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All Superhero Movies Should Be PG-13

Before we turned the comments off at Nerds on Earth, we’d get some real doozies. While most were to the effect of “ur dum,” I do recall one clearly. A gentleman was furious that we gave the first Guardians of the Galaxy film a glowing review. His reason? It was a garbage movie because the physics of the starships didn’t make sense to him. 

In fact, hating on the “realism” of superhero movies is an online cottage industry. “Hey, I never went to film school and I’m unaware of anything in life that pleases me…time to start streaming!” 

I tease, but the reality is that a lot of nerds take their genre films really really reeeeeallly seriously. They can treat a single scene of a Marvel movie as a matter of life and death when it’s really a matter of life and a slightly less convenient life. 

Listen, I don’t want to shame anyone, I just want to remind everyone that it’s OK for us nerds to calm the sweet-lovin’-heck down. They are only movies. Our mantra should be: It’s just a story, maybe I should just relax. And you know who realizes that? Kids.

Here is a passage from the excellent book Supergods by Grant Morrison. This from page 56:

I tend to believe the reverse is true: that it’s adults who have the most trouble separating fact from fiction. A child knows that real crabs on the beach do not sing or talk like cartoon crabs like The Little Mermaid. A child can accept all all kinds of weird-looking creatures and bizarre occurrences in a story because a child understands the stories have different rules that allow for pretty much anything to happen.

Adults, on the other hand, struggle desperately with fiction, demanding constantly that it conform to the rules of everyday life. Adults foolishly demand to know how Superman can possibly fly, or how Batman can possibly run a multibillion-dollar business empire during the day and fight crime at night, when the answer is obvious even to the smallest child: because it’s not real.

Whew, that’s a lot to take in, but as usual, Grant Morrison expresses it wonderfully. To project that unto our Guardians of the Galaxy example, a kid knows the physics of GotG don’t need to make a lick sense because it’s a fictional story. Us grown-a@@ nerds? Well, we leave Internet comments demanding how

I’ve written about this before in relation to D&D and the Satanic Panic of the 80s. While adults were clutching their pearls, frantic that Satan was in the next room, I was an 8-year-old kid who knew full well that orcs weren’t real, I just liked rolling a d20 . 

Frame Theory” is how we can make sense of this. Developed by Erving “Magic” Goffman, a Canadian-American sociologist, frame theory is a model of social organization that explains how individuals conceptualize, structure, and perceive the world around them.

To illustrate the concept of the frame, Goffman obviously used the example of a picture frame. A person uses the picture frame (which represents structure) to hold together his picture (which represents the experiences in his life).

Let’s talk quickly about how this relates to D&D, then we’ll talk again about Guardians of the Galaxy.

  1. The “frame” of fantasy. This frame is imagining your character as an elf or what have you, plus includes the roleplaying aspects of the characters. If you are sufficiently engrossed, you can imagine yourself in a fantasy world.
  2. A second frame would be the rules of the game itself, rolling that d20 and stuff.
  3. The final frame of meaning is the commonsense reality of our lives, this example being folks sitting around a kitchen table with paper, pencils, and books in front of them.

D&D players are easily able to move fluidly between the frames, never once confusing fantasy with reality. An example:

“Lay down your weapon, orc, and we’ll allow you to live this day! I rolled a 14 plus 3 for my modifier, giving me a 17 for my intimidate check. Hey, can somebody pass me those Doritos?”

Sentences like the above are commonplace around the D&D table. And a group of players knows instantly which frame everyone is referring to at any given moment, the above example illustrating this. “Lay down your weapons, orc” (frame of fantasy), “I rolled a 14” (frame of the game), and “pass me those Doritos” (frame of MSGs) is clearly evident. Not a single D&D player would confuse fantasy for reality and believe that the buddy next to you is a ferocious orc who is munching on delicious MSG-laden tortilla chips.

In fact, the term “metagaming” arose for those times when players may attempt to act on information they know but their character likely would not. A player saying, “Hey, stop metagaming!”, is illustrative that another player is purposefully mixing frames 1 and 2. But there is no mental confusion there. The meta gaming player is simply trying to get a leg up in the game.

Now, let’s apply this to Guardians of the Galaxy.

  1. The “frame” of fiction. This frame is imagining the superheroes on the screen and all their implausible powers and abilities along with that. If you are sufficiently engrossed, you can suspend disbelief and flow along with the story. 
  2. A second frame would be the rules of cinema itself. If the cuts, sound, acting, CGI, etc. sufficiently engross you, then you are able to even more deeply suspend disbelief and flow along with the story. 
  3. The final frame of meaning is the commonsense reality of our lives, this example being that buttered popcorn is nice at the cinema and websites like Nerds on Earth exist to allow us to nerd out about wonderful movies like Guardians of the Galaxy. 

My daughters play with Barbies and I promise you that they’d be the first astounded if a Barbie would come to life and start talking to them. They get this stuff. And when us grown-a@@ nerds see it written out for us, we see it’s patently obvious. Yet, as we’ve pushed for more an more “realism” in our superhero films, we’ve also given rise to more and more “um, actuallys” that inadvertently overlay frame 1 and 3. 

So, what’s the answer? Sufficiency. You don’t want the audience to see the seams of the fantasy world you built. You don’t want to be sloppy, in other words. You want it to be sufficient for the audience to suspend disbelief. 

Sufficiency means the world is logical enough to imagine for the purposes of the immediate story. That, and it has direction, meaning it moves audiences along in the story quickly enough that they don’t have time or the interest to question starship physics or story-telling choices, at least until the story is done and you’ve pushed them out of the cinema and back out into sunshine, squinting yet smiling.

So, what is typically sufficient? PG-13. A PG-13 movie provides sufficient realism without needing the grim grit grittiness or paramilitary porn of an R-rated superhero film. Is it a perfect baseline for all situations? No. But you get what I’m saying. 

The point is that a PG-13 rating ensures that more kids can be in the audience. And as Grant Morrison said well, superhero stories lose something vital when kids are excluded from the audience.

Kids know that raccoons don’t talk, so they don’t get worked up about the caliber of the weapon the raccoon is wielding. And if we do? Well, remember the mantra: It’s just a story, maybe I should just relax.

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