In the 1993 film Last Action Hero, the protagonist is Danny Madigan, a disenfranchised preteen who is completely and utterly lost in the world of over-the-top action movies. He has watched enough of them that it has become a staple of his life, having been exposed to an entire film genre’s worth of violence, sex, and vulgarity. As a result, when he is magically brought into the world of an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie (Jack Slater IV), he is not only completely unfazed by the horrific things going on around him, but he embraces it and relishes the fact that he lives in this “adult” world.
He quickly accustoms himself to the world of fictional New York police duty, where cars are blown up, people are thrown into the air by explosions, and anyone who doesn’t have their name in the credits is fair game for killing. In fact, he takes to it far more easily than he does his normal life, which is dull and more dangerous than in the movie. Given his exposure to this sort of violence already, he knows how to play the game and predict the villain’s move before they can make it. (He even predicts successfully the betrayal of a character portrayed as good in the beginning, because he recognizes the actor, who is often typecast in villain roles.)
This ties in very closely with Postman’s remarks in The Disappearance of Childhood, wherein he states that “children are better informed than ever before” and that children “have become adults, or at least, adult-like.” (p. 97) Danny is the perfect example of how media has been teaching adult concepts to children, using the specifically grotesque and unrealistic action film genre to subject him to an even more extreme cycle of violence than he endures at home.
Postman is concerned that media such as films, television and books expose children to adult concepts such as sex and violence at a very early age; the entire premise of his book is the effects of increasingly taboo subjects being displayed for all to see, including children. The biggest thing to consider about television is that “the six-year-old and the sixty-year-old are equally qualified to experience what television has to offer.” (Postman, p. 84) Therefore, regardless of intended audience, children can still see things that are meant for adults, and as a result are forced to process them. If they happen upon a talk show discussing incest or rape, they will be forced to confront those concepts and figure out what they mean, making them far more educated on those subjects than normal.
Danny’s real world in Last Action Hero is no less taboo than the Jack Slater action movies he so cherishes; in fact, those instances of sex and violence seem more sanitized and sensationalized in the movies than in real life. Even before he steps into the world of the movie, we see glimpses of his low-income Brooklyn childhood. He is beaten and humiliated while being robbed in his apartment, and his neighborhood is full of people who will kill without a moment’s notice, as well as prostitutes who will openly sell their bodies on the street. Compared to that, the cartoonish levels of violence and the carefree attitude to which it is presented to the viewer makes it, arguable, more acceptable to see for a child. One can make a case for an instance of real life violence, such as Danny would see, being more traumatic than the false violence of Jack Slater.
Nonetheless, it can be argued that his knowledge and experience with violent action movies makes him more “adult-like” than if he were not to have seen them. Having watched the characters in those movies, he is more intelligent, discerning, able to use logic and speak well beyond his years. He knows about death and sex (even lusting after the female costar of the movie he enters), but is no less affected by them. There is some desensitization, but Danny firmly knows the difference between reality and fiction. In this way, it is easier for a child to discern between violence in movies and violence in real life. He can fail to be saddened by the over the top death of a fictional policeman who croaks out “two days to retirement” before dying, but is heartbroken at the thought of his mother or himself being threatened.
Postman’s ideas carry quite a bit of weight, though they are not as far-reaching and disastrous as he may think. According to Postman, “from the child’s point of view, what is mostly shown on television is the plain fact that the adult world is filled with ineptitude, strife, and worry.” (Postman, p. 95) What he means to say is that, on television, the world is much darker, grittier, and out of control than Mommy and Daddy lead them to believe. The filmmakers present his world as dark, perpetually rainy and gritty, with all the buildings he inhabits being dilapidated, and everyone around him shuffling around, sullenly. This is a stark contrast once he goes to the fictional California of Jack Slater IV, which is full of sunny beaches, beautiful people, and where even the police station looks like a high-end shopping center.
To an extent, that is true, depending on what programming you watch – a straight marathon of Law and Order would certainly give that impression, for example. However, the fact remains that, in the vast majority of television, written and filmic fiction, there is a happy ending. Just like in the movie-within-a-movie of Last Action Hero, the child knows that Jack Slater will win, the bad guys will be defeated, and no one of consequence will have gotten hurt.
