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The dishonest mob boss goes down in a spray of bullets and blood; a humanoid machine meets her end amidst flying glass shards; a son smothers his mother in her hospital bed; a former assassin confronts the red in her ledger. Violence in films exists in a variety of dimensions. It can be graphic or subtle, triumphant or tragic. It can be primarily masculine and heterosexual, or it can involve other genders and sexualities. However it is portrayed, violence plays an important role in a film’s narrative and cultural messages. The four films I analyze in this essay—The Godfather (1972), Blade Runner (1982), Joker (2019), and Black Widow (2021)—represent a broad range of genres and time periods, from a crime/gangster film set in the 1940s to a science fiction film set in futuristic Los Angeles. However, these films are not completely disparate. All four feature violence as a major narrative element, with protagonists who inflict violence intentionally and repeatedly, albeit for varying purposes. This essay investigates how the differing portrayals of violence in these films contribute to the films’ implicit and explicit meanings. Violence in films plays both a narrative role, delineating elements of plot, and a cultural role, clarifying the film’s stance on issues of gender and sexuality; these, combined with a discussion of the social reception of violence, particularly as it relates to the rating system, frame this essay’s argument.


South Dakota State University


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