Finding Comedy in Violence With Shane Black

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

How do you make murder hilarious?

If you watch the normal news (not just the movie and entertainment news, like me), you’ll notice that violence is becoming a greater and greater part of normal people’s lives with startling and disturbing frequency. Are we truly being desensitized?

I’ve always been skeptical about the effect of violence in media on children’s minds. After the surprise pathos in Deadpool 2, I sat down again with one of my favorite films, Shane Black’s extremely violent 2005 release Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, to try and figure out what it is about movie violence that makes it so different and, at times, humorous, when really we should be reeling in shock and horror.

In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, violence that occurs to characters tends to punctuate a character moment for them, almost like a punchline. One of the very first things that happens in this film involves Harry (Robert Downey Jr.), our hapless protagonist, getting the snot kicked out of him because he tried to protect a girl from statutory rape. The broader “joke” that the scene is telling is that Harry tries to do something good and gets punished with violence as a result; he’s so clueless about his powerlessness in this scenario, and his sound beating is the punchline of that joke.

Additionally, violence in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang always has consequences. These consequences can be played for humor, like Harry’s finger being chopped off in a doorway, or they can be played for drama, such as with the woman who is killed while sitting on the bed that Harry is hiding under.

As such, acts of violence, when they occur, typically change the film’s trajectory in some major way. We have to take a detour to get Harry’s finger sewn back on, and then later the finger falls back off and gets eaten by a dog. These consequences are absolutely hilarious, but the important thing is that they are consequences.

Contrast this with Infinity War, in which, after a supposed serious nervous system injury in Captain America: Civil War, Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes (aka War Machine) is up and walking again.

To draw another comparison to superhero films, action and heroism is never anything to be aspired to. Much like in film noir, the consequences of violence include a psychological toll on “heroes” that is serious business and needs to be addressed. Action films would probably relegate this arc to a single installment of the franchise. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, this psychological toll is a major component of Harry’s whole character arc, from the beginning to the end.

In this way, I think Shane Black knows the most about how to properly depict violent content in modern films. In most action films, violence is a through-line, a means to an end. The hero enters the room with a dozen goons, defeats them all, and moves on to fight their boss, too. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, violence is a disruptive act that signifies a change in the protagonists’ goals and affects their next actions. Furthermore, by breaking down the elements of the violent act itself, Black can use certain parts for either comedy or drama without disrupting the film’s overall attitude towards violence.

This overall attitude, for its part, is the melancholy regretfulness of so many film noirs. Any act of violence was a failure — a failure to negotiate, a moment of panic, a random accident. Something that could have been funny at the time, but now we have to deal with the consequences. Something that wasn’t just a means to an end.

And I think this attitude towards violence is not a terrible one to teach to kids. Maybe we should be less worried about how much blood our kids view on screen and more worried about the context of that blood?

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