The children (and Danny) know this, however, through thorough examination of film clichés, and extensive watching of these shows, to the point where the outcome is never in question. The use of standard plots and clichés is a joke in Last Action Hero, which the young protagonist Danny uses to full effect. In order to convince the Arnold Schwarzenegger character (Jack Slater) that he is a character in a movie, he remarks on the sheer silliness of his world (every phone number starting with 555, all of his fellow policemen being comically mismatched partners) and predicting how events will turn out (the best friend character betraying him, the fact they can pull off physically impossible jumps and car flips). To say that these types of movies give children the impression that adult life is terrible and dark is a mistake; in fact, they paint a transparently sugar-coated ideal of adult life, where men get to be men and get away with it, and everyone is a hero in their own way.
The idea of sex is not unfamiliar to Danny; while he has a rather naïve idea about it, he is certainly familiar with heterosexual lust. Much of that is projected onto the character of Whitney, the daughter of Jack Slater, who is presented as a sultry sex bomb in skimpy clothing who still enjoys stereotypical tomboy things like monster trucks and firearms. Danny, having watched plenty of movies like these, is very receptive and cognizant of these traits in Whitney, and it works on him greatly. This falls in with Postman’s claim that “the idea of shame is diluted and demystified” in television and media (p. 85) Before the advent of these types of movies, Whitney would be a little-seen stereotype, and very few women would dress or act the way she does. Her overly sexual persona would be less on the surface, and she would be a much more complex character and human being.
Today, however, the butt-kicking heroine is the norm in modern fiction, and so young children, especially young boys, see these women as obviously presenting themselves as sex objects. Their appearance and demeanor are specifically tailored so that adult men will have someone to lust after as they see these movies, but it has the same effect on the child as well. This teaches them that this is what women look like, and you should want to have sex with them. Seeing the other characters in the film lust after her as well is evidence enough that the audience should do the same, and it works on Danny.
The most interesting thing about Danny’s journey into the world of the action film is that he is treated like an equal – sometimes Jack Slater or his boss will call him “kid,” but he is actually made Jack’s partner for the duration of the movie, and he acts and behaves like one of the team. He is given responsibilities and duties to act out, and therefore gets to act as a adult within the world of the film.
Postman argues that “in having access to the previously hidden fruit of adult information, they are expelled from the garden of childhood.” (p. 97) Basically, they are no longer allowed to not know about the bad things in this world – death, destruction, sadness – because the media shoves it in their face constantly. In the case of Last Action Hero, that can be argued to be true – people kill and screw constantly in this and other action films of that ilk. However, there is enough of a divide between what actually happens in these movies and what occurs in real life that it is easy to separate the two.
Children may now know that violence and sex happen and are concepts, but they have not been exposed to a realistic depiction of it, and in that sense it is still a mystery to them. Children still need to be taught that you cannot run away from an explosion in the nick of time and get away without a scratch. What’s more, they need to learn how real people behave and interact with others in a sexual manner, as opposed to the rampant and trashy sexuality found in 80’s and 90’s action movie excess. Whether exposing them to a false version of violence and sex is better or worse is debatable; it almost wholly depends on the individual child’s ability to separate reality from fiction, something that is up to the child and the parent.
Last Action Hero is, in essence, a wish fulfillment movie for children fans of action movies as much as it is a skewering of the genre. Danny is a child who is very familiar with the horrible things that this world has to offer, due to his actual childhood, so he literally “escapes” into the world of the over the top action film. This is representative of what children experience when they watch movies such as these – they put themselves in the movie, like Danny does, and act out the incredible and over-the-top things that Arnold Schwarzenegger gets to do. Every injury is a flesh wound, and they will never be defeated - also, violence and sex are very much sensationalized and romanticized, albeit cartoonishly.
It does not entirely fit in with Postman’s hypothesis that media robs children of their innocence by introducing them to these concepts earlier than ever before, as they are not introduced to the real concepts. What the children see in movies like Last Action Hero are facsimiles that can never truly be accepted or believed as real people in real situations. As a result, the connection between what is given to them on screen and behavior they feel they can imitate is tenuous at best.
McTiernan, J. (Director, Producer). (1995). Last action hero [Film]. Los Angeles: Columbia Pictures.
Postman, N. (1982). The disappearance of childhood . New York: Delacorte Press.