and Militarism in 2012 Films

March 12, 2013

This is the third is a series of four studies GRIID is conducting in our investigations into Hollywood films released in 2012. The first study looked at Gender Representation in films and the second one provides an analysis of Product Placement in films. Warning: Some of these images used in this report may be disturbing.

Picture 1

In this study we look at violence and militarism. While militarism and violence are often interconnected, we wanted to look at both the use of gratuitous violence in films and films that involved the US military. This investigation will be broken down into three sections: fantasy violence, gratuitous violence and militarism & violence. Some of the films fall under more than one category, which speaks to the pervasive nature of violence in almost any Hollywood genre. Of the 67 films we looked at in our overall 2012 film study, 35 films used either fantasy violence, gratuitous violence or military violence. The 35 films identified in this study are listed at the end.

Fantasy Violence & KillingThe Raven

When looking at films where fantasy violence is a central part of the script, we understand that it is an inherent part of films that has heroes. It would be hard to produce a film with superheroes, where no violence or force was used.

Films that we identified as using fantasy violence are Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Battleship, Chronicle, Dredd, Hunger Games, John Carter, Looper, Lockout, Men in Black 3, Prometheus, Resident Evil: Retribution, Snow White and the Huntsman, The Amazing Spider Man, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, The Raven, Total Recall and Twilight Breaking Dawn 2.

Each of these films is based upon a super hero or heroes (Spiderman, The Avengers, Batman), a science fiction or futuristic reality (Dredd, John Carter, Prometheus), and some are based on fictional literature (The Raven, The Hobbit).

Again, it is hard to imagine such films without the use of violence or force, but some of these films used violence in ways that were more than just a battle between “good & evil.”

For instance, while the characters in The Avengers fought off an alien army, there is no gratuitous violence or excessive violence. We do not see lots of blood or viciousness in the depictions of violence.

Resident Evil

However, with a film like The Raven, we do see more brutal displays of violence. The Raven is a story about a murderer who uses the stories of Edgar Allan Poe to kill his victims. In this film we see the murder of women and men in brutal ways, some which involved torture.

In a remake of the 1980s film Dredd, there are scenes involving rape, torture and mutilation, with both sides of the conflict engaging in brutality.

In some of the films in this category, the kill rate is rather high, so viewers will be subjected to the deaths of dozens or even a hundred people during the film. The film Resident Evil: Retribution is an example where the number of deaths is high, even if they are “zombies.” In one scene someone is even killed with a chainsaw. This is the kind of film that George Gerbner talked about in his research entitled The Killing Screens, where the increase in movie deaths has been occurring for decades, as movie goers have become numb to just a few killings per film.

Even fantasy films like Hunger Games and Twilight: Breaking Dawn 2 displayed scenes where people, mostly young people, are killed is brutal ways. These are films where the heroes generally present characteristics that we can identify with, but still use harsher forms of violence in the script in ways that may not seem necessary or enhancing of the main storyline.

Gratuitous ViolenceCabin

Films that we identified in this category were Dredd, Lockout, Prometheus, Resident Evil: Retribution, The Raven, Cabin in the Woods, Chernobyl Diaries, Contraband, Hit and Run, House at the End of the Street, Lawless, Safe House, Savages, Taken 2, The Expendables 2 and The Man with the Iron Fist.

Some of these were already identified in the fantasy violence section, but are included here, since they involved scenes with harsh forms of murder, torture and rape.

In the film The Cabin in the Woods, several college students go off to a remote cabin, only to discover that they are part of a plan to sacrifice humans to appease certain gods. In one scene, a young woman is cut in half with a large bow saw and most of the college students end up being killed in horrible ways.


There are other young adult-themed films like Chernobyl Diaries and House at the End of the Street that also include some harsh violence, as does the Alien movies series prequel, Prometheus.

In Prometheus, there are numerous people who are killed, often brutally. In one scene, viewers see a man’s arm being broken by an alien, another one having his face melted off with acid and a scene where one of the scientists, who has been infected, is burned alive. Perhaps the most difficult scene to watch is when another scientist has to surgically remove an alien from her womb.

Then there are the films that feature gratuitous violence that are more true to life, in that they deal with street violence, violence at the hand of the law enforcement and political violence. These films would include Lockout, Contraband, Hit and Run, Lawless, Safe House, Savages, Taken 2, The Expendables 2 and The Man with the Iron Fist.Savages

In the film Lockout, the pseudo-hero must rescue the President’s daughter from a prison in space, which has been taken over by the prisoners. Once they have taken control of the space prison, the former inmates engage in brutal violence against the guards and anyone who tries to stop them.

