Remember back when we were young, and summer blockbusters were loud, violent morality tales about good flexing its muscles and totally vanquishing evil, until the next time? Visit your local multiplex these days, and you’ll discover very different offerings: The biggest summer movies are all paeans to extreme restraint in the face of what once upon a time was depicted as evil.
About one-third into Transformers: Age of Extinction, for example, you may start to wonder what the hell happened to the Autobots on their way to a fourth sequel in the wildly popular franchise. Sure, they still look sharp as they morph into shiny cars and roar through the infinite stream of explosions expertly arranged by the series’ auteur, Michael Bay. But when they stop, turn back into robots, and start talking, something doesn’t sound right.
In case you are not one of the millions of refined Americans who, like me, flocked to the theaters to see Optimus Prime et al., triumph over their foes, a short plot summary is in order. As the movie begins, the Autobots, heroic alien robots who had, in previous installments, saved mankind from certain destruction at the hands of those villainous alien robots, the Decepticons, find themselves on the run. The humans, for some unknown reason, had decided to reward Autobot loyalty with nocturnal visits from Navy Seals teams, and one by one the magnificent morphing machines are taken to the junkyard. Prime, their leader, narrowly escapes execution, and hides out in Texas—naturally—until a friendly human with an attractive teenaged daughter discovers him, jump-starts him back to life, and promises to help out.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a moment that you are a 14-foot robot who had just been viciously attacked by men with missiles. And let’s also assume that you have the ability to fire all sorts of projectiles, and that there are a few others like you, and that together you could probably wipe out a sizable portion of Texas and beyond. What do you do? In the case of the Transformers, the answer is nothing: Rather than demolish the treacherous humans, Prime counsels a measured response, and together with the Texan and his girl embarks on a high-minded and ultimately futile quest for reconciliation. Sound familiar?
The same scenario, with surprisingly few divergences, is on display in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where a small band of presumably more highly evolved humans teams up with the kindly apes to try and prevent a war between their two species; in How To Train Your Dragon 2, where a hapless young boy does his very best to try and reason with the insane warrior Drago Bludvist, not a name that suggests a penchant for civil conversations; and in X-Men: Days of Future Past, where the merry gang of mutants goes to great lengths to travel back in time to the 1970s and stop themselves from committing acts of violence against a host of sworn enemies, most of whom are agents of the federal government.
It’s easy to laud these heroes for choosing to listen to the better angels of their nature. But observe their behaviors rationally, and the admiration may begin to fade: Faced with angry apes armed with semi-automatics, or a deranged Viking armed with dragons, or Richard Nixon armed with invincible robots, these new popcorn protagonists all choose to hold their fire. They are inaction heroes, and no danger is clear and present enough to nudge them on to the warpath. Be they humans, mutants, or robots, graduates of the blockbuster class of 2014 fundamentally do not believe that war is an option.
If that calls to mind a certain president, it’s no coincidence. Hollywood has always had an uncanny ability to mirror the zeitgeist, giving us Rambo: First Blood Part II under Ronald Reagan and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me under Bill Clinton. It’s hard to imagine a better cinematic doppelganger for Barack Obama than the unimprovably named Hiccup, the hero of the How To Train Your Dragon franchise. As the second installment begins, the intelligent and well-intentioned young man, refusing to believe that there are human beings out there with whom you simply can’t negotiate, ventures out to chat with the rabid Bludvist. The consequences, naturally, are disastrous, but any viewer who had paid any attention to Obama’s mismanagement of the realities in Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, and Ukraine could surely have seen it coming.
And that’s the problem: More than just mindless entertainment, our recent blockbusters project back to us our moment’s predominant worldview. Like the policies streaming out of the White House, they too ignore everything we know about the nature of conflict and of human beings, sanctifying only those beautiful souls who tower above adversity and, in the movies at least, help reason prevail. Take one class in game theory, however, and you’d likely be introduced to the famous “prisoner’s dilemma,” a game that explains why two people, even if both are perfectly rational, may choose not to cooperate even if cooperation appears to be beneficial for both. Stay for one more class, and you’ll learn that most people, in fact, are not entirely rational, and that too many of us, as psychologist Albert Ellis had found, tend to behave in ways that are clearly self-defeating, inflexible, emotional, destructive, and nightmarish. This is why we so frequently have to take up arms: Try talking to Hamas, al-Qaida, or the Mullahs in Tehran, and you’ll only feel Hiccup’s pain. Very often, stopping maniacs requires more concrete and decisive steps. Sadly, these steps are currently condemned at the multiplex.
It’s of little wonder, then, that when Israel responds to a torrent of missiles launched by a despicable terrorist organization—reaching as far north as Hadera and sending thousands of terrified civilians to bomb shelters—by embarking on a moderate military operation, that includes sending text messages and other timely warnings to anyone who is about to be bombed, pundits and analysts who should know better gravely shake their heads and preach restraint. Doing very little in the face of evil may work out great in the movies; in the real world, however, it is rarely a virtue and very seldom guarantees a happy ending.
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