In case American moviegoers had any doubt left that the film industry is marketing ever-more extreme bloodshed to kids, another study has shown that violence in PG-13 movies is outstripping that in their R-rated theater-mates. Seven of the 10 movies featuring the highest onscreen body counts in the past 70 years have been rating PG-13, according to “Director’s Cut,” a count of onscreen movie deaths from the 1940s to the 2010s conducted by financial services comparison website Go Compare.
The movie with the most onscreen bloodshed in that time period? With 83,871 people depicted either as limp corpses or as being on the verge of death, it’s the PG-13-rated Guardians of the Galaxy—a 2014 movie based on a Marvel comic book series. Forty-five percent of Guardians’ opening weekend audience, according to Box Office Mojo, was below the age of 25.
As Guardians director James Gunn noted on Twitter on Tuesday, the study was “only counting ONSCREEN deaths” of characters that are glimpsed in the movie, rather than those that occur entirely offscreen. In other words, the explosion of Alderaan in Star Wars: A New Hope, a sequence that focused on a princess’s emotional response to the immolation of her planet, wouldn’t count: The characters who were destroyed didn’t get any screen time. Neither would the explosion of the House of Parliament in V for Vendetta: Deaths were implied, not depicted explicitly.
But that caveat will probably offer little comfort to parents who took their kids to go see Chris Pratt and co. battle aliens in 2014. By the study authors’ count, a “kill” occurs when a dead body was seen or a death of an onscreen character was heavily “implied”—in other words, when characters were shot or stabbed in a bad way, noted as dead and not seen returning, thrown off a cliff, blown up, or shot/stabbed offscreen and not seen returning, according to Deadline. And the study only counted movies with more than 50 onscreen deaths, which amounted to 653 over 70 years. Given that level of detail, it’s pretty shocking that Guardians, with a Hasbro toy line, tops the list; and that fellow PG-13, kid-targeting franchises like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and The Two Towers, and The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies are runners-up.
Like others before it, the study found that violence in movies has risen over time. In the 1940s, just one movie (Seargant York) featured more than 50 onscreen deaths. In the 1950s, there were four, while total deaths consistently rose throughout the 1960s (33), 1970s (44), 1980s (84), 1990s (119), and 2000s (217). As we wrote in August, the PG-13 category in particular has seen an uptick in violent content that its R-rated counterpart has not—gunfire tripled in PG-13 movies between 1985 and 2012, and has been as high or higher than that in R-rated films since 2009. In the process, alcohol and tobacco use has decreased in frequency in the PG-13 category.
Why is the Motion Picture Association of America allowing this to go on? Hollywood’s lobbying body often points to its annual surveys to show that they are in tune with parents’ top concerns (and, in 2015, graphic sex scenes, nudity, and hard drugs topped graphic violence on the survey’s list of content that concerns parents). But it’s also true that by appealing to children, adolescents, and adults, the PG-13 has become the MPAA’s most lucrative category. This latest study shows that dead bodies, in particular, sell: Only one of the seven PG-13-rated movies in the study’s top 10 earned less than $100 million at the box office.