After the recent shooting in Orlando, the media’s attention once again turned to gun control, the meaning of the Second Amendment, and the nation’s obsessions with firearms. Everything that could possibly be said on both sides of the issue has been said, but there is one truth on which I believe everyone can agree: entertainment without weapons would be pretty boring.
The video game industry is dominated by first-person shooters and has been for decades (I fondly remember chasing “God-Like” kill status in Unreal Tournament at LAN parties. If you don’t know what a LAN party is, you were probably born in the age of broadband internet speeds). The thrill of blowing away bad guys with eye-popping weaponry isn’t going away anytime soon, either.
Let’s look at weapons in speculative fiction. What probably comes to mind first is fantasy. What would the genre be without swords, spears, axes, and other medieval European-inspired cutlery? Pick up any fantasy book, modern or classic, and it will likely be bristling with weapons. In ancient times, warfare was a normal part of life, and since every battle is a thrilling story (for the survivors, at least), this is what dominates history books and tall tales. Could you imagine The Lord of the Rings without Sting or Narsil? The movies brought the weapons of Middle Earth to life and made lots of money for many fantasy swordsmiths. Eastern weapons like katanas frequently appear in books and movies, but I’m sure most fantasy fans would agree that the European armaments are a lot cooler.
The bow and arrow has always been around but it seems to have experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, particularly due to the big screen success of The Hunger Games. Arrows are stealthy and require extreme accuracy to be useful, unlike the brute bludgeoning of a broadsword or mace. You can kill your enemy without being close to them, and they make little or no sound. Bows and arrows get a fairly positive portrayal in fiction, being a weapon of choice for the good guys. Bad guys use heavy, ugly weaponry, while bows and arrows are graceful and swift. Robin of Locksley is the poster boy for archery but movie heroes like Katniss Everdeen and Marvel’s Hawkeye have made bows and arrows cool again.
Now we come to guns. It’s rare to find guns in fantasy fiction, unless it’s a flintlock musket or pistol in a pirate-era or steampunk story, and even those weapons have a quaint romantic charm. Modern guns are not very speculative or heroic, and again it’s rare to find them in superhero stories (Black Widow comes to mind, but in the Avenger’s movie, I thought her purse-sized handguns looked a bit weak to be taking on an invading alien horde). Anti-heroes like Deadpool and the Punisher use heavier weapons but they’re just barely on the side of the good guys. Batman is famous for his no-guns policy, as are nearly all heroes. We can romanticize swords and shields from the Middle Ages because we don’t see them in our modern society, but guns are common, and when we hear about and see them on the news, it’s usually because they are in the hands of criminals. In superhero stories, guns are used by the evil henchmen with poor aim and are merely props to be tossed away by the heroes.
Guns are more prominent in science fiction, but they’re usually a lot friendlier than the loud, heavy things we have today. In Star Wars, they go “pew-pew;” in Star Trek, they are often set to “stun.” Of course, every post-apocalyptic or zombie movie is loaded with weapons, and the stories wouldn’t make sense without them, though they are portrayed with science fiction level of unreality: in The Walking Dead, bullets never end, every gun is well-oiled and jam-free, and headshots are easier than taking a picture.
I’ve never pointed a weapon at anyone and I hope I never do, but I sure don’t mind watching Sylvester Stallone do it. Regardless of one’s feelings about gun control and weapons in general, our stories need weapons because there are plenty of fictional bad guys that need killing.