In the Oliver Stone film Savages, we witness brutal violence at the hands of a Mexican Drug Cartel, police and US drug dealers who seek revenge against the drug cartel. There are scenes of torture, mutilation and numerous brutal killings. And while the brutality of the Mexican drug war is real, one wonders why Stone decided to include so much violence in this film.


Another film with a significant amount of brutality is the movie Lawless. Lawless is a period film, which looks at a family involved in trafficking alcohol during prohibition in the US. The three male members of this family all engage in acts of violence, particularly gun violence. However, the FBI is also part of the plot, it also engages in brutal violence throughout the movie.

There is also a significant amount of violence in the movie Hit & Run, where a former bank robber, is being chased by his former bank robbing partners, along with the police officers.

While some of these movies depict some cops as corrupt (Savages and Premium Rush), most of the films normalize the violence necessary in police work. In fact, police violence is often not portrayed as violence, since it is “necessary” to protect the public good. Thus, police violence, which is institutional or structural violence is often overlooked in studies on media violence.

The films 21 Jump Street, Taken 2, Safe House, Contraband, Dredd, The Amazing Spiderman and even The Dark Knight Rises, all depict police in a positive light and as the “good guys.” Films like these normalize the structural violence of law enforcement, since their actions are merely meant to protect us.

Normalizing US MilitarismExpendables

The last theme we want to tackle in this study is US militarism in 2012 films. The following films depicted the US military and/or US foreign policy, either in the present or the past. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Battleship, The Avengers, Safe House, Argo, The Bourne Legacy, Taken 2 and The Expendables 2.

Some of these films deal with military intelligence, covert operations forces or the CIA. Safe House and The Bourne Legacy both deal with CIA personnel, both with some negative connotations. The CIA assassin in The Bourne Legacy comes to terms with his role as a hit man for the Agency and in Safe House, a CIA agent finds out that other members of the Agency have been engaged in illegal activity, even killing some of their fellow agents.


In Taken 2 and The Expendables 2, there are former CIA agents or former US military personnel involved. In Taken 2, an ex-agency man must rescue his wife and daughter from a sex-trafficking ring that had several of its members killed in the original film. In The Expendables 2, former US military and agency members act as a private army to engage in covert military operations to stop someone who wants to traffic in nuclear weapons. And in The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D. organizes the superheroes to take out forces from another planet. There are numerous scenes where S.H.I.E.L.D. is clearly using US military or US military-like equipment, thus normalizing its role is “protecting the planet.”images

There are two period films in this section, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Argo. In Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, there is a section of the movie near the end, where the Union Army is battling the Confederate Army, which is being aided by an army of vampires. The Union Army wins because Lincoln is able to get silver bullets to the troops in order to defeat the vampire assisted Confederate soldiers. This film is of course fictional, but it does add a new twist to how we think about the Confederate Army.

In the movie Argo, we see the story of the early days of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, told through the eyes of US diplomats and State Department officials. There is some contextual history presented at the beginning the film, but Argo is fundamentally a US State Department propaganda piece that grossly misrepresents what US policy was towards Iran in the late 70s after the Shah was deposed.


The last film we want to look at in this study, was the summer 2012 film Battleship. Battleship is a fictional film about aliens attacking the earth, particularly the US military. Much of the film surrounds characters aboard a US aircraft carrier, so viewers were given the whole tour of the ship and US military practices throughout. This film clearly relied on US military cooperation, which means that since US military personnel and equipment were used in the film, the Pentagon had a say in the script.

Battleship ends with US military personnel figuring out the aliens’ weakness and defeating them with US weaponry. Therefore, Battleship functions as a wonderful public relations tool for the US military that was seen by millions.


In this study we sought to look at examples of fantasy violence, gratuitous violence and US military violence that fulfills numerous functions. Such use of violence not only normalizes the amount of violence, but the brutal violence often used in Hollywood films.

We also noted that in this film study, numerous institutions are affirmed, particularly those that use violence, such as police departments, the CIA, FBI, DEA and the US military. These entities are most often depicted as using necessary violence for the greater good, thus normalizing structural violence that experienced by millions of people in the real world both in the US and abroad in a much different way that what Hollywood depicts.

Here is a listing of the 2012 films used in this study:

21 Jump Street, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Argo, Battleship, Cabin in the Woods, Chernobyl Diaries, Chronicle, Contraband, Dredd, Hit and Run, House at the End of the Street, Hunger Games, John Carter, Lawless, Lockout, Looper, Men in Black 3, Premium Rush, Prometheus, Resident Evil: Retribution, Safe House, Savages, Skyfall, Snow White and the Huntsman, Taken 2, The Amazing Spider Man, The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, The Hobbit, The Man with the Iron Fist, The Raven, Total Recall, Twilight Breaking Dawn 2.


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